Welcome to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ 2022 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 2022. We also suggest several double bills for binging.
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 recent 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 sci fi fantasy to biopic and documentary, with release dates ranging from 1920 to the present.
Our 2022 Black History Month Movie Watch List is a collaborative project created by AWFJ members who selected the 28 titles. Contributors include (in alphabetical order) Jamie Broadnax, Diane Carson, Jennifer Merin, Sherin Nicole 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.
What a stunning, original, visually striking feature debut from Mati Diop. Senegal’s entry for Best International Film Oscar consideration,Atlantics made history and generated wide interest when it won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Diop, who is of African and French heritage, became the first black woman to direct a film featured in the Festival’s Competition section. Nothing about Atlantics, a love story and surreal social commentary, disappoints. The film presents a very complex, ambitious story, told from the point of view of several women, young and old, living in the coastal African community from which a group of young men suddenly and without fanfare set off in a boat. The film follows the aftermath of what happens to the women, including teenager Ada (Mama Sané) who is in love with one of the young men, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), but betrothed to another. When a fire destroys her wedding bed and mysterious malady befalls many in the town, the film’s love story widens to an examination of cultural mores and social and political injustice.
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.
CLAUDINE (1974) and LOVE JONES (1997)
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 a killer Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack featuring Gladys Knight & the Pips. And, if you want to double down on quintessential Black love stories, queue up Love Jones, a multi-couple romance with enough twists to keep you completely enthralled.
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.
DOWN IN THE DELTA (1998)
Beloved poet and activist Maya Angelou directed her first (and only) film, at the age of 70. Scripted by Myron Goble, Down in the Delta is an affecting drama about how an impoverished drug-addicted single mom (Alfre Woodard) leaves her dysfunctional life in Chicago to seek better circumstances by living with her brother (Al Freeman Jr) in their ancestral home in Mississippi. By reconnecting with her family’s history, she redeems her self esteem and is able to restart life for herself and her daughter on a positive path. The engaging story is inspiring. The film’s characters are iconic archetypes with an aura of familiarity that makes them relatable. The film is fundamentally about affirmation, about knowing one’s roots and taking care of family, about persisting and prevailing in the face of hardship — of having to kick hard drugs, to push oneself past personal screwups, to maintain hope when your life has seemed like a constant losing streak. Alfre Woodard’s convincing performance makes you a believer. Down in the Delta is truly uplifting, and it makes us wish there had been more films from the truly great Maya Angelou.
A DRY WHITE SEASON (1989)
Filmmaker Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season takes us to South Africa during the apartheid regime. The narratve is a dramatic — and very disturbing — depiction of how aggressively authorities persecuted South Africans, including White citizens, who took any stand against apartheid. The film opens with two boys playing ball. Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu) is Black, Johan is White, and they are best friends. As the story fast forwards, Palcy shows us with a smartly structured script and sharp cinematography how the lads’ paths have been defined and divided by apartheid. Jonathan’s world is impoverished and barren in Soweto, while Johan lives in the midst of luxury and lush greenery in a middle class suburb. Johan is still playing ball as a member of his all-White school’s rugby team, but Jonathan has been arrested and brutally beaten for attending a peaceful student protest. Jonathan’s father (Winston Ntshona) works as a gardener for Johan’s father (Donald Sutherland), who is conveniently apolitical. But when Jonathan and his father are murdered by apartheid authorities, he is shocked out of his White privileged apathy and begins to seek answers and justice. He new quest to expose apartheid atrocities attracts the hostile attention of the police, alienates his wife and daughter, and causes friends and colleagues to shun him. The police also use his activism as an excuse to harass and evict the remaining members of Jonathan’s family. The film is a hard but very worthwhile watch. A Dry White Season not only illustrates atrocities perpetrated by apartheid authorities, it also shows the personal risk taken by those who choose to oppose all-powerful systems of segregation and oppression through true allyship and the willingness to make personal sacrifices to fight injustice.
EVE’S BAYOU (1997) and TALK TO ME (2007)
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 place laced with unspoken histories buried in its soil, Eve’s Bayou symbolically highlights the bridge that links past and present. In the context of Black History, Eve’s Bayou provides powerful imagery for esoteric and supernatural themes and topics of oral history, family historians inheriting the gift of ‘sight’ and jelimuso, a West African term for the memory of the people and how that memory is awakened through oral history. Kasi Lemmon’s 2007 Talk to Me, a biopic about Washington DC radio talk show host and community activist Petey Greene, also focuses on the impact that spoken word — oral history — has on politics and culture. See these films as a Kasi Lemmons double bill.
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.
I AM NOT A WITCH (2017)
I Am Not A Witch is Zambian writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s stunning fantasy-like tale about naive young Shula, an eight year old orphaned girl in rural Zambia, who finds her way into a village where she happens to witness a local woman fall down and spill a jug of water she was carrying. The villagers accuse Shula of causing the accident by witchcraft. Shula, a lone child who cannot properly identify herself, nor explain her circumstances, is put on trial by the state authorities, who are represented by a manipulative bureaucratic functionary who handles incidents of witchcraft. When Shula is found guilty, he takes charge of her. She’s now considered property of the state and is brought to live at a witch camp, where she’s tethered to a large spool of ribbon and warned that if she cuts her tethering ribbon and attempts escape, she will be turned into a goat. The beautifully shot film is mesmerizing. I Am Not a Witch raises compelling questions about superstition and fear of “the other” and how they can lead to women being blamed for misfortune even in societies that value women and in many ways view them as equal to men.
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.
Feisty and fantastic, Chantel is much more than Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. And the film, written, produced, and directed by Leslie Harris is much more as well, shifting our point of view to that of seventeen-year-old Chantel Mitchell who has definite ideas about her future. She also has spunk, determination, and strength, along with an in-your-face assertiveness. Informed by Harris’ hours of interviews at the Brooklyn Teen Pregnancy Center, events express real-world perspectives and accompanying challenges. Issues include teenage pregnancy, abortion, HIV/AIDS, and, since Chantal lives in the projects, class. Race factors into every one of these areas. As Chantel, Ariyan A. Johnson is as believable as she is charismatic, resolute, and confident. Echoing Chantel’s uphill battle with racism and sexism, the multi-talented Harris has not yet directed another feature film, despite her receiving special jury prize recognition at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, in addition to other awards and nominations.
JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE (2020)
“It’s because of you, John.” That was the short, powerful note that President Barack Obama wrote to Congressman John Lewis on Obama’s first inauguration day, and director Dawn Porter’s moving documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble shows us exactly how right the president was. The film chronicles the highs and lows of Lewis’ life and career, beginning with his childhood as the son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama to his days as an nonviolent activist in the civil rights movement to his eventual election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, all set into the political and historical context of U.S. politics from the 1960s to the present day.
LITTLE WOODS (2019)
So much of Little Woods could have fallen prey to stereotype. Actress Nia DaCosta’s debut as a writer and director is about a young Black heroine who has 10 days left on her probation. She cobbles together odd jobs while old contacts still hope she’s selling drugs. She’s got a plan that will get her the heck out of North Dakota, away from her hopeless situation. All she has to do is stay straight and narrow for 10 days. And then her sister announces that she is pregnant by her drunk of a boyfriend, her son’s father. What’s a good sister to do? Starring Tessa Thompson, Little Woods transcends its realistic trail of tears.
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.
MUDBOUND (2017) and PARIAH (2011)
Dee Rees’ Mudbound tells the intertwining stories of two families — one Black, one White — living on the same piece of rural Mississippi farmland in the post-WWII 1940s. Each family has a son who’s recently returned home after combat duty in Europe. The film illustrates the very different circumstances the two veterans, who’ve been close friends since childhood, face when they return to their rampantly racist home state. Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel the script, from the film’s opening scene, is energized by strong performances, stunning cinematography and heartbreaking human drama that builds tension to the point of explosion. Dee Rees’ masterful direction won her an AWFJ EDA Award in 2017. We recommend watching Mudbound in a double bill with Pariah (2011), written and directed by Rees as her powerful first feature, a compelling drama about a young Black lesbian who is struggling to stand her ground in claiming her identity.
NIGHT CATCHES US (2010)
Director Tanya Hamilton has gained acclaim for her work on TV series such as The Chi and Queen Sugar, career achievements rooted in her exceptional first feature, Night Catches Us, a compelling and authentic political drama with keenly observed and subtly developed central characters beautifully brought to life by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. Set in Philadelphia in 1979, the story revolves around Marcus (Mackie), an ex-Black Panther, who returns to his hometown after a long and unexplained absence, to face volatile hostility from his friends and family who blame him for the death of a Black Panthers leader years ago. Marcus’ finds support from his best friend’s widow, Patricia (Washington), and her young daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin). Exploring the complex juxtaposition of personal and political loyalties, the story is all about redemption.
THE OLD GUARD (2020) and LOVE AND BASKETBALL (2000)
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood enters the realm of blockbuster superhero movies with her take on the first epic action adventure to feature a Black woman as a Superhero. Kiki Layne plays Nile, the youngest recruit to a band of immortals (lead by Charlize Theron’s Andy) who’ve been intervening for eons to save the human species from annihilating itself. Both Bythewood and Layne handle the flick’s nonstop action choreography with eclat, while leaning into the complexities of the superhero psyche. The action thriller is a cinematic leap from Bythewood’s first feature, Love and Basketball, a romantic drama that slam dunks the love life of a female in sports. It’s the story of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) who’ve loved each and played basketball together since childhood but face some challenges when it comes to courting. The two films feature xomplex and compelling female characters and are an inspiring double bill.
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. The film is brilliantly conceived and directed, the performances are as iconic as the real life personas portrayed. One Night in Miami is a must watch!
Based on Nella Larsen’s same-named novella, Rebecca Hall’s powerful 1920s-set directorial debut, Passing, tells the story of two friends — Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) — who unexpectedly reunite after a long separation, only to discover that their lives have taken very different trajectories. Both women are Black but one of them, Clare (Ruth Negga), is “passing” as white, married to a successful white banker, who has no idea his wife is Black. The other woman, Irene (Tessa Thompson), is also living a comfortable, prosperous life, as the wife of a Black doctor in Harlem. As it reveals what happens after their paths re-cross, the film examines complex issues related to race, identity, marriage, motherhood, and more.
Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, a first for Kenya. Meanwhile, in her own country, where anyone found engaging in same-sex sexual activities can face up to 14 years in prison, the Kenyan Film Board banned Rafiki, for what it said was “legitimizing lesbianism”. A court battle brought by Kahiu, who argued the ban limited her freedom of expression, led to worldwide press attention to the case that eclipsed the film itself. Ultimately, the film was granted a one week reprieve. Rafiki played to sold-out audiences for seven days, outgrossing blockbusters like Black Panther. That represented a victory for open-mindedness and acceptance of LGBTQ people, and a victory for freedom of expression in Kenyan filmmaking. Rafiki is captivating coming-of-age love story affirms that Wanuri Kahiu as a filmmaker to watch.
SEE YOU YESTERDAY (2019)
Until recently, the very popular Sci fi genre has been noticeably underpopulated by Black characters, especially those who play an essential role in advancing the plot and who serve as positive role models for devoted sci fi fans. Fortunately, the times are changing — as is evidenced by the thoroughly enjoyable See You Yesterday, a sci fi adventure that centers on two brilliant Black teenager scientists — best friends CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) — whose experiment with time travel must suddenly be put to the test so they can go back to reset events to prevent the murder of CJ’s brother (Astro) by a cop. The film’s theme might be an expression of wishful thinking, but it couldn’t be more timely and relevant. First time director Stefon Bristol, who co-wrote the script with Fredrica Bailey, progresses the plot with lots of entertaining twists, some in homage to other sci fi classics and most supporting the notion that even the smallest intervention in history will have huge effects. See You Yesterday is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable watch.
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.
SYLVIE’S LOVE (2020)
It’s fitting that music is the true catalyst in this love story about a jazz musician and a would-be career woman who can’t quite get their stars uncrossed. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) is working in her father’s record store, when she meets Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a jazz musician who needs a day job. The two young, super attractive, somewhat sophisticated African Americans in love in mid-20th century NYC. And, that’s it. There are some relationship issues, but none of the era’s racial problems of the period immediately challenge them. No one is trying to evict them, or telling them where to sit or eat or use the bathroom because of the color of their skin. No one is yet telling them they can’t win. Instead they face life’s non-racial perennial problems: whether to chase a dream or make sacrifices, whether to commit to the safe bet or follow your heart’s passion. The era’s inherent racism is evident when the couple face thinly veiled racist comments at social gatherings and politica;l unrest is referenced when a close friend joins the the civil rights movement in the South, but writer/director Eugene Ashe cleverly sets Sylvie’s Love into the classic romance genre, illuminating beautifully complex Black characters in a refreshing way that avoids cliches and stereotyping.
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.
WITHIN OUR GATES (1920)
Director Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, the earliest surviving feature film by a Black director, tackles subjects still relevant and dramatically presented. Embedded within the story of a troubled romance, a diversity of racial topics surface as the film’s central character, Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), confronts social turmoil post-World War I and dedicates herself to educating Black youths and “uplifting our race,” as she says, in her fight against the lack of government support for Black schools. Micheaux weaves other social issues into the film as well, including the struggle for women’s suffrage and the Black vote; the expressed desire of some Whites to keep Blacks uneducated and “in their place”; and religion that restricts advancement as one preacher covets money over constructive progress. Revealed in a flashback, an attempted rape by a white man involves a startling revelation and, perhaps most surprising, after erroneously blaming Sylvia’s adoptive father for a murder, a white mob lynches both her parents. Within Our Gates is utterly compelling and, with his impressive and impactful filmography skills and insightful social scrutiny, Oscar Micheaux — whose work deserves much more attention than it often receives — ranks high on the list of cinema influencers.
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.