10 Must-See Movies for Black History Month
There’s always progress to be made, that’s for sure. But if you’re looking for a way to celebrate our achievements in social equality, you have to look to the past and get to know the iconic and the unsung heroes that have paved the way for the civil rights we enjoy today.
February gives us the opportunity to celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans in US history and to understand their struggles. There’s nothing like a good movie to relive important milestones in the fight for equality and to dream of an even better future. So pick up one of these films – whether it’s Black History Month or a random night in November – and make your family movie night part of an ongoing movement.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, this film is not for the faint of heart (or for young children). Touching on rape, incest, inequality, and discrimination, The Color Purple tells the story of Celie’s life spanning over 40 years.
Sold into servitude to a man who talks with his fists, Celie is oppressed, estranged, and completely down and out. Only in her letters to her sister does she have any form of release – though she’s never able to get a comforting word back: Her husband has been hiding her sister’s letters (who she now presumes to be dead).
A heart-wrenching story of the struggles of African American women in the early 20th century, the film does have its bright points with uplifting stories of friendship, sisterly love, and coming into one’s own. A difficult but important watch for your teens.
Based on actual events, this film centers on the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. While all the evidence points to white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith as the culprit, two all-white juries later, Evers’ death has not been vindicated.
Flash forward two decades and Evers’ widow, Myrlie, just might have what’s needed for a conviction – except for a lawyer to represent her case, until Bobby Delaughter picks it up. While De La Beckwith has openly boasted about killing the activist since his last acquittal, this is not an easily won legal battle – what with the noxious courtroom atmosphere and prejudiced judges.
The film does a nice job of depicting this true story, showing racism in its most hateful form, and revealing how sometimes blacks and whites worked together to make important strides in the fight for justice.
For something that’s a bit more light-hearted in theme yet still packs some powerful punch (particularly in Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning performance), The Help tells the story of crossing social barriers in 1960’s Mississippi. Aspiring author and Southern belle, Skeeter, returns from college touched by the big dreams of the civil rights movement. She looks to document the untold stories of the African Americans in her community by turning to the help.
Based on Kathryn Sockett’s novel of the same name, the film does a wonderful job of portraying three very different women in a simple act of rebellions that crosses both social and racial lines.
A two-part documentary series, For the Love of Liberty, honors the contributions of African American servicemen and women since the earliest fight for independence up to the more recent Afghanistan war. With historical letters, speeches, and footage included, this documentary seeks to tell the story of the unsung heroes who fought for liberties that they themselves could not enjoy: 5,000 soldiers in the revolution, 200,000 in the Civil War, 380,000 in WWI, and over 2 million in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. An important documentary for any American who values their freedom.
A tribute to the man behind the dream, this Oscar-winning documentary chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights efforts from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama to his assassination. Using only original historical material and rare archival footage, narrated by a variety of celebrities, the film presents the legacy of King’s nonviolent movement in a key period of US history.
For our families, who are lucky enough to be part of the legacy – without having fought the fight – the film takes viewers to the heart of the battle for an eye-witness view of the crusade.
Set in 1973 Philadelphia, this is the story of one of countless college-educated African Americans who can’t find a job. What’s different in Jim Ellis’ case is his love of competitive swimming. Converting the slum’s abandoned rec center into a full-out public swimming pool, Ellis fights demolition efforts, racism, and hatred while inspiring a crew of at-risk city kids to give it their all in the upcoming state swimming championships.
This story of an African American man overcoming enormous obstacles to make a better life for himself and his son is a serious but heartwarming drama that makes for a great family movie night.
The film follows Chris Gardner, a salesman barely making ends meet who, after a chance meeting, decides to change his life and become a stockbroker. Despite serious financial troubles (and even a night in jail), Chris makes it to the interview and lands a highly coveted internship, only to discover that it is not paid. This is the last straw for his wife, who leaves him. Further financial difficulties cause him to become homeless as he works hard towards more lucrative times. Based on a true rags-to-riches story, it’s heart-warming without being saccharine and the performances are outstanding.
Set in suburban Virginia, this is where high schools were segregated even in the early 1970’s. One high school for black folks, and another one for whites. But the two shared one thing – a love of football. So much so, in fact, that football games were almost bigger than Xmas. That is, until 1971, when one black high school and one white one were relocated into the same campus.
The true story of a newbie African American football coach in a newly integrated high school, this film explores the trials and tribulations of social change in a small community where a love of the game conquers all, and a high school football team unifies disparate groups.
Long before the movie Selma, this kid-friendly film told the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Here, the focus is on the contributions of youngsters in the cause, as two African American girls, Sheyann and Rachel, skip class to attend King’s speech. Inspired, they’re moved to action and join the march, with Sheyann belting out the freedom song Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around at meetings.
Based on the memoirs of the real Sheyann and Rachel, who were only 8 and 9 respectively at the time, the film will surprise your kids when they see that even children were involved in the crusade.
Racial tensions in 1930’s rural South was captured perfectly in this movie version of Harper Lee’s American masterpiece. In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, Scout and her brother Jem grow up under the careful guidance of their father Atticus Finch, the town attorney. Their lives change drastically when a white teenage girl accuses Tom Robinson, a local black man, of assault and Atticus takes the case.
Although Atticus presents fail-proof evidence to the contrary, Tom is found guilty and is later shot and killed trying to escape. The end of trial is not the end of the movie, however: The climax is a harrowing scene where Jem and Scout are stalked and nearly killed by the teen’s father (as revenge against Atticus) but are saved by Boo Radley, the mysterious town hermit. In the end, the sheriff and Atticus hush the incident up and let Boo go in peace. And that was justice… then.
What are some of your favorite films that touch on the civil rights movement for kids – or on African American history in general?
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