Feb 29

Black History Month on the big screen

Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis both earned Oscar nominations for "The Help."

These films and TV shows bring African-American history to life

One of the chief complaints about Black History Month is that it lasts less than 30 days.

Sure, it’s great to dedicate an entire month to recognizing African-Americans’ myriad contributions to the arts and sciences. (Even if it is February, the shortest month of the year.)  But what about the rest of the year? Why can’t we spend March, May or October singing their praises?

With that in mind, I invite you to join me in celebrating Black History Month all year long.

Here are 20 movies and television shows that showcase important periods in African-American history.


“The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)

Jackie Robinson plays himself in this biopic about the first African-American athlete to play major league baseball. For more insight into the history of black baseball players, watch Ken Burns’ superb miniseries “Baseball.”

“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)

A substantial insurance payment opens a world of possibilities for aspiring businessman Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) and his wife (Ruby Dee), mother (Claudia McNeil) and sister (Diana Sands).  Based on the play by Lorraine Hanson, this drama was remade as a 2008 TV movie starring Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

When a black man is falsely accused of raping a young white woman in the Depression-era South, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) agrees to defend him — evoking a violent wave of racist sentiment.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)

San Francisco couple Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) find their liberal pretensions put to the test when their daughter (Katharine Houghton) brings home her fiance, a handsome, intelligent black doctor (Sidney Poitier). (Weirdly enough, this movie was remade as the Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac comedy “Guess Who.”)

“In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

Homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) teams up with police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to solve the murder of a prominent businessman in the racially charged South. This superb crime thriller won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974)

Winner of eight Emmy Awards, this TV drama charts the exceptional life of Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson) from her childhood as a slave in the 1860s to her involvement in the civic rights movement a century later.

“Roots” (1977)

No list would be complete without “Roots,” the Golden Globe Award-winning miniseries that redefined “must-see TV” in the 1970s. Based on author Alex Haley’s family history, the story follows African tribesman Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) and his American descendants as they experience slavery, emancipation and the Civil War.

“A Soldier’s Story” (1984)

During the final days of World War II, Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) investigates the death of an unpopular black sergeant (Adolph Caeser) who was killed after returning to his Louisiana Army base.

“The Color Purple” (1985)

Growing in the South during the early 1900s, Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) endures poverty, racism, sexism and abuse from her father (Leonard Jackson) and her husband (Danny Glover). Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker.

“Glory” (1989)

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) faces prejudice from the opposing Confederate Army and his fellow Union officers when he leads the first all-black volunteer regiment during the Civil War. The cast includes Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for his role.

“Boyz in the Hood” (1991)

Growing up in inner-city Los Angeles, best friends Doughboy (Ice Cube), Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) embark on very different paths in director-writer John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated drama about life in the ‘hood.

“Malcolm X” (1992)

Denzel Washington earned an Oscar nomination for his stirring portrayal of the controversial civil rights leader, Muslim minister and martyr. He’d receive another nod from the Academy as real-life boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1999′s “The Hurricane.”

“Get on the Bus” (1996)

Coming on the heels of “Malcolm X” and “Do the Right Thing,” director Spike Lee’s movie about the 1995 Million Man March on Washington may seen a little tame.  However, the documentary-style drama boasts a solid storyline and a large, impressive cast, including Ossie Davis and Charles S. Dutton.

“When We Were Kings” (1996)

This Academy Award-winning documentary chronicles the 1974 heavyweight boxing championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. For another look at the famed “Rumble in the Jungle,” watch the 2001 biopic “Ali” starring Oscar nominee Will Smith as the title boxer.

“Remember the Titans” (2000)

When an Alexandria, Va., high school becomes racially integrated in 1971, it’s up to football Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) to bring his black and white players together. Based on a true story.

“Ray” (2004)

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his inspiring performance as legendary pianist Ray Charles, who battled blindness and racism to become one of America’s most beloved performers. Plus, you can’t beat that soundtrack!

“Dreamgirls” (2006)

Based on the hit Broadway musical, “Dreamgirls” examines the Motown music movement through the eyes of a Detroit girl group (Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose) and their manipulative manager/record executive (Jamie Foxx). I also recommend 2008′s “Cadillac Records,” which charts the creation of Chicago’s Chess Records label in the 1950s.

“The Great Debaters” (2007)

Led by professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), a group of Texas college students form their school’s first debate team in 1935, eventually challenging Harvard in the national championship.

“The Help” (2011)

At the start of the civil rights movement, a young white woman (Emma Stone) seeks to tell the story of the black maids (including Viola Davis and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) who have been serving the residents of Jackson, Miss., for generations. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book.

“Red Tails” (2012)

Like 1995′s “The Tuskegee Airmen,” this drama looks at the brave African-American Air Force pilots who served under the command of Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) during World War II.  (The title refers to the distinctive markings on their planes.)

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