~From Michaela Hayes
Black Panther: Based on a comic book of the same name released in 1966, Black Panther has made a huge splash in pop culture the past few weeks. Though several other superheroes of African descent debued just a few years after Black Panther, it was America’s first in the area. The film has been a smash hit, both culturally and critically, boasting the 15th-largest opening weekend of all time. Black Panther is considered a political film by many. We love it even more because Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, wrote a Black Panther spin-off for Marvel in 2016, The World of Wakanda. Read more about Gay here.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back: Terry McMillan’s novels have been turned into some of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling African-American films of all time. One of the “lightest” titles on this list, How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a romantic comedy based off a best-selling novel of the same name by Terry McMillan. It tells the story of a successful early middle aged stock broker living in Manhattan who takes a trip to Jamaica with her friend and enters into a passionate romance with a man 20 years her younger.
The Color Purple: The Color Purple is a classic of both Black literature and film. The movie was produced in 1985 by none other than Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had already gained notoriety for his eight previous films, but this was the debut film for both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The themes of the film are similar to those of the book (thankfully) and mostly center around the issues that Black women in the 20th century faced, such as domestic violence, pedophilia, racism, and poverty.
Beloved: Beloved is another timeless classic as a novel, but as a film, it garnered mixed reviews. I once attended a book club which bashed on it for about ten minutes, but I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment. It debuted in 1998, also with Oprah Winfrey, as a horror-thriller film. The plot is just as creepy as the book– a civil rights era poltergeist haunting a former slave and her family.
Perhaps try reading the book first.
Lady Sings the Blues: Lady Sings the Blues is a 1972 biographical drama film about Billie Holiday, loosely adapted from her own autobiography. Diana Ross plays Holiday, with Billie Dee Williams and Richard Pryor in supporting roles. The film tells the story of Holiday’s tumultuous and traumatic life, following her through sexual abuse, prostitution, drug charges, horrific racism, and prison. Lady Sings the Blues was not a box-office hit but it tells a powerful story of a powerful woman.
Precious: The full name of Precious is Precious: Based on Nol by Sap (Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire), in reference to the 1996 novel Push which the film is based off of. The script was adapted by Geoffrey S. Fletcher and stars Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique, and Mariah Carey. The film came from humble beginnings, premiering at the several 2009 film festivals without a distributor. It began its quest through American movie theaters after reaching critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. The film follows a 16-year old girl, “Precious,” living in New York City with an abusive mother in the 80s. Precious is raped by her father, resulting in several pregnancies. The film is heart wrenching.
Native Son: Written in 1940 by Richard Wright, the novel Native Son is not to be confused with James Baldwin’s 1955 book Notes of a Native Son. Native Son is one of the more complicated movies on this list, in that the film itself did not reach the critical acclaim many of the others did, and Wright was actually sued twice over copyright issues. Nevertheless, the story has meaning. The film was made in 1986, but set in 30s-era Chicago. The plot centers on Bigger Thomas, a black man working for a wealthy white family, who accidentally kills a white woman in his neighborhood and then decides to flee for fear of unfair trial.
Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel of the same name is regarded as a classic in both African American literature and women’s literature, tackling essential themes such as gender roles, liberated womanhood, and race. However, the movie is not viewed in such high regard. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry, it made its debut in 2005 to mixed reviews from critics. It has been criticized as being marketed mainly to white females, despite the obvious place that it has in the Black community.
I Am Not Your Negro: I Am Not Your Negro is one of the newer films on this list, a documentary produced in 2016 by Raoul Peck. It is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House (1979) and focuses on the history of racism in the United States. The film, and manuscript for that matter, is particularly powerful because James Baldwin was alive throughout the Civil Rights Movement and friends with many of the leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The documentary received critical acclaim, and as if it couldn’t get any better, it is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Hidden Figures: Like Black Panther, Hidden Figures made quite the splash when it was released in 2016. It is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was released just months before the movie. The film follows three brilliant black mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. The film received positive reviews from critics and grossed $236 million worldwide. It was chosen by National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2016 and was nominated for numerous awards, including three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Spencer), and two Golden Globes (Best Supporting Actress for Spencer and Best Original Score). It also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.