10 Things To Watch In Black History Month You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Words by Amon Warmann
With Black Lives Matter protests still taking place worldwide in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, films made by and with Black creatives have rarely been more important, whether they’re educational or just purely entertaining.
With Black History Month in full swing, here’s a selection of 10 Black-led projects that you should make time for.
1. I Am Not Your Negro
African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin is a figure who has always loomed large in Black culture, but his work has been given new life in recent years.
Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is based on his novel of the same name, and I Am Not Your Negro sees award-winning filmmaker Raoul Peck turn Baldwin’s unfinished 30-page manuscript Remember This House into an engrossing documentary.
The fact that it’s narrated by Samuel L. Jackson is soon forgotten, as the marriage of words and archival footage links the past with the present in potent ways.
The most recent entry on this list is also one of the best films of the year. Starring newcomer Bukky Bakray as Shola, a 16-year-old girl who is forced to take care of her little brother when their mother abandons them, it’s a rare movie that centres a narrative on a dark-skinned Black girl.
It’s also tender, funny, and – thanks in part to a script that had a lot of input from its young actors – unbelievably authentic. If you only seek one film out this year, you should make it this one.
3. The Last Dance
Though debates will continue to rage from now until eternity, Michael Jordan is THE G.O.A.T. The Last Dance – a 10-part miniseries that documents the final season of the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s – is a testament to that fact, but it’s about a lot more than just basketball.
It deals with the pursuit of excellence, and the sacrifices that must sometimes be made to attain it. It also deals with fame, and how it affects those deemed worthy enough to receive it. All in all, it’s an essential look at one of the most famous athletes of all time.
Acclaimed filmmaker Céline Sciamma is on superb form in telling the story of Marieme (Karidja Touré), an initially shy 16-year-old Parisian who falls in with an all-girl gang to both her benefit and her detriment.
It makes for a riveting watch, particularly when the film is revelling in female solidarity and friendship. Nowhere is this more exemplified than by a beautifully composed sequence in which all four Black girls lip-sync and dance to Rihanna’s Diamonds. It’s just one example of how Sciamma utilises physical language to great effect.
5. John Lewis: Good Trouble
Representative John Lewis passed away earlier this year, and throughout his six decades of activism he fought for civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health care reform, and immigration.
It’s an amazing life that director Dawn Porter does well to document over a taut 100 minutes, and while the film may not be groundbreaking in craft, the impact of its subject makes it a valuable and compelling watch.
With films like this, Lewis can continue to inspire the next generation of activists, who are needed now more than ever.
Period dramas are still an overwhelmingly white space, but Belle is a good-natured exception to the rule.
The sophomore effort of Amma Asante sees Gugu Mbatha-Raw prove herself to be a star in the making as the titular Dido Elizabeth Belle, a real-life 18th century lady who was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British admiral and an African slave.
Aside from helping to put Mbatha-Raw on the map, Misan Sagay’s screenplay is deft when dealing with issues of race, gender, and class, and the performances make it easy to get swept up in the romance.
7. Mr. 3000
The late, great Bernie Mac would have turned 63 earlier this month. Mr. 3000 was one of the few lead roles of his career, and on this evidence it’s a shame there weren’t many more.
Here he stars as Stan Ross, an aging baseball star who discovers to his horror that he didn’t quite reach the 3,000 hits that form the basis of his titular nickname. While it’s a little formulaic, what follows is a funny, heart-warming, and moving story of a player who gradually begins to understand the impact he has on those around him and changes for the better.
Mac is on excellent form throughout but is especially good in the film’s more dramatic moments, and he’s ably supported by Angela Bassett’s smart and sexy love interest.
8. The Last Tree
British filmmaker Shola Amoo loses none of the authenticity in transitioning from documentary to narrative cinema with The Last Tree, an assured and moving sophomore effort.
The coming-of-age tale – which is also semi-autobiographical – focuses on Femi (played as a child by Tai Golding, before morphing into Sam Adewunmi as a teen), a British boy of Nigerian heritage fostered in Lincolnshire.
While comparisons to Moonlight are not without merit, The Last Tree bucks the coming-of-age blueprint in new, specific ways, and Adewunmi’s raw, emotionally resonant performance ensures that we’re always privy to Femi’s inner turmoil.
It still feels rare for a film to be focused on Black people who are pretty well off, but that’s the initial set-up of writer-director Trey Edward Schultz’s Waves, a drama about an African-American family who go through, and try to recover from, a terrible tragedy.
The filmmaking here is frequently audacious – the way it plays with light, sound and aspect ratio is unexpected, as is a mid-movie twist – but it’s the performances that leave the biggest impression.
Key among them is Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Tyler, a high school wrestler who gradually unravels under the strain of his domineering and demanding father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). It’s a visceral and ultimately heart-breaking turn from one of the very best young actors working today.
10. Hair Love
Hair Love went from getting funding via Kickstarter all the way to Oscars glory when it picked up a golden statuette for Best Short Film earlier this year, and it was richly deserved.
The story of a father who – in the absence of a mother figure – overcomes his fears to plait his daughter’s hair, it manages to be funny, sweet, and moving in just under seven minutes.
Amon Warmann is a freelance film and TV writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.