As important as it is to celebrate Black History Month, it can feel like a bit of a strange commemoration. As these movies show, Black history is at its core American history, and needs to be remembered as such. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it is not always a simple story with villains or heroes. The best movies to watch in commemoration of this month are ones that challenge your notions of how Black people have lived in America, and what their lives have meant.
There are far more movies you could watch than will ever fit on a single list, so we’ve tried to boil it down to a few essential titles. Thankfully, though, there are plenty of great movies past the 10 that are listed below.
A foundational text on the Black experience in America, Lorraine Hansbury’s widely acclaimed play was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier. The story follows a Black family in the 1950s as they deal with the fallout of a large insurance payment, and must decide whether to leave their rundown apartment on Chicago’s Southside for a primarily white neighborhood, or remain where they are. Poitier gives an urgent, lived-in performance as the film tackles the issues of racism and assimilation through the prism of a single family.
Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing is not strictly historical, but its sad, unmistakable relevance has endured for more than 30 years. The movie tells the story of one hot day in Brooklyn as tensions rise between the primarily Black residents of the street and the white owners of a pizza parlor that exists primarily to serve them. It’s a movie about anger and hurt, and it’s one that still feels like a primal scream today.
As one of the great filmmakers of all-time, it feels only fitting that Spike Lee should have two spots on this list. The second goes to Malcolm X, a sprawling epic that chronicles the life and ultimate death of the titular figure. Denzel Washington delivers what is almost undoubtedly a career-best performance, and he anchors a film that feels much more expansive than much of Lee’s work, but no less precise or urgent in spite of its extended runtime.