Today we’re going to look at some of the black movies made about slavery. While many Black slavery movies can cause strong emotions and discomfort, the importance of the historical truth of enslaved people and the American slave trade is not supposed to be light-hearted or comfortable.
Whether it’s people’s unwillingness to learn or unintentional lack of trying, many do not truly understand America’s dark history and how the nations’ patterns of racial oppression continue to this day. Here’s our recommended list Black slavery movies that you should watch.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Three-time Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave tells the shocking true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in upper state New York before the Civil War who was drugged, kidnapped, and forced into slavery.
Solomon’s story is unique because he survived twelve years as an enslaved person, won back his freedom, and he could read and write.
Although he had to hide his ability to read and write, he was able to document his visceral experience as a free man forced into slavery and the genuinely horrific, sadistic structure of slavery.
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 essential films that you’ll ever watch.
The prison industrial complex is a crucial issue of the current prison system that perpetuates involuntary servitude and the nation’s continued oppression of people of color.
The documentary is available on Netflix to watch, and it’s a must-see film.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
A Rain in the Sun is an adaptation of Lorraine Hansbury’s play. The film follows the story of Walter Lee Younger, his mom, wife, son, and sister, who live in a small Chicago apartment. The film portrays the Younger family’s economic frustrations and cultural pride based on their lineage of five generations of enslaved people.
The movie’s plot centers around Walter’s Mama expecting a $10,000 insurance payout, and Walter wants the money to open a liquor store with his friends. However, she denies her son the cash and purchases a house in an all-white neighborhood.
Focusing on the Younger family, the film portrays the long-term effects of slavery in America through Black lives’ inherited misfortune and the blatant or concealed white disapproval of people of color moving up the economic ladder.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry was 29 years of age when she wrote A Raisin in the Sun based on her personal account of her family’s conflict when purchasing a home in an all-white neighborhood.
Her story also led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case Hansberry v. Lee, ruling in favor of Hansberry on the basis that it’s unconstitutional to deny a person of color to buy, sell, or lease a home.
Today, the adaptation of Raisin in the Sun is preserved by the National Film Registry.
Amazing Grace (2006)
Set in 1797 England, Amazing Grace captures a critical point of history for the British Empire and the world. The film follows William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, fighting to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in Britain.
Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffudd, successfully passed anti-slave trade legislation in 1807. He did this with the help of William Pitt, soon-to-be prime minister, John Newton, slave trade investor turned abolitionist, and Olaudah Equiano, a freed enslaved person and abolitionist.
Michael Apted’s re-enactment of the British politicians’ journey to end slavery is a touching film made great by the compassionate performances from Gruffudd, Albert Finney, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Critically acclaimed director Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is a historical drama of the Mende people, an ethnic group in West Africa, captured and forced on the Amistad in 1839.
The ship left Cuba and headed to the U.S. with imprisoned enslaved Africans on board. These enslaved Africans were sold into slavery in Cuba.
Cinque, played by Djimon Hounsou, the tribal leader, called for a mutiny, in which they seized the ship with the intention of heading back to their home. Unfortunately, they sailed to Long Island, where the U.S. government captured them.
The Amistad focuses primarily on the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if the Mende captives are to remain enslaved people or if they are legally free. The film exposes glimpses of the inhumane slave trade and informs viewers on the captivating landmark case with a decision that reverberated through America and into the Civil War.
However, some argue that Spielberg chooses Hollywood and the white audience over racial tensions and history, but that’s up to you to decide.
Directed by Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum is a horror movie that begins in the 1800s with Eden, an enslaved woman. The film turns out to be a terrifying dream that author Veronica Henley, living in present-day Atlanta, wakes from.
The film shows the Black experience by illustrating the process of coping with trauma – specifically for people of color. The film received mixed reviews, mostly centered around Black people’s dealing with trauma and how the movie makes this trauma into a horror movie, which can be disturbing for some viewers.
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman tells a story of a fictional person based on Gaines’ aunt, Jane Pittman, an African American woman born into slavery.
In the film, she shares the remarkable story of her 110 years of life from the 1850s to the 1950s. Finally, in 1962, Pittman, living in Louisiana, allows a journalist from New York to tell her story.
Her story begins at the age of nine or ten on a plantation during the Civil War when Union soldiers arrive and read the emancipation proclamation, declaring them as free.
Her story continues as she lives through the eras of reconstruction and Jim Crow, with Primetime Emmy award winner for her role as Pittman, Cicely Tyson’s tear-jerking and inspiring performance that eloquently honors the life of Jane Pittman.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a phenomenal account of America’s 100 years of life after the Civil War through the lens of a woman who saw it all.
Based on the 1987 novel, Beloved by Toni Morrison, the story follows a formerly enslaved person, Sethe, played by Oprah Winfrey. Sethe lives just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, with her adult daughter, Denver, when a young woman dressed in a black silk dress stumbles into their yard.
Made by Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker who made Silence of the Lambs, Beloved has characteristics of a horror film while mainly being a historical drama. While the film’s primary conflict is the arrival of Beloved, the spirit presented in the form of an odd young woman, much of the film centers around Sethe’s history of abuse on the plantation.
Beloved represents the story of the formerly enslaved person as she battles with the inescapable demons of her former life as an enslaved person.
Get Out (2017)
Phenomenal actor Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington in the horror-thriller film, Get Out. The movie is about Chris traveling to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
At first meet, Chris blames Rose’s parents’ behavior on them trying to accept their interracial relationship, but it becomes disturbingly clear that something deeper is happening as time progresses.
Highly acclaimed director Jordon Peele skillfully points to slavery during Chris’ hypnosis resembling the theft of African Americans’ bodies for enslavement and in today’s society.
Django Unchained (2012)
Set in 1853, the Oscar-winning Quentin Tarantino movie Django Unchained is a story of King Shultz, a German bounty hunter. After confirming he knows the people he is after, he purchases Django, an enslaved person.
Shultz, played by Christoph Waltz, promises Django, played by Jamie Foxx, his freedom, a horse, and seventy-five dollars if he helps him hunt the Brittle brothers. After, Django explains that he wants to use the money to purchase his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington.
This expression leads the two on a journey that, for Django, it symbolizes a pursuit for racial vengeance as they attempt to track down his wife, leading them to plantation tycoon Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Django Unchained contains gruesome violence, questionable dialogue, and a complex protagonist like any Tarantino movie. In addition, the character of Django is complex as he seeks vengeance but shows no mercy as he kills whites and even other enslaved people.
The film’s unapologetic use of the N-word and violence are some of the reasons this film received controversy. For example, highly appraised film director Spike Lee commented that the film fails to honor enslaved people’s history and is “disrespectful to my ancestors.”
Free State of Jones (2016)
Newton Knight, a deserter of the confederate army, returns to Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War. Upon his return, he becomes even more repulsed by the confederates’ stance.
So Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, builds a small army of his own. His militia consists of other confederate deserters, runaway enslaved people, and women. The community fights against the confederate occupiers of Jones Town.
The small army continues to free other neighboring towns and creates a community called the Free State of Jones Town. However, while the film follows the true story of a small militia’s revolt against the confederate army, it’s unknown if Jones Town officially seceded from the confederacy.
Through the largely untold story of Jones Town, the film covers themes of racial oppression, economic class relations, interracial marriage and points out the unfulfilled promises of the U.S. government.
Freedom, set in 1856, begins with Samuel Woodward and his family’s escape from a plantation in Virginia as they attempt to flee through the Underground Railroad to Canada. Unfortunately, their owner, Jefferson Monroe, sends a hunter after them to capture them alive.
The film weaves the narrative of John Newton, the Captain of the first ship tasked with importing captives from Africa to Charleston in 1784. As Newton embarks on his journey, he becomes aware of the cruelties of the slave trade, resulting in his turn to abolition.
The film interweaves Woodward’s and Newton’s story to represent two men’s journeys, set one-hundred years apart, as they search for freedom. Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Samuel Woodward, gives an excellent performance.
The stories are inspiring and emotional. However, some people comment on the director’s less than satisfactory way of uniting these two men.
Three-time Oscar-winning film “Glory” follows the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first all African American unit of the U.S. Army for the Civil War.
The film begins with the confederate’s order saying they will execute any Black soldier and any accompanying white officer. They offered the men of the 54th regiment an honorable discharge, but none accepted.
The combined aspects of the film, like the battle scenes and the actors who play the characters, hail Glory as one the most significant Civil War movies.
The characters and actors include Col. Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, Pvt. Silas Trip, played by Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.
The film’s historical responsibility of portraying the remarkable story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment doesn’t gloss over the racial inequality, discrimination, and actual attitudes of the soldiers during this time.
Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
First off, I do not recommend ever watching Goodbye Uncle Tom. The film is not pleasant, but I think we should discuss it.
Gualitiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, two sadistic Italian directors, wanted to examine the inhumane treatment of African Americans during slavery to prove their opinion that Black people and White people will never get along in America.
Their “documentary” is a film that portrays the slave trade in a way that many would like to forget, which is truthful, and that is the only thing it somewhat accomplished in the most sadistic and disrespectful way possible.
They wanted to film the degrading treatment of enslaved people, but they themselves degraded, dehumanized, and exploited African Americans to make it.
Goodbye Uncle Tom contains horrific and obscene images, crude language to describe Black people, and gratuitous scenes of African Americans as savages by two amoral directors with explicit racial prejudice.
The oscar-nominated film, Harriet, tells the harrowing story of Harriet Tubman and her escape from slavery and the liberation of hundreds of enslaved people.
Cynthia Erivo, who plays Harriet Tubman, provides the audience with an authentic and compelling performance as the movie teaches us the story of Harriet from 1850 to 1860. Erivo received two Oscar nominations for her lead role in the film.
Harriet Tubman’s dramatic reenactment is a well-accomplished tribute to this American hero. While the film maintains its entertaining and dramatic appeal, it accomplishes this eloquently.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Directed by Raoul Peck, narrated by Samuel Jackson, and based on James Baldwin’s life in 1979. I Am Not Your Negro takes from Baldwin’s 30-page manuscript on his personal accounts and the assassinations of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
I Am Not Your Negro mixes archived footage and Baldwin’s writings to convey a deeper understanding of the inescapable consequences of the hundreds of years of the suppression of African Americans during and after slavery.
Baldwin’s writings of the Black experience provide viewers a deeper understanding and successfully define race relations in the U.S. from this talented African American writer.
Academy Award winner, Daniel Day-Lewis, plays Lincoln during the latter half of the Civil War as he faces opposition to pass the 13th amendment to end slavery in America. Director Steven Spielberg spent 12 years researching the history of Lincoln’s journey of getting the amendment passed.
The film examines highly regarded U.S. President Lincoln’s choices between ending the war or ending slavery. Spielberg accurately portrays Lincoln’s life, with Daniel Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance to bring Lincoln’s humanity, emotions, and voice to life.
Confrontational filmmaker, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, follows Grace and her father, Milligan, the discovery of a plantation in 1933, Alabama, that operates as if the abolition of slavery, 70 years ago, never happened.
Manderlay is the second part of Lars von Trier’s trilogy that started with his film Dogville, which received criticism as an insult to American values. Grace wants to free the inhabitants of this community but, ultimately, does little to help them.
The film comments on racial misconceptions, economic class, and democracy as Grace changes the lives of these inhabitants but ultimately fails to understand the issue at hand.
As a result, many judge Lars von Triers’ movies as anti-American, as it forces viewers to question the meaning of freedom and the intention of democracy.
Set in the 1840s, Mandingo tells the story of an enslaver, Hammond Maxwell, training an enslaved person to fight. Many critics of Mandingo condemned the film as a racist, obscene, and degrading film of African Americans. In contrast, others say it exposes the truth of America’s racist and sexual exploits in history.
The film is an honest depiction of the treatment of slavery in the Deep South that many find offensive and disturbing, but others, for that same reason, praise. However, the primary plot of enslavers training their enslaved people to fight others is historically inaccurate.
When Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained, the violent scenes depicted “Mandingo fighting,” which was inspired by this film.
However, the system of slavery was purely economic, meaning enslavers wouldn’t risk losing their ‘property’ to death for pure entertainment purposes, so “Mandingo fighting” was never a thing.
Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)
Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property tells the story of the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, led by Nat Turner. The film consists of narration and re-enactments of the uprising that prompted the South to harden their control and laws on slavery.
Directed by Charles Burnett, his work provides an in-depth analytical account of history, comments on the political state, and points to how some films warp American history.
Slavery By Another Name (2012)
Slavery by Another Name, Directed by Sam Pollard, is a documentary based on Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer-prize winning book. The documentary talks about how slavery in America evolved into new forms after the abolition and into the end of WWII.
The film covers the U.S. prison system, labor inequality, and widespread racism. Overall, it’s an informative documentary to understand how slavery perpetuated from the physical horrors of slavery to the involuntary servitude of people of color.
The film is historically accurate, as it uses Blackmon’s research and interviews with scholars and descendants of enslaved African Americans.
Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984)
Based on the true story of Solomon Northrop, a Black man born free but kidnapped into slavery. His story was told in the major motion picture in 12 Years a Slave; Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is an informative contribution to cinema based on Northrop’s book.
As of 2013, Northrop’s story has been told twice as dramatic re-enactments to spread the harrowing story of a freeman forced into slavery. While Solomon Northup’s Odyssey appeared on television in ’84, it provides a historically accurate portrayal within the bounds of public television production.
The oscar-nominated film Sounder follows the Morgans, an African American sharecropping family of five and their hound dog, Sounder. Set in 1933, rural Louisiana, Nathan Lee, the father, is convicted of stealing food for his family during a tough harvest time.
David Lee, realizing his father isn’t returning, sets out with Sounder in search of him. The film portrays the African American experience during the system of sharecropping arrangements that ultimately led to further exploitation of African Americans.
The film portrays the Morgans compassionately and lovingly with Rebecca, the mother, played by Cicely Tyson, and Paul Winfield as the father, both receiving an Oscar nomination for their performances.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Director and lead role, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation follows the story of Nat Turner, a natural-born preacher born into slavery, whose owner encourages him to read the Bible.
Samuel Turner, his owner, agrees to let Turner preach to other enslaved people to suppress them into ‘behaved’ enslaved people. However, as he travels through the antebellum South, he becomes exposed to plantation owners’ mistreatment of their enslaved, causing him to orchestrate an uprising.
Based on the 1831 rebellion in Virginia, The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner’s transition from using the word of God to suppress to motivating the enslaved people to rise against their owners.
The film’s title is also that of D.W. Griffiths’ extremely bigoted film. While the film is of historical significance, it is the most racist movie ever made.
That’s what makes Parker’s title choice spectacular, as it is a big ‘middle finger’ to D.W. Griffith.
The Uncomfortable Truth (2017)
The Uncomfortable Truth focuses on director Loki Mulholland who wanted to create an in-depth documentary of institutional racism in America only to find out that he descended from a family of enslavers himself.
Loki discovered his history when his mother, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, civil rights activist and part of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, suggested Loki explore his own family history.
The Uncomfortable Truth received many positive responses, with his overall message calling on whites’ responsibility to dismantle white supremacy.
Popular Black Slavery Movies, Final Thoughts
Black cinema has reframed the nation’s perspective and opened doors for African American actors.
While Black filmmakers have revolutionized Hollywood’s relationship with Black cinema, an issue persists. That issue is the case of white directors tasked with telling the Black experience.
In fact, many of the slave-labeled movies above were produced by white filmmakers, which is why this article is titled Black slavery movies, not the best Black slavery movies.
To pay tribute to Black History Month, rather than just watching films on slavery, take time to learn and honor Black achievements and understand the history.