African American films are important for a number of reasons. Not only are the best ones thoughtful and illuminating, but frankly, they've been a long time coming. In truth, it took Hollywood far too long to come out with an African American film, in spite of the wealth of amazing actors and actresses who deserved to showcase their talents. To me, the best films showcase the good, the bad, the touching, and the tragic of any culture, race, religion, or subculture. For instance, I love watching LGBT films to celebrate my own lifestyle, and to see different viewpoints and experiences. Good African American movies pull you in, they make you experience love, hate, riches, poverty, sadness, or supreme happiness, even if you haven't gone through those things yourself. I hope you enjoy this list, and I also hope you share the films that mean the most to you as well!
1. The Color Purple
This is actually one of my very favorite African American films, and it's pivotal in a number of ways. Alice Walker is amazing – she's one of my inspirations. She's such an insightful woman, she makes you feel like a sister no matter what your race, creed, religion, or sexuality. Although the film differs from the novel in several significant aspects, the movie is still unbelievable beautiful – and important. Celie's story, and Shug's, and Mister's, and Harpo's, and Sofia's, and Nettie's – they're all vital, showing the audience about life in the poor South. It also highlighted lesbian relationships at times when doing so was taboo – not just in Celie's time, but even in the 1980s, when the film was made.
You might be tempted to say that this doesn't count as an important African American film because Matthew Broderick gets first billing, and it also stars actors such as Cary Elwes and JD Callum. However, Denzel Washington's Private Trip, Morgan Freeman's Sergeant Major John Rawlins, and Andre Braugher's Corporal Thomas Searles are far more integral characters. I love movies about the Civil War, but this film about the 54th Massachusetts regiment, an entirely black regiment, is absolutely epic. It's also heartbreaking, for a variety of reasons, but you'll have to figure out those for yourself.
Roots is epic. I don't actually know anyone who hasn't seen it or at least heard about it. I remember watching it during a replay on CBS when I was only 11 or 12, and it stuck with me. To me, it's like a rebuttal against films like Gone with the Wind. That's a classic, and I do love it, but it romanticizes the South and slavery while undermining a lot of the pain and degradation that went on during that time. The performances still stand out in my memory – LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte and the riveting, painful scene involving his name change; Louis Gossett, Jr., as Fiddler; Ben Vereen as Chicken George; even Vic Morrow as Ames and Ed Asner as Captain Davis. Even Maya Angelou appeared in the mini-series, along with a host of other actors and actresses whose appearances may surprise you. See this, if you haven't; watch it again, if you have.
4. Lean on Me
This film is one of my favorites. I just realized, too, that I apparently have a serious fixation on movies starring Morgan Freeman – but you won't hear me apologizing. He was on fire as Joe Clark, who did exist and actually was the principle of a school that was going to be shut down. Clark most definitely believes in tough love, and that's largely why this film is such an inspiration. It proves that many of the predominate stereotypes relating to teenagers of all races in at-risk, low income areas, simply aren't true – or don't have to be, when there are educators, however unorthodox, willing to fight for them, teach them, and help them learn. With focus on drug use, teen pregnancy, gang violence, and many other issues that are still relevant today, to me this movie is timeless even though the events took place so long ago.
5. Menace II Society
I had to choose between this and Boyz n the Hood, both of which are significant African American films. This one is grittier, it's raw, and I think both of those aspects are incredibly necessary. So many people have stereotypical ideas of what goes on in neighborhoods like the ones depicted in both movies, it's important to get an idea about what things are really like – what the people are like, what they hope for, what they dream of, what they want, and what they fear. You see the good and the bad in Menace II Society; you see extremes. This film is also significant because it helped launch, or at least strengthen, the careers of many incredible actors and actresses. Make no mistake, though, Boyz n the Hood is definitely worth the watch as well.
Made in 1929, Hallelujah! is not just pivotal, it's vital. It's one of the first of its kind in several ways. Technically speaking, it combines studio and field sounds together, at a time when few filmmakers were bold enough to try combining the two. Far more importantly, the musical was a trailblazer, being one of the very first films to ever feature an entirely black cast. It highlights the kind of unfair treatment sharecroppers experienced, while simultaneously showing critical emotions and actions. There's love, lust, betrayal, disloyalty – there's a reason it's been historically preserved.
7. Carmen Jones
For much the same reason Hallelujah! is extremely inspirational, so is Carmen Jones. It was filmed 25 years later, but for all of that, it still made a huge and much needed impact. It's another musical, courtesy of the great Otto Preminger, and it is of course based on the famous libretto. The incredibly talented and beautiful Dorothy Dandridge starred as Carmen. She is one of the primary reasons this movie is so important. Not only does it tell an amazing story, not only are the characters touching, even at their worst, but Dorothy was a trailblazer. Before her, no African American actress had ever been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
8. Soul Food
This might seem like an odd choice simply because there are lots of films in this particular niche, but to me it's still an incredibly important African American movie. As The Color Purple highlights the feelings of sisterhood between women who are close, whether they are related by blood or not, for me Soul Food is the embodiment of family. Because I grew up in the South with family members that greatly resembled Mama Joe's in many ways, this film speaks to me. It always has. There are betrayals, passions, triumphs, tragedies, and sorrows – just like those you see in any family, regardless of color. And I think that's something that we still need to recognize, even today.
9. Malcolm X
Can you discuss important African American films without discussing Malcolm X? When it was released in 1992, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many people didn't know the full story behind his life and his message. As a biopic, it's excellent. It pulls no punches and shows the bad right alongside the good. It brought Malcolm, his teachings, his messages, and his mistakes to the fore. I think that's vital, because in order to fully understand any polarizing, inspiring figure, it's essential to learn about the unsavory bits as well as the triumphs.
Similarly, Amistad is a must-see, no matter who you are. It's a historical film that chronicles a piece of history very few people knew about prior to 1997. I remember seeing it in my American history class and being completely enveloped in the story. It takes place in 1839 and focuses on a group of slaves, just captured and being taken to the United States on La Amistad. The story is complex, disturbing, inspiring, and absolutely intriguing. The tale of the uprising is just – well, it left me breathless, and it still does. Performances by Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman are nothing short of incredible, as are those by Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard. Again, if you enjoy history and if you want to learn about a particularly abhorrent period, see this – immediately.
There are many, many more pivotal African American films, and I just wish I could list them all. Some of them, like Love and Basketball, some are documentaries, many are biopics, such as Lady Sings the Blues or What's Love Got to Do with It? The Pursuit of Happyness springs to mind, as do Antwone Fisher and Do the Right Thing, with its sharp social commentary. These are just my picks, so please let me know – what are your favorite African American movies?
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