The list of films that 6 Degrees recommends are those that not only focus on black lives that mattered, but the awakening reality of the rest of our society to the injustices that they suffered. That is part of the movement, and one that is significantly different in this era.
Before even suggesting to watch dramatic representations, as before, I recommend Eyes on the Prize-if you can find a copy of this series that has real life footage, not dramatizations, of the struggle that Civil Rights activists and ordinary folk, mostly black, but not always, as they marched and sat and struggled and spoke out against the racist Jim Crow laws of the South and the bigotry that was manifest as they fought for equality.
The films to watch:
To Kill A Mockingbird: The character portrayed by Gregory Peck transcends the book and the later controversy; just looking at the film-seeing the way that Peck was able to take this character and mold him into a shining beacon of hope for all the oppressed black men and women that he so eloquently defended in that courtroom scene is worth the viewing
Ghosts of Mississippi: The humor that is injected sporadically is something that holds this together. And the fact that there was a struggle that was revealed and overcome makes this film worth the viewing. Alec Baldwin is so intense and earnest in his key moments: finally having the human emotion of “Why ME?” in this long fight for equality is something that resonates and stays with you. And it brings one of the long revered but often overlooked characters of the early fight for Civil Rights, Medgar Evars and his widow, into light.
Mississippi Burning: This is one that depicts the amazing story of the Freedom Riders, the Jewish young man and the African American who were courageous enough to enter a small town in Mississippi to register black voters and were subsequently murdered…and then, the telling story of the cover-up; with the emphasis on Willem Dafoe’s amazing moment of revelation as an FBI agent who says: “Who ARE these people?”..The reckoning is for us, the focus of the “White Privilege” and in the end, it’s not for African Americans to reveal what is inherent in this broken system.
The Long Walk Home: This film has great performances by Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, two Oscar winning actors. The film centers on the Montgomery bus boycotts of the fifties and Spacek’s desire to finally become ‘woke’ enough to enter into the fray and help the woman, played by Goldberg, who has helped her.
Hidden Figures: This film is worth it for the moment of revelation or climactic and dramatic “reveal’ where the black women, the early pioneers of computer processing, are able to assert themselves and achieve parity in some respects, in their work due to merit and their abilities. That is the focus and real heart of this drama based on real-life characters working at NASA in the sixties.
The Green Book: One of the most recent films, with extraordinary performances by the two leads that addresses not only the little known so-called Green book in the ‘white privilege’ world that would allow people of color to find hotels to stay as they rode through the bigoted and segregated South of the fifties and sixties.
In the Heat of the Night: You could not compile a list about the films of African Americans without including the incomparable Sidney Poitier, He is front and center in any discussion of films about African Americans and their quest for respect. Poitier, with his resonant voice combined with good looks and superior bearing is one who led the way in achieving the type of equality that all men and women of color could not find in the “Golden” Age of Hollywood
Coming to America: Many were quick to criticize Eddie Murphy for his depictions of older black men and their demeanor and barber chair talk. But Murphy was a character that, like Richard Pryor and the fallen Bill Cosby, used humor to raise awareness of who black people were and what they were capable of doing. And by the way, the fact they knew so well and were aware of their own cadence and dynamics within their community was a welcome relief for a younger generation of Americans who became aware of what “woke’ really meant! Also, the great James Earl Jones makes an appearance, with the plot using the fictional African nation of royalty to bring Jones’ presence-second to none-into the picture.
Glory is not, in my opinion, as memorable in plot or story line as the others listed, but the unique feature of using the Civil War unit of all black fighting men was one that was, at the time, unheard of in Hollywood!
(There was also a film of the Tuskegee Airmen that George Lucas himself had trouble selling!)
Malcolm X: Denzel Washington, like Sidney Poitier, is an industry within an industry, with superb acting ability combined with good lucks and brains, and there is no list of African American films that cannot include Denzel in a role. Spike Lee is also directing, and that is also another box to check for someone who has lifted the identity of the African American on film for decades.
Black Panther: In the pantheon of Marvel characters, this film is a stand-out as one of the better ones, with much more in-depth emotional drama to bear rather than simply showing a slew of armored comic book characters flying around and smashing things and cracking jokes!
There are many other films with great actors, Alfre Woodard, Paul Winfield, the list goes on… and then there are the early films of awareness of segregation. Guess Who’s coming to Dinner is about a bi-racial marriage, shocking for the sixties, but the film is rather dated although Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in his last film, along with Sidney Poitier did hold up the film with superior acting.
Blazing Saddles with Cleavon Little is another groundbreaking performance, but that film is a comedy that is not about that one subject of bigotry. Mel Brooks is a Jewish man who managed to make fun of Hitler and the Nazis, so he was able to cut to the chase with the use of the N Word – in a comic setting-that really just gets lost in the shuffle with all the jokes flying in this one…
The films are often best that show how as a society, we need to come to terms with our own past. That is where we are now, so slow to tear down the Confederate symbols in this last and final battle to end the Civil War.