By Kristina Webb
In celebration of Black History Month, here’s a list of notable African-American films.
While some are historically significant, others represent ground-breaking performances by African-American actors and actresses.
After reading through the list, leave us a comment and share your favorite African-American film.
• The Color Purple (1985):
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and directed by Steven Spielberg, this film stars Whoopie Goldberg as Celie Harris, a young African-American woman who sustains abuse throughout her life.
Set in the early and mid-1900s, “The Color Purple” follows Celie from a childhood where she is sexually abused and impregnated by her father, to a marriage where she is physically and emotionally abused and treated as a slave.
Although nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it did not win any. Goldberg won a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
• Amistad (1997):
Set in 1839 and also directed by Spielberg, “Amistad” details a mutiny aboard a slave ship and the subsequent legal ramifications.
Featuring breathtaking performances by Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, “Amistad” provides a glimpse into the legal system of the 1800s and how issues of slavery were handled.
• To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):
This film, based on the award-winning novel by Harper Lee, tells the story of Depression-era lawyer Atticus Finch and his family.
Finch, played by Gregory Peck, takes on the case of an African-American man, played by Brock Peters, who is unfairly accused of rape in their small town in Alabama. The racist attitude of the town is brought to light as Finch struggles to defend his client and keep his family safe.
• Malcolm X (1992):
Spike Lee directs this film about the life of African-American activist Malcolm X, portrayed by Denzel Washington.
After his father is killed by the Ku Klux Klan, he is put on a path that eventually leads to his becoming the face of the Nation of Islam and the anti-white movement.
However, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, he realizes the error of his ideology and converts to Sunni Islam.
Washington puts forth a phenomenal performance, and was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. However, he lost to Al Pacino.
• A Patch of Blue (1965):
Sydney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman star in this film about two people who are trapped by circumstances but longing for change.
Hartman plays a young blind woman, abused by her mother and grandfather, who meets Poitier in a park; Poitier is an office worker who helps Hartman navigate the city.
Hartman soon falls in love with Poitier, not knowing he is African-American.
Although color technology was available at the time of filming, director and producer Guy Green chose to shoot in black and white.
When released, the film was controversial for its inclusion of an interracial kiss; the kiss was cut from the version shown in the South, but was included in the DVD release.
• Imitation of Life (1959):
Lana Turner plays Laura Meredith, an aspiring actress, and Juanita Moore plays Annie Johnson, a poor African-American woman.
Meredith hires Johnson as her nanny, and the film follows their makeshift family over a decade as their two daughters grow up together. Johnson’s daughter, Sarah Jane, resents her African-American heritage, and begins to pass as white because she is so light-skinned.
As Sarah Jane grows farther from her mother, Johnson grows closer to Meredith’s daughter, Susie.
The film is an inspiring look at not only the difficulties faced by African-American children but also the difference between a white single mother in the 1950s and an African-American single mother.
• A Raisin in the Sun (1961):
In his second appearance on our list, Sydney Poitier plays the father of a poor, black family. Poitier’s character, Walter, struggles to get a piece of the $10,000 insurance payout his mother Lena, played by Claudia McNeil, is set to receive.
When the insurance money arrives, Lena uses most of it to buy a house in a predominantly white neighborhood, seeing it as an opportunity to finally move out of the projects. “A Raisin in the Sun” is a careful adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play.
• Stormy Weather (1943):
Though not historically significant for its subject matter, “Stormy Weather” features some of the best African-American performers of the 1940s, including Bill Robinson, Dooley Wilson and Fats Waller. “Stormy Weather” also briefly touches on the issue of interracial relationships, as Robinson’s character pursues Selina Rogers, played by Lena Horne.
• Rosewood (1997):
Directed by John Singleton, “Rosewood” documents the experiences of several characters during the 1923 race riots in Rosewood, Fla.
Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle put forth excellent performances as men trying to save as many as possible from the mob.
• In the Heat of the Night (1967):
Sydney Poitier plays Detective Virgil Tibbs, a big-city officer who is called in to investigate what may be a racially motivated murder in Sparta, Miss. Rod Steiger plays the local police chief, Bill Gillespie, who comes to respect Tibbs despite generally looking down on African-Americans. The film tackles several controversial issues of the 1960s, including race relations and abortions.