Often, there's no better way to absorb information about the world or be exposed to new ideas, culture, and histories than through film. And these days, that means seeking out complex, beautiful, and sometimes uncomfortable films about Black history, in an effort to be a more educated and stronger white ally (opens in new tab). Some of these might be a tough watch, but that's the point—education and desire for change often come when we feel sad or enraged. But these stories can also be wildly entertaining, funny, and oftentimes Oscar-worthy. Also worth checking out if you're interested in the subject: Our lists of the most iconic movies in Black cinema (opens in new tab) and documentaries about Black history (opens in new tab).
The absolute brilliance of Ava DuVernay's Selma is that it's contained to a small window (in 1965, over three months) during some of the most tumultuous moments of the Civil Rights Movement. David Oyelowo not only depicts the voice and mannerisms of Martin Luther King Jr. perfectly, but he also beautifully represents him as a man—filled with his own quirks and foibles—in addition to being the larger-than-life leader. The film is so compelling, it will barely register how educational it is. Basically, it's the perfect historical drama.
Do the Right Thing
This film also ranks on our "Films You Need to Watch at Least Once (opens in new tab)" list because of how frighteningly relevant it remains in 2020. While it wasn't necessarily based off a specific true story, director Spike Lee said he was partially inspired by the Howard Beach incident (opens in new tab), in which a Black man was murdered as he fled a mob of white men. The event galvanized racial tensions in New York City—again, proving how it's a must-watch right now. The film is also snarky and funny, and the fact that all the characters are clearly and complexly drawn makes it feel like a real community.
There's a valid reason this Oscar-nominated movie is so beloved—and it's not just because it spotlights the untold story of Black women who were major, but unacknowledged players in the U.S. space race. It's also very heartwarming, with beautiful performances from Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer. Their brilliance (and workplace talent) are a joy to watch. Admittedly, the movie has received some (valid (opens in new tab)) criticism about dipping into white savior territory, but it's still absolutely still worthy as a cultural and educational tool.
12 Years a Slave
As an adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir, 12 Years a Slave is filled with frank, horrific violence as free man Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped from his happy life and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Director Steve McQueen carefully researched and verified the story to make it hew as closely to real events as possible. With its unflinching portrayals of rape and torture it'll be very tempting to look away, but it's important not to. So take a deep breath, and dive in to this film, which won multiple Oscars—including Best Picture.
Unfortunately, history often reduces Malcolm X to the more violent counterpart to Martin Luther King Jr.. But as this film proves, his life contained so much more; The film thoughtfully delves into his family life and his complex and well-formed perspectives. Denzel Washington imbues the character with nuance and intensity from head to toe—with rage, power, and energy radiating from his face. Director Spike Lee managed to draw a stark on-screen connection between the Rodney King beatings and history—and it's not hard to continue that connection to 2020.
This Oscar-winning film does the impressive work of spotlighting another story previously lost to history. The 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union army, is regularly undermined and disparaged despite its heroism in the Civil War. Over 20 years later, the film is mostly known for its ending—no spoilers here, though. It's not a perfect story (opens in new tab), and it can skew white savior-y at times, but the whole film is watchable for its thoughtful performances. In fact, Denzel Washington nabbed his first Oscar from Glory.
Straight Outta Compton
If you're familiar with the rap group N.W.A., its members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, or any of their songs, this movie's for you. And if you're somehow not familiar with their work, then this movie's definitely for you. Set in California in the 1980s-90s, the movie does a terrific job of explaining how the music and musicians tapped into the zeitgeist and the Black experience of the time. It's an individual and unique story about the rise and fall of the group, but it's got a universal message in its telling of systemic racism and injustice.
This is a strong, often candid look at the career of the first Black Major League Baseball player, Jackie Robinson (a phenomenal pre-Black Panther Chadwick Boseman). And it really goes there, all the way to graphic slurs. Boseman plays Robinson resilient and quiet, with occasional flares of deep feeling, and it's beautiful to watch. Just as beautiful is his epic baseball performance: Even if you don't care about the sport, watching him dominate on the field is awe-inspiring.
You may have heard of this movie because it led to Mary J. Blige being the first person to be nominated for both a singing and acting Academy Award in the same year (2017). But the epic story is just as impressive as her achievement: Two families struggle against social and racial injustices—and, at times, each other—in the post World War II South. It doesn't gloss over racism or make the story schmaltzy, and it also covers the traumas of war with equal intelligence. The issues are just as relevant today as they were then.
A Raisin in the Sun
Based on the award-winning play of the same name, this is a spectacular performance from acting legend Sidney Poitier. It's a bit dated at this point (the original came out in 1961) but it paved the way for honest stories about Black families. In the film, the Younger family receives a $10,000 insurance check after the patriarch dies, and suddenly their whole lives are upended. What should they do with the money? Could it really change their lives? Is change, or opportunity, even possible for them?
Pulled from Ron Stallworth's memoir of a similar name, the first Black detective in the Colorado Springs police department hopes to make an immediate impact by going after the KKK—by impersonating a white man. The third Spike Lee film on this list is the probably his most overtly funny film and, I'd argue, one of his most impactful too (it won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay). John David Washington—Denzel's son, and awesome in his own right—has pitch-perfect chemistry with Adam Driver as the white detective who infiltrates the Klan in person. We don't have to make much of a leap to the current political climate; Lee makes it for us, in stark terms.