From pioneers like Oscar Micheaux to more modern filmmakers like Spike Lee, Black directors have documented history through powerful, compassionate narratives.
Whether you decide to watch these during Black History month, or at any other point in the year, there’s no better way to celebrate, honor, and learn about African American history than by watching these top Black history movies.
Award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary film, 13th, explores a hidden clause in the Thirteenth Amendment that led to the mass incarceration of African Americans. The 13th is a powerful, in-depth look inside the U.S. prison system that will leave you infuriated, heartbroken, and disappointed, but it is one of the most important films that you’ll ever watch.
The documentary is available on Netflix, and it’s free to watch on YouTube, so there is really no excuse for those who haven’t watched it.
The film 42 follows the incredible story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player to play in the MLB, as he faces intense racial criticism from the public, press, and teammates while signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The drama eloquently honors Robinson’s resilience, grace, and courage as he defies the color line with his talent.
42 conveys an – mostly – historically accurate story of Robinson’s journey, with solid performances from Chadwick Boseman Harrison Ford that leaves viewers emotional, inspired, and enlightened.
Ali, the Fighter (1975)
Pioneering filmmaker William Greeves released Ali, the Fighter in 1975, which shows the incredible match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – a fight hailed as the greatest fights of the 20th century.
Ali, the Fighter doesn’t follow the complete story of the heavyweight boxing champion; instead, it is historical footage of the fight itself.
However, if you’re interested in his career and religious and political pursuits, we recommend Michael Mann’s drama, Ali, played by Will Smith.
Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American detective that infiltrates the K.K.K. branch in Colorado Springs, CO. Oscar-winning director Spike Lee tells a courageous and unbelievable story in a comedic and somewhat fictionalized way.
Boyz in the Hood (1991)
Boyz in the Hood, written and directed by influential filmmaker John Singleton, tells the story of three friends Tre, Doughboy, and Ricky navigating social problems growing up in the Los Angeles ghetto. It provides an accurate portrayal of the conversations, experiences, and relationships of young boys growing up in the Black urban class.
The casting for the film is impeccable, with the three friends played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut. Additionally, Singleton received an Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Writing.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Directed by Julie Dash, the 1991 indie film Daughters of the Dust explores the often forgotten culture of the Gullah Geechee people residing in the sea islands, located off the lower bordering States of North Carolina to Georgia.
Daughters of the Dust is of cultural significance, as it was the first film by an African American woman that was distributed around the United States.
Dash’s film is an important documentation of the generally unfamiliar culture whose language, lifestyle, and traditions still exist today.
The oscar-nominated film, Fences, by director and lead role, Denzel Washington, tells the story of an African American family in the 1950s, with a working-class father trying to provide for his family. Yet, the unhealed burdens of his past keep him from moving forward.
The film exposes viewers to the inescapable effects of intergenerational trauma. And how that trauma gets passed down from father to offspring, causing viewers to have conflicting opinions of the father’s responsibility.
Viola Davis received an Oscar for Best Performance in a Supporting Role and earned a nomination for Best Motion Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Based on the devasting true story of the murder of an innocent 22-year-old boy, Oscar Grant, by convicted Bay Area Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, Fruitvale Station explores racism and police brutality issues in America.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, the award-winning film Fruitvale Station reached a total box office revenue of $17 million. The tragedy of Oscar Grant involves the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of the police, a controversial topic that becomes increasingly important each year.
The oscar-nominated film, Harriet, tells the harrowing story of Harriet Tubman, played by actor Cynthia Erivo, who escaped from slavery and liberated hundreds of enslaved people from 1850 to 1860.
The actor’s performance, specifically, Erivo, who received two Oscar nominations for her lead role in the film, is authentic and compelling.
The film eloquently pays tribute to this American hero while maintaining its entertaining and dramatic appeal. Still, those wanting a more in-depth account of Harriet’s journey should consider a documentary.
Hidden figures (2016)
Three-time Oscar-nominated film; Hidden Figures reveals the true story of the minds of a group of African American female mathematicians behind the launch of the first American to orbit the earth in the 1960s.
The outstanding performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae (the three female mathematicians) make the film compelling, honest, and inspiring.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Hotel Rwanda is a documentary about a hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, who housed thousands of Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide by militant Hutu forces.
The film exposes the courageous actions of Rusesabagina, a Hutu himself, played by Don Cheadle, during a dark, horrifying period in Africa that many world leaders left to suffer.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
The movie uses the 30 – unfinished – pages of writing by James Baldwin. Baldwin’s writings speak on personal accounts and the assassinations of Civil Rights activists Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
I am Not Your Negro mixes archived footage and Baldwin’s writings, making it one of the greatest movies made about this era.
The film, directed by Raoul Peck, with narration by Samuel Jackson, takes directly from Baldwin’s manuscript. His writings define race relations and the cause of the complacent white mindset.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk follows the story of a young African American couple separated when a racist cop wrongly arrests Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman.
This romantic drama covers controversial issues of the U.S. justice system, class, and race with an outstanding performance from KiKi Layne, Stephan James, and Regina King. King received an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah follows the true story of the chairman of the Black Panther Party of Chicago, Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who the F.B.I. assassinated in 1969.
Part of the story involves William O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield, who was arrested but offered a deal by the F.B.I. to infiltrate and spy on the chapter.
The acting is impeccable, with actor Kaluuya winning an Oscar for his performance and Standfield’s nomination for the same title. The film also received the Oscar for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures.
Written and directed by Ernest R. Dickerson, Juice follows the story of four teens living in Harlem who engage in violent crimes to earn respect after constant torment from the police and a Puerto Rican street gang.
The director based the film on personal accounts of his cousin’s friends who lived in 90s Harlem to portray the individual’s experience in Harlem accurately.
Just Mercy (2019)
Based on the horrific true story of Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx, a man framed and sentenced to life for the murder of a young white girl. The story takes place soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that put an end to the Jim Crow laws but still held fresh in the minds of the white South.
Harvard graduate and lawyer Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, and Eva Ansley, played by Brie Larson, fight for McMillian exoneration against faulty evidence and explicit racism within the U.S. justice system.
Malcolm X (1992)
Oscar-nominated documentary Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, is a tribute to influential activist Malcolm X’s life, played by Denzel Washington. He is one of the most important and controversial figures in the Black Nationalist movement.
Spike Lee’s three-hour tribute covers the life of a truly phenomenal leader whose preachings are, unfortunately, still misunderstood and often demonized in schools, yet they were not much different from M.L.K.
Men of honor (2000)
Directed by George Tillman Jr., Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro, tells the story of the first African American diver for the Navy, Carl Brashear. The actors’ performances are inspiring and convincing, as the plot follows Brashear and his trainer’s relationship and determination.
One Night in Miami (2020)
Director Regina King’s fictional masterpiece, One Night in Miami, entails a conversation between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, speaking on their responsibility to the Black equality and influence in the 60s.
The Oscar-winning film was inspired by actual events and starred actors Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke).
The film, Race, follows the story of legendary track and field superstar Jesse Owens, played by Stephan James, as he faces racism on the world stage by Nazi Germany and becomes the first American Olympic athlete to win four gold medals in 1936
The film received many Canadian Screen Awards.
The oscar-winning drama, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, follows the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery. The historical drama features David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Oprah Winfrey, as they deliver an emotional and powerful account of the campaign for equal voting rights in 1965.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Directed by F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton tells the story of influential west-coast rap group N.W.A.’s emergence on the national stage. The film brings light to west-coast culture, their influence on modern hip-hop/rap today, and the group’s struggles to make it big.
The Black Power Mixtape (2012)
The Black Power Mixtape contains footage by Swedish journalists that went untouched for 30 years of the anti-war and Black Power movements during the 60s and 70s. The documentary shares first-hand footage from influential activists Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, and many more.
This documentary is a sensational historical account of the Black Power movement.
The Butler (2013)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character loosely based on Eugene Allen, who served eight Presidents during his 30-years as the White House butler. The film explores Gaines’ time, played by Forest Whitaker, serving numerous U.S. Presidents during the civil rights movement and Vietnam.
The Loving Story (2011)
The Loving Story tells the heartwarming story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple married during the Civil Rights era. Living in Caroline County, Virginia, the state charged them with violating a state law that made interracial marriage illegal called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
The historical case of the U.S. Supreme Court, Loving v. Virginia (1967), established legal precedent, making laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional.
Best Black History Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
Black cinema has reframed the nation’s perspective of class and race in American society and opened doors for African American actors. The importance of these films is crucial in telling America’s dark history through the lens of prominent filmmakers and actors.
From documentaries, comedies, and biopics, one of these Black history month movies will simultaneously satisfy your need for entertainment while honoring important African American heroes in history.