Black History Month is an opportunity to educate ourselves, especially through film and documentary, on the history, achievements, and contributions of black people to society. In doing so we can delve deeper into the past, reflect on the present and hopefully look with solidarity to the future. Here is just a small selection of recommended viewing.
'12 Years a Slave' (2013) Netflix
It is impossible not to be moved by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s powerful performance in director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir of Solomon Northup – a free black man who was kidnapped from 1840’s New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Both experiencing and witnessing gut-wrenching brutality at the hands of sadistic plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Solomon must bury parts of his soul to survive. Chiwetel’s expressive, emotive face is often the only still we see against a backdrop of beautiful Deep South cinematography (much was filmed on location at a former Louisiana plantation) which only make the scenes more poignant and painful to watch.
Verdict: Will stay with you long after the credits roll.
'Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson' (2020) BBC iPlayer
Samuel L Jackson’s name certainly gives kudos to this 4-part documentary which traces his lineage from Georgia, USA, back to French West African Libreville, Gabon. There he explores relics and rainforests, home to roaming elephants whose ivory tusks were sadly traded along with people. He teams up with two award-winning journalists and group, Diving With a Purpose (DWP), whose mission it is to uncover the stories and artifacts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade which ran for 400 years. The statistics are staggering, with around 45,000 journeys made from West Africa across the Atlantic to Brazil, Cuba, the US, with almost 1,000 ships never making it. Through interesting discoveries, DWP aims to “tell the stories the history books can’t”. Do not miss it.
'The 13th' (2016) Netflix
Director Ava DuVernay takes us on a journey to show how in the US, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution adopted in 1865 – which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime – has resulted in black men being unfairly and disproportionately targeted for crimes and incarcerated. The film begins with a statistic from Barack Obama; the US has 5% of the world’s population yet over 25% of the world’s prisoners. DuVernay examines the history of changing legislation, the war on drugs, lengthy sentencing, demonizing of minorities, political campaigns and the private prison set up to show how profit prevails over justice.
Verdict: Eye-opening and thought-provoking.
'Time: The Kalief Browder Story' (2017) Netflix
If DuVernay’s “13th “documentary is the head of injustice in America, then Kalief Browder’s story is the heart. Produced by Jay-Z, the 6 part miniseries recounts the story of Bronx high school student Kalief Browder, who at 16 years old was accused of stealing a backpack and, since his family could not meet the $3,000 bail, was then incarcerated at New York’s largest prison, Riker’s Island, for three years – two of them in solitary confinement. We witness his shocking treatment within the prison, and the profound and lasting effect on his mental health that followed.
Becoming (2018) Netflix
We join Michelle Obama on her book tour with a myriad of celebrity guest on-stage moderators – Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon – who explore her South Chicago upbringing, struggles within a white male-dominated Princeton Law education and honest portrayal of life inside the White House as the first ever African-American First Lady. Mother, mentor, feminist, impassioned speaker; Michelle meets adoring fans and touches on the relationships that have shaped her life with poise and class.
'Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J Walker' (2020) Netflix
In this heart-warming series, Octavia Spencer plays Madame CJ Walker, America’s first self-made millionaire, at a time when millionaires were neither female nor African American. Born as Sarah Breedlove and working as a ‘washer woman’ suffering severe hair loss, Sarah is befriended by Addie Monroe whose miracle hair afro hair product helps Sarah’s hair grow back. Shunned to work with Addie’s brand, Sarah sets about making a better product and the two become rivals. She later marries CJ Walker (Blair Underwood) and overcoming adversity, gradually builds a business empire which still exists to this day. Spencer gives a commanding and absorbing performance which will charm.
Da 5 Bloods (2020) Netflix
Acclaimed Director Spike Lee tells the story of four ageing African-American Vietnam veterans who reunite in Ho Chi Minh City to go in search of buried gold and their fallen comrade, ‘Stormin’ Norman’, who, in the flashback scenes, is played by Chadwick Boseman. Through a series of unfortunate mishaps and bloodshed the four once again battle only this time to locate and smuggle both the gold and Norman out of the country. It is a complicated depiction of the Vietnam war and the injustices of those who fought in it yet the witty dialogue, cinematography and score mostly make up for it.
Verdict: Rambo meets Black Lives Matter.
Many more are available on Netflix – search Black Lives Matter Collection – or Amazon Prime.