February means Black History Month, and Black History Month means extra opportunities to celebrate Black joy, Black success, Black history, and Black women.
Black women constitute the backbone of America, enduring more than almost any minority group and doing it with grace, poise, and far more compassion than feels possible, and the stories that celebrate them and acknowledge their struggles feel essential for the month.
1. The Color Purple
The 1985 Steven Spielberg film spans decades as it follows the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a Black woman growing up in the rural South, surviving racism and brutality. Her abusive father marries her off to an equally abusive husband named “Mister” (Danny Glover). As her life worsens, Celie looks for friendship wherever she can and perseveres as she clings to her dream of reuniting with her sister in Africa.
2. What's Love Got To Do With It?
Oscar-winner Angela Bassett stars as Tina Turner in the 1993 biopic following the star's meteoric rise to fame. Anna Mae Bullock discovers her love for singing in her Tennessee church choir and moves to St. Louis to pursue a career in music.
In St. Louis, she meets Ike Turner, who christens her Tina and offers his help to get her career where she wants. The duo push Tina's success to unbelievable heights, but as her fame skyrockets, her abuse at Ike's hands forces her to make decisions between her career, her love, and her safety.
3. Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross stars as the incomparable 1930s jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film starts with Holiday's traumatic childhood and follows her as she learns to love music and singing and fights for her spot in the racist, segregated music scene. Her tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend and manager, Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams), and her drug addiction cast long shadows on her rise to fame and her incredible career.
4. Waiting to Exhale
Based on Terry McMillan's novel, the 90s classic Waiting to Exhale stars Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston and follows four best friends as they navigate romance and their love lives. The friends find themselves in vastly different relationships and lean on one another as they learn who they want to be and what they want their lives to look like. The four realize that the importance of love doesn't stop with their romantic love lives but extends to their beautiful friendships, too.
5. Cinderella (1997)
One of the most incredible Cinderella adaptations, the 1997 Cinderella stars Brandy as the titular character, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, Bernadette Peters as the Stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantine, Jason Alexander as Lionel, and Victor Garber as King Maximillian – quite possibly the most diverse and star-studded casting of the classic fairytale.
While the movie follows the same rules as every other Cinderella movie and gives life to the Rogers and Hammerstein music, the incredible relationships between the Black women of the movie ensure this film feels especially focused on the beauty and joy of Black women.
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Quvenzhané Willis received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the youngest nominee for the category. Her incredible acting brought Hushpuppy to life as she grew up in a remote Delta community with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry).
Wink fears the end of the world and works hard to prepare his daughter for the eventuality. When Wink mysteriously sickens, the world seems to sicken with him. The dangers that come with Wink's sickness force Hushpuppy to journey to find her long-lost mother on her own.
The 1998 movie follows Toni Morrison's novel about Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a formerly enslaved woman living in the free state of Ohio, and her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise). Sethe begins to believe her home is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter, who drove away her two sons and tormented the home.
With the arrival of Paul D. Garner (Danny Glover), a friend from her enslaved past, Sethe begins to struggle in earnest with the ghosts of her trauma, and a strange girl (Thandiwe Newton) arrives on her doorstep, challenging her and Denver's relationship.
8. Set It Off
Fired from her job as a bank teller, Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) begins working with her three friends, Tisean (Kimberly Elise), Cleo (Queen Latifah), and Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) as a janitor. The four friends all find themselves in challenging financial situations and decide to rob a bank together. After one successful heist, they keep up the work until they attract the attention of a particularly dedicated detective.
The semi-autobiographical film, produced and directed by Spike Lee, follows Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) as she spends the summer, against her will, down South with her aunt. When she returns home to Manhattan, she finds a family member gravely ill and must learn to navigate the incredibly grown-up themes of love and loss at a young age.
10. Their Eyes Were Watching God
Based on Zora Neale Hurston's novel of the same name, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Starks (Halle Berry) who seeks love and happiness in the Roaring 20s in her small town in Florida. On her quest for love, she jumps into three different marriages. The film explores love, loss, gender roles, and racial identity as Janie's marriages challenge her understanding of who she is and the world she lives in.
11. Hidden Figures
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star in Hidden Figures. Three Black women work at the Langley Research Center as “computers,” human beings whose sole purpose is to churn out incredibly complicated calculations for NASA without knowing the purpose of the calculations.
Facing incredible discrimination for both their race and their gender, Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monáe) do their best to complete their work in the unfriendly environment as the Langley Research Center works toward John Glenn's famous launch.
The 1975 film sees Diana Ross go from rags to riches. A struggling fashion student, Tracy (Ross), meets a famous photographer, and her life changes forever as the meeting leads her to the runways in Rome. Her incredible ambition and rise to fame offer her success in the fashion world, but her diva behavior threatens her relationships and the respect of her peers.
13. Sister Act
Night club singer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) witnesses her mobster boyfriend (Harvey Kietel) commit murder and must relocate for her safety. Whisked away to a convent in California and disguised as a nun, Deloris creates upheaval in the formerly quiet convent and upends their choir, creating a boisterous, performative group that quickly gains widespread attention.
Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, Dreamgirls tells the story of a Mowtown trio inspired by The Supremes and their rise to fame.
Deena (Beyoncé), Effie (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) form a group called the Dreamettes. Their manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), quickly recognizes their talent and signs them on as backup singers for national sensation James Early (Eddie Murphy). When the trio finally makes it as a group, one performer rises to the top and quickly outshines the rest.
15. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
The Oscar-winning film stars Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green. One of the Blues' most influential singers, Ma Rainey, gathers with her band at a Chicago recording studio, but tensions rise, and the record proves harder to make than first thought. The film takes an unflinching look at the naked racism of the music industry and how producers often preyed on the Black artists who created the Blues.
16. The Princess and the Frog
Disney's long overdue first Black princess debuted in The Princess and the Frog. Growing up in 1920s New Orleans, Tiana has a dream of opening her own restaurant, a dream she shared with her dearly departed father for years. Hardworking and dedicated to seeing her dream come true, Tiana finds herself in a strange situation threatening to derail those dreams, thanks to the machinations of the evil Dr. Facilier and a pretentious prince.
17. Queen of Katwe
Growing up in rural Uganda in the slum of Katwe, ten-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family struggle to survive. When she meets missionary Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), he teaches her to play chess, and her entire world changes. She becomes obsessed with the game and quickly rises through the ranks of competitors in the world of chess until she reaches what may just be her and her family's key to a life outside of poverty.
18. Monster's Ball
Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Leticia in Monster's Ball, a story of a grieving Black widow and a white corrections officer.
Leticia Musgrove (Berry) attends the execution of her husband, a death row inmate, unaware that Hank Grotowski and his son Sonny are the executioners. Through a series of deaths and suicides, Hank and Leticia find themselves clinging to one another as they work through their grief.
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in Respect. The film follows Aretha's life and her rise to stardom. From Franklin's childhood experiences singing in her father's choir all the way to her mega-stardom creating chart-topping hits, Respect looks at the star's life – the good and the bad – and the music she created.
20. The Hate U Give
Adapted from Angie Smith's Black Lives Matter-inspired novel, The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a sixteen-year-old with a foot in two worlds.
Growing up in a poor, majority POC neighborhood but attending an upper-class, suburban prep school with a predominately white student body, Starr feels challenged to find her place. But when a police officer murders her childhood best friend, Kahlil, Starr must learn to reconcile those different worlds and find her voice.