25 film recommendations for Black History Month
This is a non-exhaustive, in-no-particular-order list of films I love and think you should see that were directed by women and nonbinary filmmakers. Do you have your own recommendations to add? Either leave a comment here or @ me! @blkwmndirectors on Twitter.
1. Eve's Bayou, Kasi Lemmons
I love this film so much. It has just the right mix of pathos, humor, sensuality, and horror to be a modern classic. And what a cast. Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Megan Good, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Lisa Nicole Carson star in this Southern Gothic tale of a 10-year-old Louisiana black girl, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), who, after witnessing her father having an affair, sets into motion a chain of events that lead to tragedy. It's a haunting, bold story.
2. Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash
If there was any kind of justice in this world, Julie Dash's work would be taught and widely screened the same way people teach and revere the Spike Lees and Martin Scorseses of the world. And who knows, maybe that time is now. What I do know is that when I saw Daughters of the Dust some years ago, I remember feeling deeply seen. Like Dash tapped into something about memory and family, and bonds and what we owe to each other and to the lands we come from that maybe I knew before but had forgotten.
I can't remember exactly when I first came across Nikyatu Jusu's work (I think maybe through Tumblr?) but I am glad that I did. This short film, follows Grace, a mother coping with PTSD from the Liberian civil war as seen through the eyes of her pre-adolescent daughter, Hawa. What makes this film so compelling to me is how Jusu handles this story with care. We don't need to see what exactly happened to Grace. We see the lingering effects of it and how it affects the entire family. The camera movement is also very fluid and languid, reflecting that we are in Hawa's memory.
4. Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay
Emyatzy Corinealdi gives a superb performance as a woman who puts her life on hold when her husband (played by the underrated Omari Hardwick) is imprisoned. This film is a brilliant meditation on the criminal justice system and how it can be as much of a prison for people on the outside as well as on the inside. Another part of this film I appreciated was seeing the deeply complicated, conflicted, but still loving relationship her character has with her mother, played by the always excellent Lorraine Toussaint. The ending for me didn't quite gel together as it felt a little melodramatic but overall, this is a vital film.
5. Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton
Night Catches Us is a 2011 film that follows two former Black Panthers (played by Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie — a mini She Hate Me reunion) who wonder what is next for them in life. I want to see more movies by Tanya Hamilton, who has been directing for TV after working on Ava DuVernay's series Queen Sugar.
6. Jean of the Joneses, Stella Meghie
A family's patriarch dies and sends a family of women into a tailspin. This was a funny and warm look at family dynamics as well as what it takes to be a creative Black girl who survives and thrives in NYC.
7. Pariah, Dee Rees
This is a lovely and self-assured film debut by Dee Rees, about a Black teenage girl coming of age and exploring her sexuality—and facing conflict from her family through it all. Adepero Oduye gives a warm and sensitive portrayal of Alike.
8. Pumzi, Wanuri Kahiu
I saw this dystopian tale of a world without water at the Goethe Institut in D.C. some years ago and it stuck with me ever since. You rarely see women period as the heroes of a sci-fi film, let alone a Black woman and let ALONE a Black woman from the Continent. This was also a beautifully shot film and the themes of water shortages are prescient, as cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Cape Town face critical droughts.
9. Down in the Delta, Maya Angelou
Did you know that in 1998, writer and humanitarian Maya Angelou directed and released a movie? It's called Down in the Delta and it stars Alfre Woodard as a single mother in Chicago struggling with addiction who is sent to Mississippi by her mother (Mary Alice) to get sober and assist her extended family with their restaurant.
10. Lemon, Janicza Bravo
I will sing this film's praises as much as I can. Janicza Bravo has a singular and quirky voice that is thoroughly needed in the film industry. Lemon is a sly and biting observation of failure and examines white male mediocrity in a way that is clear-eyed, absurd, and above all— hilarious.
11. Something New, Sanaa Hamri
Sanaa Lathan shines in this 2006 film as a woman who is professionally successful but doesn't have much luck in the love department. That is, until she meets a landscape architect (Simon Baker) who sweeps her off her reluctant feet—and who happens to be white. What we get is a film that talks about the realities of interracial dating, workplace politics, the sometimes unfair expectations bourgeoisie Black parents lay on their children. A bonus is a reunion of Sanaa Lathan and Alfre Woodard as mother and daughter, which they did first in Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love and Basketball (2000).
12. Mississippi Damned, Tina Mabry
This movie follows a family of women in Mississippi as they confront past and present traumas and what has to happen for them to break that cycle. It's intense.
13. UDUDEAGU, Akwaeke Emezi
This short film explores loss, leaving, and loneliness. Emezi collaborated with her father to translate the voiceover, originally written in English, into Igbo, and narrated it herself as an exercise in engaging with the lost fluency of her language. Each frame is indelible and facisinating to watch.
14. Beyond the Lights, Gina Prince-Bythewood
Beyond the Lights, released in 2014, gave me something I hadn't even realized I was missing: a good old-fashioned romantic drama. What I appreciated the most about this film, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a troubled pop star, is that she ultimately saves herself. While she finds love with Nate Parker's character (and no, I will not let the specter of his terrible past actions ruin this film for me), he supports her while she figures out what she needs and doesn't need in life. There is also a running critique of the music industry and its treatment of women that's both sly and timely, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
15. Cadillac Records, Darnell Martin
This is a thrilling and fun movie about the talented men and women behind Cadillac Records and the true originators of rock and roll. It's based on Chicago's legendary Chess Record label that hosted the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry. Jeffrey Wright was a revelation as bluesman Muddy Waters and Mos Def shines as the recently departed Chuck Berry.
16. Little White Lies, Lacey Schwartz
Lacey Schwartz spent 18 years being raised as white— until her parents finally told her the truth. That she is in fact half-Black. It's a fascinating documentary about the slippery notions of race and ethnicity as well as what you do when you realize your parents are not infallible and all-knowing.
17. Mudbound, Dee Rees
Mudbound follows two families, one white and one Black, in post-WWII Mississippi. I found it to be a truthful examination of what it means to be a citizen and Black in America and it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to exploring the levels of white complicity within a system that upholds racial and gender-based injustice. This is a one of the strongest ensemble casts I've seen in years, which includes Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, Carrie Mulligan, and Mary J. Blige, who picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Jason Mitchell, in particular, shines as WWII veteran Ronsel Jackson.
18. Selma, Ava DuVernay
What I appreciate the most about Selma, Ava DuVernay's feature film about the fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama is that she made sure to center the women in the movement—Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton Johnson, Coretta Scott King—not just Martin Luther King, Jr. And I also appreciate that she brings King down to earth and makes sure we see that he was a man, not a monument and a collection of feel-good platitudes to trot out a couple of times a year. She made a film that feels very vital and relevant to today.
19. Pauline Alone, Janicza Bravo
A great short film that tracks a rather brittle young woman (Gabi Hoffman) as she attempts —and fails miserably) — to connect with people around her.
20. Tight Jeans, Destiny Ekaragha
This is a great short film that explores race and societal issues in the UK through humor and showing how Black men relaly talk and relate to each other.
Watch this movie in case you didn't think a taut, psychological thriller about a military veteran hovering on the brink of insanity could pack a feature film worth of action into 12 minutes. Jusu also weaves in commentary about PTSD and the specific traumas Black women veterans face in service to their country. Stars a pre-She's Gotta Have It Dewanda Wise, who also starred in Jusu's 2007 short film African Booty Scratcher.
22. Black Girl in Paris, Kiandra Parks
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Shay Youngblood, Black Girl in Paris follows a sensitive writer who moves to Paris to find love and adventure. Stars Tracey Heggins, who also starred in Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy, a favorite film of mine.
23. Love and Basketball, Gina Prince-Bythewood
This movie first captured my heart when I was 15 and it still has it all these years later. Granted, I still roll my eyes at the "let's play a one on one game for your heart" scene but for the most part I love this movie because Sanaa's character is not just the girlfriend or a play thing. She's a fully dimensional, sometimes unlikeable, always vulnerable character who has her own passions and pursues her goals of becoming a professional basketball player. And she refuses to drop everything just to say that she has a male partner. Not to mention that the soundtrack is killer.
24. Yellow Fever, Ng'endo Mukii
A wholly original animated film that explores beauty and hair rituals among Black women.
25. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Shola Lynch
What makes this documentary great is that, like Ava Duvernay did with Martin Luther King and Selma, Shola Lynch brings Angela Davis down to earth. Through interviewing Davis herself, Lynch paints a fully formed, three-dimensional look at Davis' activism and academic rigor as well as the movement she inspired in the 70s and continues to inspire to this day. It's a must-watch.