20 Films on the African American Experience
The horrifying murder of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests have led to people wanting to desperately enlighten themselves about the Black experience.
The fight for civil rights and equal justice has been well-documented in movies and documentaries that remain widely available for those who need an introduction to the reasons behind today’s national unrest.
The following films have been selected based on their historical impact, how they’ve framed conversations about Black life in the United States, and how relevant they are to discussions about African Americans today.
The television miniseries, based on the Alex Haley novel (1976), is an epic tale showing how generations of one family faced being abducted in Africa and then enslaved in the United States. It was one of the first realistic portrayals of African enslavement and was perhaps so impactful because it was on television—and, therefore, easily accessible to so many.
AFRICANS IN AMERICA: AMERICA'S JOURNEY THROUGH SLAVERY (1998)
This four-part PBS documentary attempts to depict what life was like for African Americans during enslavement: from when the U.S. was a British colony on through Independence and the Civil War.
EYES ON THE PRIZE (1987)
The late Henry Hampton’s well-organized look at the historic Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It provides a deep-dive into the origins of the movement as well as the individuals who impacted it.
4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997)
Spike Lee’s look at the Sept. 15, 1963, terroristic bombing murders of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson as they attended Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
THE AFRICAN AMERICANS: MANY RIVERS TO CROSS WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. (2013)
This film traverses African American history from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, to the long nightmare of enslavement, to Black cultural, political and social movements and on through to the election of Barack Obama.
CHISHOLM ’72 - UNBOUGHT & UNBOSSED (2004),
Directed by Shola Lynch, looks at the historic 1972 presidential run by Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to serve in the United States Congress.
MALCOLM X: MAKE IT PLAIN (1994)
This PBS documentary is the closest film to mirror the depictions of Malcolm X’s life as it was written about in the 1965 book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley and Malcolm X. Any understanding of the protest politics of today’s Black America requires an understanding of Malcolm X or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
This Ava DuVernay documentary looks at how the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished African slavery and involuntary servitude, yet we find ourselves today suffering from a prison system that has re-established systemic inequality.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (2016)
Director Raoul Peck’s vision of James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir Remember This House, which was his tribute to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.––Black leaders whose efforts on behalf of Black freedom led to their assassinations. Baldwin famously says in the documentary that white people need to ask themselves why it’s necessary for them to have a “‘nigger’ in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger—I’m a man!”
GET IN THE WAY: THE JOURNEY OF JOHN LEWIS (2017)
This documentary biography of Civil Rights icon/Congressman John Lewis examines the meaning behind his decades of work from marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s to serving as a congressman representing Georgia.
SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY (1983)
This musical documentary looks at the growth of African American gospel, its meaning, and staying power. The film features interviews with musician Thomas A. Dorsey, "the father of gospel music."
THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON (1971)
This documentary details the life and murder by police of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Chicago.
THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION (2015)
This Stanley Nelson documentary shows the rationale behind the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s. The Black Panthers remain a model organization for activist organizations today.
WHEN THEY SEE US (2019)
Ava DuVernay’s miniseries shows the impact being falsely accused has on individuals, their families, and their communities. The show looks at the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, where a white woman was assaulted and raped and five young men were forced by police to admit to committing the crime. DuVernay’s series shows how the five boys became men, all while fighting their convictions and demanding to be exonerated.
Camilla Hall looks at the formation of WeCopwatch, in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Kevin Moore, Ramsey Orta, and Dave Whitt are the three men who filmed the police violence that led to these deaths, and Copwatch looks at what they confronted, and still deal with, in documenting police incidents.
JUST MERCY (2020)
The fictional account of how civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson created his Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The film centers on Stevenson’s defense of Walter McMillian, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a White woman in the 1980s.
LET THE FIRE BURN (2013)
A documentary by Jason Osder about the Philadelphia Police Department’s May 13, 1985 bombing of the row homes of MOVE, an urban Black liberation group. After bombing MOVE’s homes, city authorities allowed the buildings to burn, even while they knew men, women, and children were inside.
TONGUES UNTIED (1989)
The late film director/activist Marlon T. Riggs used poetry, performance, and testimony to acclaim the lives of African Americans ’ in the LGBTQ+ community. The film was an instant classic when it premiered.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s film finally documented Harlem’s LGBTQ+ ballroom culture and made it so enticing that, to this day, other secreted groups remain fascinated by its allure.
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (2019)
This remembrance of the late, great author Toni Morrison gives us insight into why she was such a tremendous force for restoring the imaginative realities of what it means to be a person of African descent in the Americas.