Welcome to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ 2021 Black History Month Movie Watch List.
Listed in alphabetical order, we present the titles of 28 watch-worthy movies, a one-a-day selection of films to view during February 2021. Our compendium of titles was selected from hundreds of the beautifully crafted, relevant and relatable films that elucidate Black experiences, tell stories of Black lives and illuminate Black history — and represent this past year’s trending and best productions about Black history and culture. We chose films that represent a variety of diverse perspectives as expressed in both obscure titles and blockbusters, covering genres ranging from romcom to horror, from scifi fantasy to biopic and documentary, with release dates ranging from 1934 to the present.
Our 2021 Black History Month Movie Watch List is a collaborative project created by AWFJ members who selected the 28 titles, wrote blurbs and reviews. The contributors include (in alphabetical order) Betsy Bozdech, Diane Carson, Carol Cling, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Loren King, Jennifer Merin, Lynnette Nicholas, Kristen Page-Kirby, Jazz Tangcay, Liz Whittemore and Sharronda Williams.
Here’s the list. We suggest that you watch them ALL! Click on titles and names highlighted in red to read full reviews and other AWFJ coverage.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
12 Years a Slave is one of the most stunning films in recent years, directed by Steve McQueen and adapted from Solomon Northop’s memoir of the same name. The film earned the majority of Best Feature Film awards in 2013, with the notable Oscar win for Lupita Nyong’o. The film captivates its audience with scenes that hold nothing back, and rightfully so. Slavery was a disgusting time and the echoes of its horrors still maintain a palpable hold on today’s social dynamics.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS (2014)
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights is a luminous romance between a pop singer and a police officer and would-be politician. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as a nova superstar singer whose career is pushing her over the emotional edge, but a growing, glowing relationship with her bodyguard (Nate Parker) helps to ground her. The film deftly avoids a typical damsel-in-distress cliché-rich scenario. Beautiful performances — including a seductive supportive turn by Minnie Driver – along with a great soundtrack and fine cinematic values make Beyond the Lights a rewarding must see.
Based on an outrageous true story, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman veers wildly between hilarious and harrowing, thrilling and appalling, smart and stylish. Most importantly, the two-time Oscar nominee’s latest “joint” is undeniably relevant, even though most of the events it chronicles happened 40 years ago when Ron Stallwart, the first Black officer in the Colorado Springs police force, infiltrated the local KKK chapter and prevented a violent attack on a predominantly Black student protest rally. The film is a pointed commentary on our country’s contemporary issues with racial injustice and inequality. It is also a stellar cinematic experience, one of the best movies of 2018.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)
BLACK PANTHER puts the first African-American superhero, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four No. 52 in 1966 (three months before the Black Panther Party formed during the Civil Rights Movement), on screen in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster scifi fantasy about Wakanda, a superior African civilization that keeps itself hidden in order to prevent colonization by lesser societies. The significance of this more-thoughtful-than-usual entry in the Marvel canon can’t be overstated. From T’Challa to Shuri, the Wakandans are smart, strong, brave characters who provide invaluable representation in a genre that needs it.
CAR WASH (1976)
Michael Schultz’s Car Wash is comedic take on the daily life of a car wash employees, chronicling their hopes, fears, joys, dreams and tribulations. This iconic work from prolific African-American director Michael Schultz features a best-selling score performed by Rose Royce and boasts stellar appearances by Richard Pryor, Ivan Dixon, Bill Duke and the Pointer Sisters.
Director John Berry’s ghetto-fabulous love story stars James Earl Jones and the late, Diahann Carroll. She plays Claudine, a single mother with six kids living on welfare in New York City. Claudine works as a maid across town in the white suburbs. It’s here she meets a garbage man (James Earl Jones) who wins her over with his charms, but he’s unsure about their relationship and the responsibility of a ready-made family. Diahann Carroll received a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for her performance. In 1975, James Earl Jones and Carroll won the NAACP Image Award for “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” for the film. The movie features the killer Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack featuring Gladys Knight & the Pips. Claudine was also nominated by the WGA for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.
DA 5 BLOODS (2020)
Exploring racial inequity through the lens of the Vietnam War, Spike Lee’s Netflix joint is the story of four African-American veterans who gather at a bar called Apocalypse Now in Ho Chi Minh City before embarking on a dual mission: to recover the body of their revered squad leader, and to find a cache of gold bars they’d buried after he was killed. Venturing into the jungle, the vets are confronted by ethical questions, nightmarish memories of combat and new opponents who wan to steal their treasure. Spectacularly brave performances by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Jonathan Majors and Chadwick Boseman are brilliant and unforgettable.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, an absolutely spellbinding and exquisitely gorgeous work, presents the historically grounded story of the multi-generational Peazants, a Gullah (also called Gee-chee) family reuniting in 1902 on Saint Helena Island off South Carolina’s coast. The elder Nana clings to Yoruba tradition while the younger generation has returned from living in New York with attitudes that clash with African folklore. Based on five years of research and shot for the astonishingly small sum of $800, Daughters of the Dust is celebrated as the first film by an African-American woman to receive national theatrical distribution.
EVE’S BAYOU (1997)
Actress Kasi Lemmons makes an award-winning debut as writer/director of this haunting supernatural melodrama with a killer cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll and young June Smollett. Eve’s Bayou masterfully weaves together a cinematic tapestry that transparently depicts the burdens of young black girlhood, the legacy of ‘blood memory’ and spiritual generational inheritances. Set in Louisiana, a geographical location laced with unspoken histories buried in its soil, Eve’s Bayou symbolically highlights the bridge that links the past and the present. The women in Eve’s Bayou have supernatural gifts and the narrator of the film speaks of her African ancestor Eve. The name itself, Eve, carries many spiritual connotations, but scientifically speaking there’s possible a nod to the “Eve gene” ideology. In the context of Black History, movie’s like Eve’s Bayou are relevant and provide powerful imagery for esoteric and supernatural themes and topics of oral history, family historians inheriting the gift of ‘sight’ and the jelimuso, which is a West African term for the memory of the people and how that memory is awakened through oral history and retelling.
GET OUT (2017)
Jordan Peele’s complex horror film tackles racism in an incredibly smart and wicked way. Peele’s ability to highlight how slavery is still alive and well and illuminate the appropriation and exploitation of Black culture is sheer genius. He wrote and directed Get Out with a black man’s humor, understanding, blood, and brains. The result is a film unlike any other and yet quoting many others, honoring the horror film with parody and politics. You don’t even know the full impact of the story until the final moments.
A photographer by training, RaMell Ross made his remarkable feature debut in 2018. The elusive, incisive narrative focuses on lives lived in an Alabama Black Belt county, the moments that make up experience rather than conventional trajectories. The documentary follows two young African-American men in rural Alabama over nine years. Ross began shooting in 2009, focusing on the diverse experiences of Quincy Bryant and Daniel Collins, two African American young men. Ross immerses the viewer in these subjects’ rural Alabama lives. Following noted documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s style, no analytical commentary intrudes at any time. Gorgeous and meditative, challenging and compelling, the film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2019.
Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet tells the true story of Harriet Tubman, freedom fighter, escaped slave, a Moses to her people. There has not been a biography of this truly great American, which says a lot about the attention the film industry pays to women and to people of color, even though they be heroines. Cynthia Erivo is mighty in the titular role, singing and speechifying, and rising to glory as she risks her life time and again to return to the south to guide more and more slaves to freedom. rises in glory. She finds a companion in Marie (Janelle Monáe), an elegant free Black woman who lives in Philadelphia, takes Harriet in, educates her and connects her to abolitionist supporters. The film is a gripping biopic in which the horrors of slavery define every scene. Harriet” is both effective and affecting.
THE HATE U GIVE (2018)
Directed by George Tillman, Jr., The Hate U Give is an important film and a weighty film, one that raises questions about what we as a society will accept — from our community members, from our leaders, from the politicians who are supposed to represent us, from the police who are supposed to protect us. The movie, based on the novel by Angie Thomas, considers a tragedy that feels simultaneously ripped from the headlines and quite commonplace: the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. The film is relatable, empathetic, and extremely moving, with a great lead performance by Amandla Stenberg as teenage Starr who, after witnessing the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer, must find her voice and figure out how to stand up for what’s right.
HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK (1998)
No matter what other roles he may play, Taye Diggs will always be remembered by many women as Winston Shakespeare, the 21-year-old handsome hunk who Angela Bassett simply couldn’t resist in the now classic romantic dramedy, How Stella Got Her Groove Back from screenwriter/author Terry McMillan. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, the movie is adapted from McMillan’s best-selling novel of the same name and proves what every woman should know — that age ain’t nothing but a number.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (2016)
Built on the scaffolding of James Baldwin’s unpublished manuscript, “Remember This House,” Raoul Peck’s impeccable and rigorous documentary makes clear the endless resonance of history. Bringing together movies and literature, protests and politics, then and now, the film is at once enlightening, angry, and utterly compassionate. In the archival footage featured in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s rationality and humanity shine out — clear, irrevocable and freighted with an unmistakable note of warning. To deny any group of people their essential humanity has repercussions not just for the victims of oppression, but also for the perpetrators.
JUST MERCY (2019)
Truth-based Just Mercy is a gripping legal drama that follows Black attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) in a gut wrenching legal battle to save an innocent Black man, Walter McMillan (Jaime Foxx, falsely charged with murder and on death row for from execution. Stevenson, a Harvard Law School grad, founded and is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based legal aid service. The film is based on Stevenson’s eponymous book, published in 2014. While stories like this one have been told on screen before, rarely have they centered so fully on the Black experience. No white saviors here — just real-life heroes doing the hard work required to swing the arc toward justice.
LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000)
Directed and written by Gina Prince-Bythewood, this romantic drama is the story of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) who love each other and play basketball together through many of life’s challenges from childhood to adulthood. The film presents a normal and realistic portrait of a female figure in sports. It won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for Prince-Bythewood. To this day, it is inspiring to women who wish to see more complex female characters portrayed onscreen.
MISS JUNETEENTH (2020)
In a time when too much of the world is very belatedly waking up to the significance of Juneteenth — the holiday marking the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas finally learned of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation — Channing Godfrey Peoples’ coming-of-age drama Miss Juneteenth offers a thoughtful, relevant glimpse inside Black life in Texas more than 150 years after that momentous day, as a former Miss Juneteenth pageant queen (Nicole Behari) tries to groom her free-spirited teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) to compete for the annual competition’s crown and the scholarship that goes with it.
Telling the intertwining stories of two families — one white, one black — living on the same piece of rural Mississippi farmland in the 1940s, Dee Rees‘ Mudbound blends strong performances, notable cinematography, and heartbreaking human drama. It’s clear things are going to get grim from the opening sequence, in which adult brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan (played by Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund, respectively) try to bury their father despite the onslaught of a torrential downpour, which leaves both men shaken and covered in mud. about e film helmed by a female filmmaker of color, the story has a strong, memorable matriarch in the character that Mary J. Blige plays, as well as representation of what returning home from World War II was like for men of color.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)
Anyone who thinks female directors should stick to telling women’s stories is a) sexist and b) in for a surprise when they watch Regina King’s powerful directorial feature film debut One Night in Miami. Based on Kemp Powers’ same-named 2013 play, it imagines the fascinating conversation that might have happened between activist Malcolm X, boxer Cassius Clay, singer Sam Cooke, and NFL star Jim Brown had they all found themselves in the same place on the night of February 25, 1964.
Writer and director Dee Rees made her feature film debut with this story of a young black lesbian (Adepero Oduye) struggling to find a place where she feels safe expressing her sexuality. The film explores the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality through the eyes of a teenager who doesn’t fit into the world around her — and she’s not sure if she wants to.
THE ROSA PARKS STORY (2002)
In Julie Dash’s compelling biopic, the iconic Rosa Parks (Angela Bassett) recounts A seamstress recalls events leading to her act of peaceful defiance that prompted the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma is ever so relevant given the current social climate. Because Duvernay doesn’t take the standard approach of delving into the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but instead focuses on his fight for voting equality in Selma, Alabama. From the beginning of the film, we are quickly thrust into the dangers of being Black in the South with the gruesome death of four young girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. DuVernay never shies away from the alarming parallels of being Black, and the inherent dangers in the fight for equality. Instead, she fully embraces these terrifying moments to honor the spirit of those whose struggle, and sometimes death, became a catalyst for change
Amanda Lipitz’s uplifting, tightly paced documentary, Step is about an all-girls’ team in inner-city Baltimore that uses the stepping tradition as a frame to showcase issues that the girls must face. Some are common — worries about college, relationships with parents — while some are unique to their time and place, such as the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent protests. Politics, art, and personal struggles all merge in what is much more than a story about competition.
TALK TO ME (2007)
Kasi Lemmons‘ Talk to Me is an excellent biopic about real life Washington DC-based radio DJ, talk show host and community activist, Petey Greene (played by Don Cheadle) who ruled the airways during the turbulent 1960s. It was a time of protest and social unrest. When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the city’s furious and frustrated black population broke into riots and widespread looting. It was Greene’s no nonsense talk–often rife with his own rage–that actually restored order to the city.
Inspiring and intimate, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a revealing portrait of a true American icon. The Nobel Prize-winning author of seminal books including Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and The Black Book shares details of her life and work honestly and openly, while fellow luminaries — and enthusiastic fans — like Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, and many more wax rhapsodic about Morrison’s talent and significance as a writer.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)
Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman is an illuminating look at how Black women have been represented in film in decades past. More specifically, she probes into the life of a beautiful Black actress who played “Mammy” roles during the 1930s, and was listed in film credits as “the Watermelon Woman” Dunye sets out to find out who she was and what her life and career were like. The unique film is a revelation.
ZOU ZOU (1934)
This French film, which is shown much more in France than in the US, is a crime drama and musical that stars Josephine Baker, the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Directed by Marc Allégret, it is the story of Zou Zou (Baker), who tries to help her childhood friend prove his innocence after he’s accused of murder. The film is a landmark in that it offered an incredibly talented woman of color the opportunity to show her abilities in a way that she could not have done in the US at that time.