BLACK HISTORY IN FILM

By Ashley Choudry

The Black Lives Matter or ‘BLM’ movement, is one that has garnered much attention over the past couple of years. The fight to get equality for all races has been and continues to be a long and arduous one. So too has the fight to get equal representation on screen (both big & small) for black people of significance forgotten or ignored by society. This is part of the reason as to why we celebrate Black History Month every October.

For this month’s blog I want to bring to your attention five films that showcase the lives of a few black people most of whom whose names had essentially been lost in time until recent years. These films also portray events in history involving said persons that had a significant influence on the lives of black people for centuries thereafter.

Now some of these features may not be an easy watch, but they are crucial to understanding the struggles and achievements that black people have gone through over time

Now some of these features may not be an easy watch, but they are crucial to understanding just some of the struggles and incredible achievements black people have gone through over time, yet have been overlooked and forgotten about. Three of these movies were nominated for Best Picture, and though it’s easy to see why, two of them still underperformed at the box office and went slightly under the radar in the minds of the public.

The first entry I wish to bring to your attention is a film titled Amistad (1990).

Amistad Film Cover

Directed by the same man who was the focus of my last blog, Stephen Spielberg, it tells the story of events that unfolded aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad in 1839 and their part in the build-up to the American Civil War. Mende (an ethnic people from Sierre Leone) tribesmen are abducted to be used as slaves, however they somehow manage to gain control of their captors and the ship off the coast of Cuba. When the tribesman themselves are then captured by the Americans, a substantial legal battle is launched in which they fight for their freedom.

These legal proceedings split the American judicial system and begin to have a devastating affect not only on the country but on the slaves themselves. Despite starring big names such as; Sir Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman & Matthew McConaughey; the film failed to make much of a profit at the box office, possibly due to the story it attempted to portray. However, it gained highly positive reviews from most critics, praising the emotion and vivid imagery the film discloses. For those of you who are history buffs or those that just love a good legal drama, this powerful true story is one film you cannot afford to miss. Need a teaser first? Watch the clip below of former President John Quincy Adams opening speech at the beginning of the trial, then you’ll have no choice but to loan the whole movie on DVD from the Library!

From the oldest to the most recent, we move next to an increasingly popular film within the last half a decade, Hidden Figures (2016).

Hidden Figures Cover

This seminal title about the true story of three incredible women whose names and acts were long ‘hidden’ from society is a masterpiece by Theodore Melfi to inspire black women everywhere. It focuses on the untold stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) & Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their rise through the ranks at NASA to playing imperative parts in the Space Race (in particular Johnson, who went on to play a vital role in the Apollo 11 moon landing among other space missions).

The film begins with Johnson, assigned to a space task group due to her incredible analytical geometry skills, becoming the first woman on the team. From there she, Vaughn and Jackson climb fast up the ladder, meeting resistance along the way yet persevering in changing most people’s opinions on women and black people. A fun-loving, comedic drama, this heart warmer is a perfect watch for an evening-in as the seasons start to change.Hidden Figuresis available now on DVD or e-stream, click on the link below to view a just a snippet of what’s in store:

The middle film of this month is yet another historical drama, Selma (2014).

Selma Cover

Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it chronicles a three-month fight for black voters right and an ensuing march from Selma to Montgomery (both in the state of Alabama). This protest march became a crucial event in the history of black Americans gaining equal voting rights. It begins when a black woman, Annie Lee Cooper, is denied the choice to vote in Selma itself by a racist registrar. Afterwards, Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) appeals to President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass a bill giving black people the right to vote but is shunned.

In an act of retribution, the leaders of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African-American civil rights organisation) and activists from the same group devise a march across Alabama in protest and to win over the hearts and minds of the white population. This powerful picture is a must-see for all, the story’s importance to Black History cannot be understated, and neither cananastounding performance by Oyelowo as the illustrious Martin Luther King Jr which brings it all together. You can watch some highlights of his performance from the trailer in the clip below and loan the full film on DVD from the Library now:

Our penultimate entry for this month is also the most critically acclaimed, the biographical slave-drama, 12 Years A Slave (2013).

12 Years a Slave

Based on a slave memoir from 1953 by Solomon Northup in which he tells his incredible but solemn story. Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a born-free man from New York, tricked into travelling to Washington D.C. for work, whereupon he is abducted and sold into slavery. Doomed to work on plantations for the next 12 years, the film recounts his journey from a disgruntled to a respected slave who fights to be heard and become a free man once again.

Winner of 3 Oscars (including the fabled Best Picture award), this film received rapturous applause from critics and audiences alike, describing it as essential cinema. Its ensemble cast featuring the likes of; Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupito N’yongo (Best Supporting Actress winner for this film) and Paul Giamatti; is but one of the many things it gets right. The main draw of this epic however, is its historically accurate portrayal of slavery, which it does like no other film before it. University of Reading Professor Emily West (who specialises in the study of slavery) said herself, she had never before seen slavery depicted so accurately. The downside of this depiction of course, is the vivid scenes and imagery that comes with it throughout the runtime, there are however some truly beautiful and uplifting moments to be found too. Of all the films I am recommending to you today, there is none more poignant to Black History or more watch worthy than this one. You canwatch one of the more buoyant scenes in the film by clicking on the link below and view the full film only on e-stream now:

So, we’ve had plenty of drama and some comedy so far this month, but our final flick is of a genre quite different from the others; a sport biography of sorts, the largely unknown Remember the Titans (2000).

Remember the Titans cover

The second oldest on this month’s list, this hidden gem is a cult Disney film with an edge. The focus is on real-life black high school football coach Herman Boone, who throughout the 1960’s and 70’s struggled to racially integrate two of his teams.

The film begins in 1971 when Boone takes a job at the T.C. Williams High School as assistant coach of the white boys’ team (though having been hired under the pretence of coaching the black boys’ team), having just left his old coaching job. In reality, he was forced to resign from his position at E.J. Hayes High School due to the belief that the town was not yet ready for a black head coach, this despite his impeccable record (even before his arrival at this school) and his 1966 team being recognized by Scholastic Coach Magazine as “The Number One Football Team in America”.Boone is quickly promoted to head coach, much to the dismay of some, and unsurprisingly meets hostility in his attempts to integrate the team and implement his coaching style.

The rest of the film portrays his journey from an ostracised teacher to an inspirational leader. Remember the Titans has plenty of heart and humour to go with it’s more shocking moments, and thought not quite historically accurate in some areas was a modest box-office success (unlike other films on this list), and is revered as one of the best American Football films of all time. Yet, it is all but ignored in this day and age. While 12 Years A Slave is the must-see film of this month, this one is my firm favourite (author’s choice some may call it), headlined by the always incredible Denzel Washington. Those of you who are sports fans, will find it truly inspirational and learn the name of one of the most underrated coaches to have ever lived, Herman Boone. Click on the link below to watch a scene that exemplifies the whole premise and loan it on DVD now in the Library:

Well there you have it. five incredible films, focusing on significant events in black history and bringing to the forefront some truly inspiring black people, who all deserved to be known and remembered for their work and their struggles. Why not honour them by watching and learning about their stories through the Library’s film services?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s