Black History Month is already well underway this February. Expanding on the blueprint of “Negro History Week” — coined by scholar Carter G. Woodson in 1926 — it is a designated time to acknowledge the history of Black people and to celebrate Blackness for an entire month. Far too often, people fall into the trap of watching white savior films or films that only capture the trauma and none of the joy of the Black experience. Many of these films have a hidden agenda of trying to improve race relations. While films based on true events like “The Help” center around white protagonists to make the film more palatable to a white audience, this tactic compromises, and even erases, the stories of the Black people who shaped this narrative in the first place.
Looking at the other end of the spectrum, it is strange to center the celebration of Black History Month around slavery. The history of slavery is very important to the Black experience, but films that center on this topic often lack the nuance and depth necessary to accurately depict the horrors of slavery in a meaningful way. It is necessary to acknowledge that Black people are not confined to the boxes they are placed in both on- and off-screen and to truly understand that one must diversify their viewing habits.
Since these celebratory films are difficult to find amidst white savior tropes and slavery narratives, here are five movies that are worth a watch this month. These are by no means a stopping point, but rather a starting point to branch out from.
“Sylvie’s Love” (2020)
Starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, this is the perfect Black History Month/Valentine’s Day hybrid watch. Taking place in Harlem during the 1950s and 1960s after the Korean War, this film captures a new side of Black femininity as it follows Thompson’s Sylvie through the ups and downs of her marriage, affair and motherhood. By embracing the 1950s Hollywood melodrama style, one hidden gem of this film is the way they are able to hold on to that classic movie feel while creating a modern viewing experience.
“Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella” (1997)
Recently announced to begin streaming on Disney+ Feb. 12, the movie stars Brandy as the titular character and the late Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother, putting a new spin on the classic Cinderella story with its “race-blind” casting. A Black Cinderella makes perfect sense when she realizes that she is being forced to do domestic labor in her own home.
“Malcolm X” (1992)
As the name implies, this biopic portrays the, at times, tumultuous life and death of activist Malcolm X. Starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, it is one of director Spike Lee’s most memorable and culturally significant projects. It is a must-see, despite the three-and-a-half-hour run time.
“Black is King” (2020)
One of the more controversial picks is the 2020 visual album experience created by Beyoncé. As an 85-minute film, "Black is King" follows an abstract retelling of the familiar story of "Lion King," complete with representations of Simba as a Black boy living in Africa and interluding dialogue from Disney's 2019 "Lion King." It seems as though she tried to capture every bit of the African Diaspora in the visual, so some of her choices regarding iconography and the interpellation of certain spiritual figures might rub people the wrong way. However, as a whole body of work, she connects the idea of Blackness with royalty and luxury in a way that has not been seen before.
“Black Panther” (2018)
If you have not seen “Black Panther” by now, this is your sign to go watch it. As a director, Ryan Coogler was able to capture so much of his own experiences within the film, and that is part of what makes it so impactful on the big screen. As Black Panther himself, the late Chadwick Boseman's career reflected on the importance of this representation in an interview with The Undefeated, stating, “It’s important for a black, or a child of African descent, to see me. It’s just as important for a white kid to see me.” It is more than just a superhero film — from the costuming to the characters, “Black Panther” captures the essence of Afro-futurism that is so pivotal to Black culture in general. As a cultural aesthetic, Afrofuturism seeks to unify Blackness with technology to recognize the advancement of Black people past the stereotypes that are often associated with the sordid past of slavery. In this way, “Black Panther” has created a new representation of the future of Blackness that is shaped by power, wealth and success.