To celebrate Black History Month, The Medium has pulled together seven essential films that candidly depict the Black Experience. From jazz legends to literary heroes, ambassadors of peace to the many other men and women who held onto their identity and fought back against racism—these films share their stories with courage and authenticity. To take you down the road of history, we listed these films based on the era they’re set in.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American man who’s deceived, drugged, and shipped to New Orleans as a slave. It’s a harrowing story that dives into the emotional and intellectual depths of humanity and the scars that history leaves for generations. Solomon’s experience reflects the real-life experiences of many slaves who lost their power, autonomy, and freedom. 12 Years a Slave became the first movie with a Black director to win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture.
Taylor Hackford’s Ray unravels the private life of jazz legend Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx). We follow Charles throughout his troubled life, starting with the death of his youngest brother during childhood. As he grows older, Charles struggles to contest segregation in Georgia and kick his heroin addiction, all while trying to make it as a musician.
Ray is a film about the real-life musical icon. Most importantly, it’s a dialogue about integrity, living with a disability, and standing up for human rights. Foxx’s performance as Charles drew massive critical praise—earning him both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actor of the year.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma shares the historical context preceding the Selma to Montgomery protest marches. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) works to give voting rights to Black men and women in the South. After President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) denies these rights, King, alongside other Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders and civilians, decides to march from Selma to Montgomery—a peaceful protest that’s met with extreme police brutality. Selma depicts the protestors’ unwavering courage in pursuing human rights.
BlacKkKlansman brings Ron’s Stallworth’s (John David Washington) memoir to life. In this Spike Lee film, Stallworth, the first Black cop in Colorado Springs, goes undercover to get intel on local Klan rallies. He ends up contacting the president of the Ku Klux Klan, the Colorado Springs chapter. Stallworth enlists his White partner in action, Flip (Adam Driver), to go undercover and impersonate him to unearth their crimes. The film is an acerbic exploration of bigotry and its pervasiveness in America.
Just Mercy (2019)
Based on a true story, Just Mercy follows lawyers Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) as they help marginalized folks facing wrongful convictions. Among whom is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an innocent Black man on Alabama’s death row because of a twisted testimony. Stevenson, Ansley, and McMillian must pushback against the racial norms and the criminal justice system that incriminate Black people based on their skin colour.
The film won the Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture, recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). It also dispels the white saviour trope common to most legal dramas, instead showcasing the powerful agency of our Black protagonist.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood is a coming-of-age story about Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a Black adolescent, and his upbringing in a violent Southern Los Angeles neighbourhood. Near the end of high school, Tre and his friends, Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut), must navigate the challenges of life as Black teens living in a community overwhelmed by drugs and gangs.
Boyz in the Hood sparked the trend of films portraying Black teens as three-dimensional characters, each with talent, struggles, and regrets. The film also helped change the cultural conversation surrounding Black men. With Boyz in the Hood, John Singleton became the first Black filmmaker to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)
Set: 1931 – Present
This meditative documentary paints Toni Morrison’s life with precision. Known for her honest portrayal of the Black experience in her books, here, Morrison recounts her family’s experience with racism and poverty, and their influence on her writing. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, this warm-hearted documentary also captures Morrison’s impact on American culture, as she upends stereotypes and casts Black women as individuals with minds, dreams, and souls.