February is Black History Month, and while there are plenty of ways to celebrate Black culture and learn about Black history, one of the most impactful ways is through movies. It’s hard to narrow down a list of definitive movies about the Black experience in America; after all, how could any number of movies fully capture an entire people and history? Still, we’ve handpicked a few excellent movies centering Black stories, both modern and classic, for those who want to dive in.

The Color Purple (2023)

Few novels are more seminal than Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, or more influential than the movie and musical adaptations that followed. Blitz Bazawule’s 2023 adaptation is the first movie musical adaptation of the book. As Celia grows up in an abusive household and is forced into an equally abusive marriage, she learns to take back her power and her joy. The story is just as brutal and beautiful a Black coming-of-age story as Alice Walker’s novel. As poignant as the story is, it’s a reminder that life, particularly Black life in America, often lives at the crossroads of joy and pain.

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American Fiction (2023)

Based on the 2001 book Erasure by Percival Everett, American Fiction has garnered lead Jeffrey Wright plenty of Oscar buzz and with good reason. As the novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Monk is sick and tired of trying to break ground in an industry that glorifies and relies on Black creativity and entertainment to survive but only wants to accept tired tropes and offensively stereotyped stories about Black people. His struggle is that of every Black artist being forced into a box by the entertainment establishment while also knowing that without them, the entertainment establishment would cease to exist.

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A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Sidney Poitier was one of America’s great actors, a titan who commanded the screen. Yet, his story was one of the double-edged sword that plagued his career, particularly in early decades. Even as he had a meteoric rise as Black actor in the 1960s, certain Black critics were already willing to turn on him for doing roles that were too “white-approved” and pleasing for him to be the rebellious iconoclast they wanted. But A Raisin in the Sun shows exactly why he was so magnetic on screen. Inspired by Langston Hughes’ famous poem “Harlem,” the story tackles one South Side Chicago family’s struggle to better the financial situation while grappling with racism, housing discrimination, and assimilating into white culture. “What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Hughes; Poitier’s Walter Lee Younger is the walking embodiment of that frustration.

The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019)

For Black men, the issues of masculinity and vulnerability are a complicated and prickly topic, particularly those who grow up in surroundings that demand toughness and an immediate hustle to earn respect from other men. As Carlos Aguilar wrote of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, “For men of color and those in underprivileged communities, this burden of the masculine ‘ideal’ is even more pronounced, as not only is their masculinity constantly a point of contention, but also their allegiance to race, class, and geographical location. Their manhood aggressively questioned based on clothing, interests, and general demeanor.” Joe Talbot’s debut film breaks down this relationship between his protagonists in a way that is complex, thoughtful, and a friendship that is full of unashamed love and devoid of toxicity.

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight, it could be argued, is the perfect companion piece to The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a logical extension of the themes of vulnerable male friendship explored in the latter. Even more than emotional vulnerability, Black queerness is still a taboo subject in Black communities where aggressively heterosexual manhood and alpha male dominance are used as shields. But Moonlight explores Black queerness, a topic rarely portrayed in Hollywood, with a sense of fierce urgency that still feels so poignant. Love and desire, Black masculinity, and the ties of family are all touched upon in Jenkins’ sensitive portrayal that centers on the young boy Chiron at three stages of his life as he grows up and grapples with his identity and sexuality and the film shines brightest in the quiet, intimate, joyful moments when Chiron feels safe enough to be who he is.

Sounder (1972)

Sounder, William H. Armstrong’s 1969 young adult novel about young Black boy growing up with his sharecropping family was a formative and necessary work. Still, it was playwright Lonne Elder III who elevated Armstrong’s initial work when translating it to the screen. Elder’s adaptation doesn’t shy away from the racial injustice and poverty of the original novel, but he makes sure to temper the bleaker themes with his own themes of familial ties and Black joy. It makes for a movie that is moving in its emotional fullness, even as it doesn’t flinch when looking at the desperation and oppression of Black families in the 19th century.

12 Years A Slave (2013)

Not all Black history is slavery, and it’s good to see Hollywood finally expanding its stories of the Black experience, moving away from slavery as the be-all, end-all of Black life and legacy in America. Still, slavery is America’s original sin, and it would be remiss to put together a list of movies that round out the Black experience in America without including a movie that centers on the institution. Steve McQueen’s staggering 12 Years a Slave is all the more poignant and impactful because it’s based on the 1853 slave memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup. Northrup’s kidnapping and forced indentured years are brutal. At times, it’s stomach-churning. But the utterly unflinching portrayal of the horrors of slavery is necessary; if we can’t even look at an honest retelling of our history, how can we possibly accept it?

  • Editorial