Black History month is the perfect time to binge watch movies about the African American experience.
However, this list of 12 recommendations was selected by the Milwaukee Independent staff, with the idea that viewers could watch one film on the first Monday of every month over the course of a year, instead of just in February.
There are plenty of other amazing films not presented here, particularly from the 1980s and the past few years, that highlight different aspects of African American life and culture in the United States. We wanted to keep the list simple and achievable.
While not all these movies are historically accurate, and take liberties as a trade off between presenting entertainment and enlightenment, each has an important narrative. They serve as shared reference points to have conversations about racial inequalities that continue to shape Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and our country.
The films are listed in chronological order according to the historical period they take place, not by the year they were produced by Hollywood.
Based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors’ ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1841.
Birth of a Nation (2016)
Based on the story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.
The film is about one of the first military units of the Union Army during the American Civil War to be made up entirely of African-American men, except for its officers, as told from the point of view of Colonel Shaw, its white commanding officer. The 54th Massachusetts regiment is especially known for its heroic actions at Fort Wagner.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
An adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release.
The screenplay was written by Milwaukee native John Ridley.
The Color Purple (1985)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Alice Walker. It tells the story of a young African American girl named Celie Harris and shows the problems African American women faced during the early 20th century, including domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, poverty, racism, and sexism. Celie is transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of two strong female companions.
A biographical sports drama film about African American athlete Jesse Owens, who won a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Based upon Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway production, about a black officer is sent to investigate the murdеr of a black sergeant in Louisiana near the end of World War II. It is a story about racism in a segregated regiment of the U.S. Army commanded by white officers and training in the Jim Crow South, in a time and place where a black officer is unprecedented and bitterly resented by nearly everyone.
The Help (2011)
The film and novel recount the story of young white woman and aspiring journalist and her relationship with two black maids, during the Civil Rights era in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. In an attempt to become a legitimate journalist and writer, the journalist decides to write a book from the point of view of the maids, referred to as “the help,” to expose the racism they are faced with as they work for white families.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
It is loosely based on the FBI’s investigation into the murdеrs of three civil rights workers in the state of Mississippi in 1964, who are met with hostility and backlash by the town’s residents, local police, and the KIаn.
It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis.
The Butler (2013)
Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, the film is about an African-American who is a witness of notable political and social events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure serving as a White House butler.
Lean on Me (1989)
Loosely based on the story of Joe Louis Clark, a real life inner city high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, whose school was at risk of being taken over by the New Jersey state government unless students improved their test scores on the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test.