28 Days, 28 Films for Black History Month

IT HAS BEEN ALMOST A YEAR since Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture. This awards season, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Dee Rees’s “Mudbound” have received multiple nominations and accolades, optimistic signs that black filmmakers are receiving more opportunities in the movie industry. Soon these titles will be joined by two of the most anticipated releases of the year: Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” the first Marvel superhero movie from a black director, and Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” the first movie with a $100 million budget directed by a black woman.

The critical and box-office success of “Get Out” and the very existence of big-studio productions like “Black Panther” are good reasons to revisit the remarkable, complex story of black filmmaking in America. For Black History Month, we have selected 28 essential films from the 20th century pertaining to African-American experiences. These aren’t the 28 essential black-themed films, but a calendar of suggested viewing. We imposed a chronological cutoff in an effort to look back at where we were and how we got to here.

We begin in the 1920s with Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), a novelist and bold, prolific independent filmmaker. Micheaux along with black directors like Spencer Williams made “race movies,” low-budget films with all-black casts for black audiences (some from white producers). During the Jim Crow era, the color line ran through movies, including into segregated theaters, and most Hollywood films depicting black life were produced by whites, including musicals, like “Cabin in the Sky,” with all-black casts of well-known singers, dancers and musicians. From the early 1930s to the late ’50s, the mainstream industry’s Production Code specifically banned representations of sexual relations between black and white people.

When African-Americans in Hollywood were not singing or dancing, they were often cast as maids, butlers, porters or other servile, peripheral figures. There are exceptions, including “Imitation of Life,” a 1930s melodrama with a storyline about a black character who “passes” for white, as well as “Intruder in the Dust,” a 1940s parable of white conscience. Both are worth viewing because of the power and integrity of their featured black actors — Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington and Juano Hernandez — who with the humanity of their performances challenge and movingly subvert the mainstream industry’s racism.

Race movies disappeared shortly after World War II, and soon the mainstream industry turned toward social issues. Yet even as the civil rights movement gathered force, black characters and their experiences were seen through a white lens, often myopically. Consider this sobering fact: Between 1948 (when Micheaux’s last film appeared) and 1969 (when Gordon Parks’s “The Learning Tree” arrived on the big screen), almost no movies directed by African-Americans were released commercially in the United States.

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#1 Within Our Gates Directed by Oscar Micheaux, 1920

This stunning rejoinder to white supremacy, both onscreen and off, was also written and produced by Micheaux, a pioneering director of “race movies.” “Within Our Gates” sets its sharp, unsentimental tone with its first intertitle: “We find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist — though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.” The film soon narrows its focus on a courageous, peripatetic young woman who, as she travels between the South and the North fleeing unfair circumstances and raising money for a school, becomes an embodiment of historical struggle. Through both his story and his storytelling — including his brilliant use of flashbacks — Micheaux insistently underscores how the past shapes the present but need not define it. — Manohla Dargis


#2 Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage Directed by Zora Neale Hurston, 1928

In the 1920s, the extraordinary author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston — whose titles include the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — began incorporating film into her ethnographic fieldwork, shooting more than a dozen reels in the South. Although she had a brief, tantalizingly ambiguous Hollywood adventure in the early 1940s as a story consultant for Paramount Pictures, it is Hurston’s look at ordinary black Southerners that remains her indelible contribution to the art. (Available on YouTube and is part of Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” box set. The set also includes an excerpt from Hurston’s “Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina, May 1940,” amazing footage that documents the religious practices of the Gullah people in Beaufort, S.C.) — Manohla Dargis


#3 Black and Tan and St. Louis Blues Directed by Dudley Murphy, both from 1929

These two shorts from the earliest days of sound seem to prophesy the rise of music videos. Each one is built around a performance of the title number by one of the great artists of the era: Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. And both films embed their flights of musical and dance genius within stories that blend melodrama, comedy and realism, paying tribute to the glories of African-American art and acknowledging the hard circumstances in which it took root and flowered. (“Black and Tan” is available on YouTube. “St. Louis Blues” is available on YouTube and on DVD.) — A.O. Scott


#4 Hell-Bound Train Directed by James and Eloyce Gist, 1930

This jaw-dropping specialty item was one of the films that the Gists, married evangelists, made as part of their ministry. Divided into vignettes punctuated by intertitles, it turns on the Devil — a masked figure with horns and a cape — driving a train teeming with wickedness. Each train car reveals another sin, and increasingly takes the story into the greater world. Drinkers dance and carouse in one car; elsewhere a jazz lover risks her soul. “It may bring happiness to you through life,” the film cautions. “But at the point of death.” Produced for a pittance, the film is a fascinating example of D.I.Y. resourcefulness that’s especially memorable for how it balances heavy-handed moralism with homespun surrealism and quotidian life. Nearly everyone here may be headed straight to hell, but most look as if they’re having a swell time getting there. The restoration of “Hell-Bound Train” by S. Torriano Berry is part of a larger effort to restore black film history in its fullness. — Manohla Dargis


#5 Imitation of Life Directed by John M. Stahl, 1934

The nominal star of this classic weepie is Claudette Colbert. She portrays a single mother who becomes an entrepreneur through the pancake recipe and beatifically smiling face of her maid, played by Louise Beavers. Its enduring power, though, rests with the delicate and devastating relationship that Beavers’s character has with her daughter — portrayed as an adult by the dazzling black actress Fredi Washington — a restlessly unhappy soul who decides to pass as white. The movie is decidedly and at times uncomfortably a product of its segregated moment — the women’s lives are separate and narratively unequal — though it is worth noting that the commissars at the Production Code deemed the film, with its overt intimations of race mixing, “fraught with grave danger to the industry.” Washington, who was at once too light and too dark for Hollywood at the time, movingly transcends stereotype even as she — and Beavers — break your heart. — Manohla Dargis


#6 Show Boat Directed by James Whale, 1936

Adapted from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Broadway hit from the 1920s (which was based on a novel by Edna Ferber), “Show Boat” would be remade (and sanitized) by MGM in the 1950s. This version is notable for the frankness of its subplot about passing (an element that resonates with many contemporaneous race films), and for the galvanic presence of Paul Robeson. Arguably the first black movie star, Robeson was also an activist, a recording artist and a world-class athlete. He may be best remembered for his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” for which he later rewrote the original lyrics, transforming a half-ironic hymn to servility into an anthem of dignified resistance. (Available on DVD.) — A.O. Scott


#7 Stormy Weather Directed by Andrew L. Stone, 1943

This anthology of great performances is a trip down memory lane inspired by a special issue in a trade magazine celebrating 25 years of the “colored” contribution to American entertainment. Bill Robinson, a.k.a. Bojangles, and Lena Horne play lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, as do Fats Waller; the Nicholas Brothers; and other celebrated dancers, comedians and musicians. Cab Calloway, a big-screen presence from the first days of sound, needs no such disguise. He is the straw that stirs this intoxicating cocktail, and perhaps its most potent spirit, too. — A.O. Scott


#8 Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. Directed by Spencer Williams, 1946

If Francine Everett — the charming and vivacious star of this all-black drama — had been born decades later, she might have been a nameeveryone remembers. Here, she plays Gertie La Rue, who arrives on a Caribbean island to sing, dance, flirt and give life to the stereotypical role of the dangerously free woman. Gertie has man troubles, a cliché that is soon eclipsed by this low-budget film’s virtues, including its behind-the-scenes show-people realism and sympathetic portrait of a woman at ease with herself and her desires. The director Spencer Williams (who drops in as a “voodoo woman”) later became famous for playing Andy in the TV show “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” but “Gertie” — a rough gem that transcends its flaws — is part of his greater legacy. — Manohla Dargis


#9 Intruder in the Dust Directed by Clarence Brown, 1949

Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel and shot mostly in Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Miss., this is in many ways an earnest exercise in Hollywood liberalism. The ordeal of a black farmer falsely accused of murder — and in danger of being lynched — becomes a test for the consciences of the town’s decent white people (all three of them). But the movie counts as essential because of the ways it pushes against the limits of its own didacticism. An early glimpse of the would-be lynch mob is shot through the eyes of its potential victim, Lucas Beauchamp, who is played with unforgettable poetry and poise by Juano Hernandez. Partly because of the “human quality” of Hernandez’s performance, the novelist Ralph Ellison called “Intruder in the Dust” the only film of its era “that could be shown in Harlem without arousing unintended laughter.” — A.O. Scott


#10 The Jackie Robinson Story Directed by Alfred E. Green, 1950

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black American to play modern Major League baseball (for the Brooklyn Dodgers, of course!). Three years later, he proved that he could also hold the big screen when he starred in this biographical drama. Made on the cheap, “The Jackie Robinson Story” was independently produced because — as one of the screenwriters, Lawrence Taylor, later explained — Hollywood was only interested in bankrolling another savior story about a white man helping a black man. Instead, the filmmakers stuck to the truth (more or less), and in doing so made a mockery of the mainstream industry’s screen segregation. The result is a creaky, corny, irresistible charmer in which Robinson warmsthe screen, Ruby Dee lights it up as his wife and a black man gets to be the hero of his own story. — Manohla Dargis


#11 The Defiant Ones Directed by Stanley Kramer, 1958

In “The Devil Finds Work,” his matchless meditation on the racial pathologies and peculiarities of American movies, James Baldwin mercilessly skewers the well-meaning pieties and delusions of this foundational interracial buddy picture. Two convicts, played by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, escape from a chain gang, shackled together. In spite of their mutual hatred, they rely on each other to survive a journey across the rural South. Baldwin was not wrong: There is plenty to roll your eyes at in the canned epiphanies of brotherhood that the movie offers as tokens of social concern. But there is also Mr. Poitier, the ascendant, incandescent African-American star of the moment, whose wit and charisma not only transcend the material but also render it believable. — A.O. Scott


#12 Shadows Directed by John Cassavetes, 1959

Shot wild in the streets of a now-lost New York, Cassavetes’s electric debut feature is a landmark independent film about three black siblings of varying skin tones — Hugh, Ben and their younger sister, Lelia — shacked up in gritty, glorious bohemian splendor. Only Hugh was played by a black actor, Hugh Hurd, a casting decision that speaks to the time and is impossible to imagine now. (“We did not mean it to be a film about race,” Cassavetes later said.) The film originated in a drama workshop that Cassavetes helped run and mostly involves the siblings hanging out, laboring, being. A story of sorts emerges when Lelia’s new white lover assumes that she too is white, a misperception that opens up a fissure in the world that the siblings have created for themselves, letting prejudice seep in and swirl. “Who do you belong to?” the white lover asks Leila soon after they meet. “Well, I belong to me,” she says, giving voice to the film’s great truth. — Manohla Dargis


#13 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One Directed by William Greaves, 1968

A director and his crew are shooting a film in Central Park, a series of savage breakup scenes that might have been scripted by Edward Albee. The crew, meanwhile, becomes increasingly frustrated by the director’s erratic behavior, and in a series of heavy group-therapy-like meetings, inches toward mutiny. All but forgotten until the early 2000s, this unclassifiable hybrid of documentary, backstage comedy and avant-garde prank feels at once like a vital artifact of its time and like an uncanny premonition of our own. It’s gleefully “meta” (before that term was in general use) and without being in any overt sense “about race,” it is mischievously eloquent on the struggles of the black artist in a supposedly liberal society. — A.O. Scott


#14 The Story of a Three-Day Pass Directed by Melvin Van Peebles, 1968

Mr. Van Peebles’s best-known film is “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” widely seen as the movie that started the Blaxploitation movement. But his disarmingly romantic debut feature deserves a place in the canon, too. Based on a novel he wrote in French, “La Permission” (as it’s also known) filters the elliptical storytelling, the black-and-white cinematography and the existential moods of the French New Wave through the director’s free-spirited, politically astute sensibility. An African-American soldier (Harry Baird) stationed in France has an affair with a young Frenchwoman (Nicole Berger) during a short leave, and their story becomes a prism for a quintessential 1960s theme: the longing for liberation in the face of deeply entrenched, absurd impediments to its achievement. (Available at Brown SugarFandor, and on DVD.) — A.O. Scott


#15 The Learning Tree Directed by Gordon Parks, 1969

The moment that Parks — the photographer, novelist and filmmaker — called “action” on “The Learning Tree,” he broke decades of Hollywood apartheid. With this delicate memory film (and the backing of Warner Brothers), Parks became the first African-American director of a major studio production. Based on Parks’s novel of the same title, it tracks the coming of age of his adolescent surrogate, Newt Winger, in a rural 1920s Kansas that is by turns paradisiacal and terrifying. Filled with lilting visual beauty and spiked with instances of abrupt barbarism — a white sheriff shoots two black men in the back and faces no consequences — the film paints a bittersweet, richly textured and plangent picture of a young man whose life is irrevocably defined if never circumscribed by the color line. — Manohla Dargis


#16 Cotton Comes to Harlem Directed by Ossie Davis, 1970

If Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweetback” gave Blaxploitation its revolutionary swagger, this movie, adapted from a novel by Chester Himes, supplied its literary and Hollywood pedigree. Lovingly shot on the streets of Harlem, Davis’s film combines glimpses of daily life with elements of high satire and outright surrealism, all of it swirled into a detective story involving jaded cops, small-time crooks and wildly dishonest community leaders. The volatile, often contradictory politics that would galvanize later films like “Shaft,” “Dolemite” and “Trouble Man” — their critiques of white power and some prominent forms of black resistance — are especially pointed here. The images are semiotic Molotov cocktails tossed into the free-fire zones of America’s racial unconscious. — A.O. Scott


#17 I Am Somebody Directed by Madeline Anderson, 1970

The subject of this galvanizing 30-minute documentary is a 1969 strike by hundreds of primarily female workers against a hospital in Charleston, S.C. Subjected to discriminatory practices, insults and lower pay than that earned by their white counterparts, these workers sought to unionize, but their campaign was met with police violence and mass arrests. (“The ghost of Martin Luther King marches the picket lines outside two hospitals in Charleston, S.C.,” The New York Times announced in an editorial.) With tangible intimacy and political sweep, Ms. Anderson — who produced, directed and edited “I Am Somebody” — lets the striking women speak for themselves, a choice that puts their fight for self-determination into stirring cinematic terms. Both Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King (wearing a paper union cap) appear onscreen, but this movie is for the workers. (As of Feb. 20 available on Amazon Video and DVD from Icarus Films.) — Manohla Dargis


#18 Ganja & Hess Directed by Bill Gunn, 1973

An actor, playwright and filmmaker, Bill Gunn, who died at 54 in 1989, was a fixture of the New York black independent film movement of the 1970s and ’80s. The second of three features he directed, reverently remade by Spike Lee (as “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” in 2014), is about vampires, but it’s less a horror film than a sensual, scholarly, magic-realist exploration of black history and black desire. — A.O. Scott


#19 Killer of Sheep Directed by Charles Burnett, 1977

One of the essential films of American cinema, “Killer of Sheep” sings a song of love, family, brutalizing despair and ineffable, persistent human dignity. Set in Watts, a part of Los Angeles rarely seen in mainstream movies, it centers on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a father and slaughterhouse worker whose existential burden weighs heavily on his family as well as his every word and gesture. Mr. Burnett is often associated with the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black Los Angeles filmmakers working outside the white vanguard of independent cinema. That’s one reason that it took critics and audiences so long to catch up to this masterpiece, which is as radical in its form and content as it is indelibly affecting. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films.) — Manohla Dargis


#20 Stir Crazy Directed by Sidney Poitier, 1980

For movie fans who came of age in the late 1970s, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were an unparalleled interracial buddy act. In this follow-up to “Silver Streak,” Skip (Wilder), a would-be playwright, and Harry (Pryor), a struggling actor, leave New York for sunnier climes and wind up incarcerated for a bank robbery they are far too sweet and inept to have committed. A steady crescendo of ridiculousness leads to — what else? — a prison rodeo. Mr. Poitier, who also directed three buddy comedies starring himself and Bill Cosby, shows a silly side behind the camera that he rarely indulged in front of it. — A.O. Scott



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