Black History Month offers a time to reflect on how far the United States has come since its inception, explore the stories of Black people and their achievements, and celebrate Blackness while recognizing where whiteness can do better and make more space for those voices.
Black History Month doesn't just have to involve reading heavy books that take days to get through, though, it can also involve watching films about true African-American stories that cover that rich history and experience, offering fresh eyes on even the oldest of stories.
Cynthia Erivo shines as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, telling the true African-American story of one of the most famous Black heroes in US history.
Harriet Tubman's story lives in the American mind as something that feels mythical, shrouded in awe, and tales that vary and shift and change, and Cynthia Erivo manages to tackle that famous figure and her larger-than-life story in this film. As Harriet escapes enslavement and finds her way to Philidelphia, audiences follow her life and how her experiences pushed her to become the hero she would become. The film follows her through her escape and through all of her terrifying, hair-raising, heroic missions back into slave country to free as many enslaved persons as she can.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York. The film, also featuring Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and Brad Pitt, adapts Solomon's 1853 enslavement memoir.
Born a free Black man in Upstate New York, Solomon Northup works as a violinist and lives with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs. Two men offer Solomon a short-term job as a musician in Washington, D.C., but he quickly learns the job offer was a ploy. Kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon endures the cruelty of Epps, a sadistic cotton plantation owner.
Solomon struggles to survive the horrors he experiences, working at every turn to make his way back to his family over the twelve long years of his enslavement.
Starring David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lorraine Touissant, and Tim Roth, Selma chronicles the efforts of the late great Martin Luther King Jr. as he fights for the equal human rights of the Black people of the United States.
The famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, stands as a pivotal moment in American history and the fight to end segregation, but the march event wasn't easily orchestrated, and the march itself was fraught with danger and violence. Selma takes a look at the events leading up to the historical march and the poignant moments of growth after.
4. Just Mercy
Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx star in the biographical legal drama centering on the life and career of Bryan Stevenson (Jordan).
After graduating from Harvard in 1989, Bryan Stevenson moved to the South and sought to help defend those in underprivileged communities unfairly impacted by the effects of racism and classism. Forming the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley, Stevenson works on death row who seek appeals on their convictions. Stevenson meets Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, who maintains his innocence despite his conviction in the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. Stevenson works with Johnny D. to prove his innocence before his time runs out.
5. Hidden Figures
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star in Hidden Figures, the true African-American story of the three Black women behind some of NASA's most advanced math.
Three Black women work at the Langley Research Center as “computers,” human beings whose sole purpose is to churn out incredibly complicated calculations without knowing what the calculations are for or why they're needed. Facing incredible discrimination, 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 launch.
6. Judas and the Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah follows a chapter in American history that often goes overlooked as the FBI attempts to infiltrate and destroy the Black Panther Party.
When the FBI offers William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a plea deal, he agrees to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). The film unflinchingly looks at the way the FBI targeted the Black Panther Party and sought to dismantle it from the inside out by whatever means necessary.
Colman Domingo stars as an oft-overlooked figure in Black history – Bayard Rustin, advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.
The film, produced by Michelle and Barrack Obama's production company Higher Ground, follows the life of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin as he fights alongside MLK for a world that is more just and diverse and equitable. His queerness has kept him in the shadows of history, but Netflix's film brings him front and center to shed light on his incredible contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, including his successful organization of the March on Washington.
Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford shine in 42, a film that follows the life and times of the incredible Jackie Robinson.
Branch Rickey (Ford), the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, chose to defy the color barrier put in place by the Major League Baseball standards and hires a young Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as the first Black man in the MLB. The two face open racism and discrimination from the world as Robinson finds his place on the team and solidifies his place in history.
9. The Butler
Starring Forest Whitaker, The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a butler for the White House for over three decades.
Having spent over three years as a butler to the White House and various presidents, Cecil Gaines sees history play out in the halls in one of the most famous houses in the United States. His dedication to the First Family often leads to tension with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) over the years, and he must figure out how to navigate his career path, his family, and his political leanings as he works.
10. Straight Outta Compton
Based on one of hip hop's most famous groups, Straight Outta Compton charts the rise of N.W.A. and their debut album, “Straight Outta Compton.”
Ice Cube, played by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr., and his band mates, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren, navigate the music industry and discrimination as they change the face of music and bring a new spin to the face of hip hop.
11. Remember the Titans
Denzel Washington stars as Coach Herman Boone, a Black coach who seeks to right the ship of an Alexandria, Virginia high school's football team after the team desegregates and begins to embrace the racial policies and ideas the rest of the country has wrestled with for years.
The team doesn't take well to their desegregation and struggles to work together, but under Coach Boone's patient tutelage, the boys learn that fighting one another doesn't achieve anything. The team works together to achieve greatness and bring the races of their schools together through the love of the game.
Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Officer, grows up in sheltered, ignorant bliss of the racial politics of Great Britain. Raised by her great-uncle and aunt, Belle endures the subtleties and direct hits of British racism with grace and aplomb as she learns more and more about herself and her race and the mounting political issue that Gregson v. Gilbert presents to the British people and to Belle herself.
13. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
The Oscar-winning film stars Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green. The two light up the screen as one of the blue's most influential performers and her band gather for a recording session in Chicago. 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 and would go on to be cited major influences for the rock ‘n' roll greats.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Thurgood Marshall, one of American history's most influential Black lawyers who would eventually become the first Black individual to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. The film follows young Thurgood Marshall as he works as a lawyer for the NAACP, fighting back against racial injustice and discrimination at every opportunity. He teams up with Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman to fight for the innocence of Black chauffer Joseph Spell in a case that would change both careers forever.
Starring Queen Latifah as the titular Bessie Smith, Bessie looks at one of history's most famous blues singers as she rises through the blues charts, fighting at every turn for success as a Black female artist at the dawn of the twentieth century. Bessie deals with violence, fear, racism, persecution, and more on her journey to success and fame.
The United States' first all-Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, features in Glory as Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), who brings together the regiment following the Battle of Antietam. With the help of junior officer Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Shaw put together a regiment of volunteer fighters dedicated to protecting the freedoms of the United States.
While those freedoms weren't seen at the termination of the war, the work of the soldiers deserves conversation when discussing Black history.
17. The Great Debaters
Denzel Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and professor who teaches at Wiley College in the 1930s. He starts a debate team at the university in an attempt to put the team on equal footing with the white teams of the South. After a bit of initial tension, Tolson manages to create a team that can go toe to toe with the prestigious and uncontested white team of Harvard.
18. Malcolm X
Denzel Washington stars as the famous titular character and one of the most significant figures in American history. The controversial civil rights activist lived a life full of strife, struggle, love, and compassion. The film follows his early days and culminates with his tragic assassination.
One of the most famous court cases in American history, Loving v. Virginia struck down the state laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages. The court case began when Mildred and Richard Loving experienced discrimination and even imprisonment for their marriage. Determined to fight the unjust laws, the two fight back through the Virginia courts until the Supreme Court picks up the case.
Amistad stars Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in the historical biographical drama. The slave ship Amistad sets sail from Cuba to America in 1839, and enslaved man Cinque (Hounsou) leads a mutiny. Held captive in Connecticut, their release by the United States becomes a heated political debate that leads to open court battles.