It should come as no surprise that history is a great storyteller. Bringing historical moments to life on screen can illuminate the triumphs and pitfalls of people across space and time. Revisiting stories with contemporary significance through film ensures that the lessons of the past remain within the public psyche. Black History Month serves as a moment for the celebration of Black excellence, a reflection on the experiences of African Americans (both today and through history), and a deepening consideration for the people and events that will forever shape the political, social, and cultural landscape of the United States.
While some of following films explore the landmarks of black history and its influential figures that have inspired change and progress, others capture the stories that every American should know, but likely doesn’t. These cinematic works are notable as exemplars of phenomenal filmmaking and also for the careful hand with which they illuminate an important slice of American history—a history that challenges us, forcing into question the nature of our country and what its future holds.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen’s Academy Award–winning film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free–born African–American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South. Unrestrained in the portrayal of the inhumanity of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is considered by many to be an essential film due to its unflinching commitment to portraying a historical reality with brutal honesty. 12 Years a Slave is more than just a technical masterpiece that drives home a story of survival and resilience. It is an immersive film that speaks through its brilliantly–performed characters, highlighting their humanity or lack thereof.
While Glory is perhaps the most traditional film on this list, it tackles the story of the first all–black regiment that fought in the Civil War with a powerful sense of narrative, noteworthy performances by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, and top–notch technical filmmaking. It is widely considered the best and most important film about the American Civil War and balances the epic nature of a war drama with a graceful sensitivity toward the unsung heroes celebrated in the film.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Set during the Cold War, Hidden Figures is a snappy, soul–nourishing movie about three women who broke race and gender barriers in their contributions to the success of NASA during the Space Race. Largely overlooked by their white male colleagues and frequently forced to put up with practically every form of racial aggression, these women were able to rise above due to their brilliance, commitment, and unflinching drive. Hidden Figures seeks to inspire and entertain more than the other films on this list, but is still a piece of cinema that does a phenomenal job illuminating a historical narrative that frequently goes unrecognized.
Of the historical moments explored by films on this list, none is more iconic than the civil rights movement as portrayed in Selma. In tackling a story we know, and should know well as informed Americans, Selma seeks to transcend the surface knowledge we have of Martin Luther King Jr. and involve us in a powerful narrative of movement and change. The best period films remember that history is ongoing, not just a node on a timeline to reflect upon from time to time. The experience of black Americans is one network of narratives that couldn’t be more relevant in the United States now, and films like Selma are well aware of that.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
It is only natural to end this list with a film that pulls from a true–life event in more recent memory, particularly one that discusses an instance of gross police misconduct. Based on the life and untimely death of a young black man named Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station is a layered portrait that is particularly affecting in its portrayal of a lead–up to an act of police brutality. Fruitvale Station, as with the other films on this list, is able to bring to life a piece of black history in a way that only the cinematic medium can.