At this juncture bridging Black History Month—which honors the history, heritage, and people of the African diaspora—and this weekend’s Oscars—which recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences—here are some of my favorite films that capture the challenges, struggles, and triumphs of Black Americans, past and present.
Pinky (1949) is the story a fair-skinned woman of Black heritage from the South who returns home to visit her grandmother, of dark completion, who raised her. Pinky must confess to her grandmother that while studying to be a nurse in the North she passed as White and fell in love with a White doctor.
As a child, I can remember the adults talking in whispers about the people they knew who were passing for White in the world. Pinky is one story that reflects the life and resolve for some who chose that path.
Imitation of Life
Imitation of Life (1959) was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2015, as it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The film, which is based on a Fannie Hurst novel and follows a 1934 film of the same name, was also named by Time in 2007 as one of the "25 Most Important Films on Race."
A Caucasian widow and her toddler daughter take in a Black housekeeper and her daughter, whose fair complexion obscures her mixed-race ancestry. Later, the widow sets up a successful pancake flour corporation, marketing the housekeeper as the face of the product. The housekeeper is offered monetary interest in the company but refuses and continues to work for the widow as a housekeeper. This compelling race drama follows the story of the housekeeper’s daughter as she navigates the world and searches for an identity.
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2018, PBS Independent Lens; also available on Netflix) envisions the book James Baldwin never finished, a radical narration about race in America, using the writer’s original words, as read by actor Samuel L. Jackson. Alongside a flood of rich archival material, the film draws upon Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011 documentary, PBS Independent Lens; also available on Netflix) is another of many films from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) that highlight the lives of people of African heritage and remind me of our rich and varied contributions to society.
In the 1960s and 70s, Swedish filmmakers arrived in America to explore the Black Power movement which the U.S. media saw as a violent threat. Thirty years later in the cellar of a Swedish television station, an amazing collection of unseen interviews was discovered featuring some of the key personalities of the era.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2017, PBS American Masters) tells Angelou’s incredible journey, shedding light on untold aspects of her life through never-before-seen footage, rare archival photographs, videos, and her own words. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South and her early performing career (including a 1957 Miss Calypso album and Calypso Heat Wave film, as well as Jean Genet’s 1961 play, The Blacks) to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana and her many writing successes (including her inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton), this film reveals hidden facets of Angelou’s life during some of America’s most defining moments.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (2013, PBS American Masters) sheds light on James Baldwin, who was at once a major 20th-century American author, civil rights activist, and, for two crucial decades, a prophetic voice calling Americans, Black, and White, to confront their shared racial tragedy. The film captures the passionate intellect and courageous writing of a man who was born Black, impoverished, gay, and gifted. Towards the end of his life, as America turned its back on the challenge of racial justice, Baldwin became frustrated but rarely bitter. He kept writing and reaching in the strengthened belief that: "All men are brothers. That's the bottom line."
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (2018, PBS American Masters) is the first in-depth presentation of Hansberry’s complex life, using her personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, as source material. The film explores the influences that shaped her childhood, art, and activism.
A Raisin in the Sun
A Raisin in the Sun (1961, Sony) depicts an African-American family as it struggles with poverty, racism, and inner conflict as they strive for a better way of life. This classic is based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry.
Music fans can also check out these films on jazz greats John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, who provided soundtracks for many generations of Black lives.