To recognize and celebrate the history and achievements of African people around the world, we here at the USF Encounter have curated a list of documentaries, movies and mini-series that are both thought provoking and entertaining. These films serve as an opportunity to have important conversations on racial inequalities that still exist today.
Roots (2016 miniseries)
There are two versions of “Roots;” the 1977 miniseries and 2016 miniseries. However, both series document the same story. “Roots” is the account of African-American life, based on Alex Haley's book. Kunta Kinte is abducted from his African village, sold into slavery and taken to America. He makes several escape attempts until he is finally caught and maimed. He marries Bell, his plantation's cook, and they have a daughter, Kizzy, who is eventually sold away from them. Kizzy has a son by her new master and the boy grows up to become Chicken George, a legendary cock fighter who leads his family into freedom. Throughout the series, the family observes notable events in U.S. history, such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and emancipation.
This film explores the U.S. prison system and its extensive history of incarcerating African-Americans. The documentary’s title, “13th,” refers to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Once you have had a chance to watch the documentary, you will understand the correlation between the 13th Amendment, the abolishment of slavery and the state of incarcerated African-Americans today.
Dear White People (2014)
“Dear White People” tells the story of a group of black college students who grapple with issues of race, sexual orientation and what it’s like to not fit in at a predominantly white university. The film, which won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, brings much needed attention to racial tension that exists on college campuses in the twenty-first century.
The film chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. King led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. This film highlights Dr. King as man instead of an untouchable historical figure and shows the significance of the movement.
American Promise (2013)
“American Promise” follows two boys navigating the US education system over a span of 13 years. The documentary highlights the persistent educational achievement gap that affects African Americans across all socioeconomic levels.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
This biopic is a true story about Oscar Grant III, the young African-American man who was gunned down by police on New Year’s Eve in 2008. Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan and is quite an emotional experience from start to finish. This is an important film given recent police brutality cases.
12 Years A Slave (2013)
“12 Years a Slave” is one of the most brutal and accurate films on slavery to date. The film follows Solomon Northup, an educated, free black man who was tricked into slavery where he suffered horrifically for 12 years until he finally escaped. The film garnered Chiwetel Ejio (Solomon Northup) for his first Academy Award nomination.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Idris Elba stars in this film about the story of the anti-apartheid leader and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” takes a global look at how racism and colonization have affected black people around the world.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
This Oscar-nominated and Michelle-Obama-endorsed movie tells an uplifting yet nuanced story of poverty and resilience through the eyes of a six-year-old in the rural southern US. It stars the adorable Quvenzhané Wallis, who made history as the youngest Best Actress nominee for an Oscar. Michelle Obama said the film “shows the strength of communities and the power they give others to overcome obstacles.”
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)
This is a documentary story about the Black Power Movement that was born in the 1960s. Although the film was shot by Swedish journalists, the documentary is a distinctly American story with real footage from the time period.
Dark Girls (2011)
“Dark Girls” examines the often less discussed issue of colorism within beauty and fashion and the prejudices that dark-skinned women face globally.
The Black List (2010)
“The Black List” is a series of interviews featuring important figures in contemporary Black America across a variety of disciplines including music, film, politics and business. Tyler Perry, Colin Powell, Toni Morrison and Angela Davis among others discuss the progress African Americans have made as well as the current issues the community faces.
Good Hair (2009)
“Good Hair” is an informative documentary wrapped in humor. The film, produced by and starring comedian Chris Rock, explores black hair culture and the $9 billion industry behind it. Rock was inspired to make the film after his daughter asked him why she didn’t have “good hair.”
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Warning: you will cry while watching this movie, but you will also feel hopeful by the end of it. In 1994 in Rwanda, members of the Hutu tribe killed a million members of the Tutsi tribe. "Hotel Rwanda" is not the story of that massacre, but of a hotel manager (Paul Rusesabagina) who saved the lives of 1,200 people by being a very good hotel manager.
4 Little Girls (1997)
The Civil Rights movement was riddled with murders and injustices towards African-Americans. One of the most horrific was the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church on Sunday September 15, 1963. Spike Lee's “4 Little Girls” is a documentary about the horrendous massacre and the events that occurred before and after. “4 Little Girls” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.
Higher Learning (1995)
This is one of my favorite movies. This movie examines the personal, political and racial dilemmas facing a group of college freshmen as they begin their first semester at Columbus University in California. Malik (Omar Epps) is an African-American student attending on a track scholarship; academics are not his strong suit, and he goes in thinking that his athletic abilities will earn him a free ride through college. Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a somewhat naïve, young, white woman from California, is trying to find her sexuality and Remy (Michael Rappaport) is a confused, young, white man from the Midwest who feels lost in the multi-cultural atmosphere of Columbus.
Sarafina is a bright, young student who is inspired by her teacher, Mary Masembuko (Whoopi Goldberg), to dream of a better tomorrow. Sarafina is a Black South African struggling for freedom during the apartheid. The movement to make the language of Afrikaans the official language in her school leads her to protest in the streets with her fellow students. Her anti-government views become even more intense when her favorite teacher is arrested for protesting.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee's 1992 biopic “Malcolm X” starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington dramatizes the outspoken Civil Rights leader's life from his criminal start, incarceration, conversion to Islam and subsequent rise as a revolutionary. Malcolm X was outspoken against white's treatments of African-Americans in America, as well as the non-violent movement and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2010, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It's a pivotal film about a man who refused to be held back, whether it be by himself, racism in America or the Nation of Islam.
Boyz N The Hood (1991)
John Singleton's critically acclaimed “Boyz N The Hood” is a coming of age story of three young men trying to survive in South Central LA. The film stars Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut. Singleton was nominated for Best Director for the film in 1991, making him the youngest ever and first African American to be nominated for the award.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Ten years after its release, Spike Lee's critically acclaimed “Do the Right Thing” was inducted into the Library of Congress because of its cultural significance. The moving film tells the story of the brewing racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood that comes to a head on the hottest day of the summer. “Do the Right Thing” remains relevant today as we continue to struggle with racial tensions and police brutality.
School Daze (1988)
In the film that inspired a generation of African-Americans to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Spike Lee presented “School Daze.” The film follows a fictional HBCU Mission College and the opposition between the fraternities and activists on the campus. The film also reflects on issues of colorism within the African-American community.If you are a “Black- fan, “School Daze” is an opportunity to see a young Laurence Fishburne.
The Color Purple (1985)
Based on Alice Walker's heartbreaking novel, “The Color Purple” is the pivotal story ofCelie Johnson and the hardships she faced as a black woman in early twentieth century America. Though the story is a personal and fictionalized account, the trials and tribulations that Celie endured were representative of entire generations of African American women.
A Raisin In The Sun (1961)
Based on Lorraine Hansberry's play, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee star in “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a working class Chicago family who are divided about what should be done with the family's late-patriarch's life insurance money. “A Raisin in the Sun” is a story about lack of opportunity, dreams, hope and loss. Most importantly, the film highlights the importance of family in the African-American community.
Other films that highlight different narratives of black history and identity are: Amistad, Daughters of the Dust, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Miss Evers’ Boys, Miracle at St. Anna, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story, Killer Of Sheep, Menace II Society and Bamboozled and Precious.
One might write-off the record of the African American as a five-minute slave-to-civil rights unit in class. However, what Americans need to know about black people as an educational standard shrinks every year, which is sad since the baseline is already so low. Even with well over 100 hours of viewing, there is a lot of history missing here. We still have to go in recording black history in ways that engage people beyond the little that we must be “required” to know.