As American cinema expands to tell stories from a wide variety of cultural experiences, we’re seeing more and more authentic African-American stories hit the big screen. This goes both for documentaries and features. While Hollywood still has a ways to go before it achieves racial equality, the industry has made many strides in recent years. Just look at some of the titles, plots, directors, and cast members that have come out and received recognition in the past decade. In fact, make that your unofficial homework: Since February is Black History Month, you have all the more reason to be extra conscious of films that portray what it’s really like to be black in America.
Here are five feature films released in the past five years to binge-watch this month:
“Fences” (2016): “Fences” follows the story of a black garbage man named Troy who lives in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. The Oscar-nominated film is based off of a Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play that debuted in 1983 as part of the Pittsburgh Cycle. The Pittsburgh Cycle was Wilson’s series of 10 stage plays capturing the black experience in 20th century America, with a play representing each decade. Wilson, who was a prolific black playwright from Pittsburgh, wrote the play to shed light on the lives of working-class African-Americans.
With middle class America steadily declining and racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter gaining momentum, now could not be a more perfect time for “Fences.” Plus, just look at the cast: Denzel Washington (who also directed it), Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, and recent NYFA Guest Speaker and Master Class Lecturer Russell Hornsby.
“Selma” (2015): You can’t have a Black History Month film list without including a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. This award-winning film, directed by Ava DuVernay, follows MLK’s efforts to achieve equal voting rights for African-Americans. The most visible part of that campaign involved marching from Selma to Montgomery, in Alabama, in 1965 … hence the inspiration for the movie’s title.
“Selma” will feel especially timely right after the 2016 presidential election and recent rallies and marches. In MLK’s day, marches were just business as usual. “Selma,” which was written by Paul Webb, stars David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Tim Roth. There’s even an Oprah cameo, so keep your eyes peeled.
“Race” (2016): Once upon a time, black athletes faced overt racism off and on the field. “Race” shows how African-American runner Jesse Owens dealt with such discrimination. The year is 1936 and Owens has one goal: to become the world’s best track and field athlete in history. But when he heads to the Olympics, he’s suddenly up against not just homegrown American racism, but Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.
TheWrap critic Inkoo Kang praised the film. In her review of “Race,” she wrote, “The Jesse Owens to cheer on here is, sure, the fastest man in the world, but also the canny would-be celebrity who knew exactly how to bet on himself in a world that had little use for his dignity and intellect. If that’s not an inspirational story, I don’t know what is.”
“Dear White People” (2014): This satirical comedy-drama was written, directed, and co-produced by triple threat Justin Simien. It explores the lives of four African-American students at a fictional Ivy League college. There, undergraduate experience is less like “Animal House” than it is a battlefield for students of color. But the real controversy starts when a biracial student named Samantha White gets elected as the head of a traditionally all-black house on campus. Unlike the aforementioned films, which ground racial struggles in the past, “Dear White People” reminds us how race still affects Americans today.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012): Now for a movie from a child’s perspective. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a coming-of-age story about a six-year-old black girl named Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy is just starting to understand her place in the world as she grapples with more than many children do at her age. For one thing, her father’s health is fading fast. Then there’s the health of her bayou community, which is falling prey to flooding caused by global warming. Young actress Quvenzhané Wallis gives a stunning performance in her challenging role as a little black girl who’s anything but a stereotype.
What films will you be watching during Black History Month? Let us know in the comments below!