Black History month, or African American History month as it is known in America, is an annual event every February in the US and Canada. There is also a UK version celebrated in October. This February, I have compiled a short list of five contemporary American films that highlight the continued struggle for equality by the black community. We can use the medium of film as a didactic and informative tool to affect change in society by telling stories that make an impact. It is important to show alternative perspectives that give voices to the weak and shed light on issues history would rather keep hidden.
5. Slavery: '12 Years A Slave' (2013)
This film, directed by Steve McQueen, won three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man who, due to a tragic betrayal, was sold illegally into slavery in 1841. He lived out the next 12 years of his life on a plantation in Louisiana. This film chronicles his story. #ChiwetelEjiofor stars as Solomon Northup and many famous faces such as Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Lupita Nyong’o make appearances.
The film depicts the unimaginable suffering that slavery caused to the black race and is a testament to how hope, teamwork and justice can lead to the righting of many wrongs.
4. Education: 'Precious' (2009)
This indie drama film tells the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) a 16-year-old girl whose life has been nothing but a struggle. Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, this visceral and saddening story of a girl who slipped through the safety net of the state will leave your conscience plagued. Precious has endured sexual abuse from her father, routine beatings from her mother and bullying from the kids at school. Despite all this the only thing that keeps her going is her hunger for an education. Social worker Ms. Weiss (played by a stripped-back Mariah Carey) and teacher Ms. Rain (played by Paula Patton) are her only hope of escaping an inevitably bleak future.
3. Incarceration: '13th' (2016)
This Netflix documentary directed by #AvaDuVernay explores the prison system in the US and asks probing questions about why the majority of the prison population are African American males. In the documentary it is stated that America is home to 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Rather ironic considering America called the "Land of the Free."
The documentary creates a time line that tracks the rise of the prison population since the abolition of slavery to the modern day. Black men were made scapegoats by the American government and the media created and perpetuated negative stereotypes that not only white people believed, but black people were beginning to believe about themselves. The #documentary goes through the mass incarceration phases of the Nixon and Reagan era and speaks to the fears of whats to come for black men in the Trump era.
2. Black Lives Matter And Police Brutality: 'Fruitvale Station' (2013)
The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, who died on New Year's Day 2009 at the hands of a police officer when he was just 22 years old. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) portrays Oscar in the days and hours leading up to his shocking death. The film's strength lies in its unassuming ordinary portrayal of a normal guy just trying to make ends meet for his young family.
The topic of systematic oppression and police brutality against unarmed victims is a highly emotive issue. Scarily, the tragic story of Oscar Grant is not a lone incident. A long list of names could be reeled off, including: Eric Garner, 43, killed by police while held in an illegal choke hold in which he repeatedly said he couldn’t breath and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by police after they mistook his toy gun for the real deal. Incidences such as these led to a public outcry from the black community with the Black Lives Matter movement.
1. Vulnerability: 'Moonlight' (2016)
Black men in the media have been stereotyped as being criminal, violent, sexually aggressive, uneducated, emotionally stunted — the list goes on. However, Barry Jenkins’s #Moonlight departs from these stereotypes to portray black men as vulnerable. To some extent we are all products of our environment, and the family we are born into is out of our control.
Chiron, the protagonist, is played by three different actors throughout the film. His mother is an addict, he gets mercilessly bullied at school and his father is absent. This is not the recipe for a successful life. To add to that, the only role model he has is a drug dealer called Juan. With such an upbringing, Chiron inevitably ends up in a life of crime, but he has a secret that is ashamedly still taboo in the black community.
Moonlight offers the other end of the spectrum so rarely captured in film of what goes on behind the tough exterior that comes with blackness and how vulnerability in a world that sees your race as subordinate is a dangerous thing.
What films do you think are important to watch for Black History month?