Five Films for Black History Month

February 1, 2017

Five excellent films on black history are currently showing in theaters or available on DVD or streaming services.

I Am Not Your Negro, now in theaters, is a newly-released documentary about the great writer James Baldwin (1924-87). This 95-minute film is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, exploring the history of racism in the U.S. and his observations on the slain leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X . Baldwin’s written are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The film may inspire you to read Baldwin’s writings, non-fiction and fiction.

Hidden Figures is a biographical drama based on historic facts, about Katherine Johnson, a black women mathematician, and her colleagues engineer Mary Jackson and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, who worked for NASA in the 1960s. They confront racial and gender discrimination, and Johnson’s calculations were crucial to the success of the space program in particular the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.

The Free State of Jones is a Civil War drama based on real historic characters and events: an armed rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, by an alliance of white deserters from the Confederate Army and black runaway slaves. It’s a reminder that the South was never monolithic, even during the Civil War, and that solidarity between poor white and black Southerners, which has appeared at various times and places in Southern history, is an extremely powerful force, that can build a more just and democratic society. The Free State of Jones is available on DVD and several video streaming services.

Fences. Denzel Washington has brought to the screen the work of playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005. As a Broadway play Fences won two Tony awards and a Pulitzer, and the film has deservedly been nominated for four Oscars and two Golden Globes. It is one of 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle” about the African American experience, one set in each decade from the 1900s to 1990s, all but one set in the Hill District, Pittsburgh’s historic black neighborhood and Wilson’s home. Fences is set in the 1950s. The central character is a middle aged city sanitation worker and former Negro Leagues baseball player who was denied a shot at the Major Leagues because of his race, and was too old when integration finally came. His wounds play out in conflict with his sons.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a 2015 documentary on the life and art of Nina Simone, produced for Netflix. Simone (1933-2003) was a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist whose broad musical range extended from classical and jazz to R&B and gospel. Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, she started playing piano in the church where her father was pastor. Local people impressed by her talent raised money to send her to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She later adopted the name Nina Simone so her mother wouldn’t know she was playing “the devil’s music” (blues and pop) in night clubs. One club owner’s insistence that she sing as well as play eventually brought to the world the gift of Simone’s uniquely expressive contralto voice.

In 1963 the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls drew Simone into activism. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was an angry and powerful response to Southern racism. Through recordings, rare footage, and interviews with family and friends this film tells the story of Simone’s music, activism, and personal struggles.


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