The history of Black radical cinema is full of powerful films that show the multi-faceted stories of Black struggle and resistance. As we commemorate Black August this month, here are 11 movies featuring Black excellence, Black radical traditions, and Black history to put on your watchlist.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s 1989 classic tells the story of one hot summer day in the Black neighborhood of Bed Stuy. Racial tensions are explored through characters’ reactions to gentrification, white-owned businesses making money off of the Black community, and police violence. In a long summer that has seen the streets filled with folks that are fed up with police violence and the government’s complicity in building systematic structures of violence against the Black community, this movie is more current than ever.
2. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Written by Boots Riley, a self-declared communist, this film focuses on the struggle of being both Black and working class. While struggling to make ends meet, Cash becomes a telemarketer that is forced to use his “white voice” to succeed. While his co-workers attempt to unionize, Cash instead sells out his comrades and joins the elite division in his company. The film is a surreal exploration of exploitation, taking many Marxist metaphors to extreme and uncomfortable realms. A modern dystopian nightmare of late capitalism and the lengths it’s willing to go.
3. The Great Debaters (2007)
Based on the true story of an all Black debate team in the 1930s that competed in the first interracial debate competition against Harvard… and won. Denzel Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a debate coach at the historically Black Wiley College. While the film was an accurate depiction of the debate team’s ascent, it also highlighted the organizing Tolson did outside of his job for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and with the Communist Party.
4. Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995)
An award-winning documentary, Black intellectuals such as Angela Davis, Cornel West, and bell hooks speak to the complex, multi-layered expressions of African American identity. Focusing on colorism, with feminist and queer themes, this film rejects the notion of Black identity as a monolith. Sadly, Director Marlon Riggs died of complications from AIDS before the film was completed.
5. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Made in 1966, this film highlights the guerrilla tactics of the rebels who resisted French rule in North Africa. In an increasingly connected global economy, it’s important to view all anti-imperialist and Black struggles across the globe as part of a movement towards complete Black liberation. Famously banned in France for its anti-colonial message, this film is a classic.
6. Daughters of the Dust (1991)
A classic Black feminist film by Julie Dash, it details a generation of the Gullah people of Saint Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. Disconnected geographically from their African heritage, the film highlights the way generations of women have lived in tension between their ancestral practices and the cultural conventions forced on them by the western colonizers. A beautiful film showing the importance of family, both chosen and blood, and the women holding them together.
7. What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nina Simone’s life is highlighted in this beautiful documentary focused on her ascension as a talented musician and the industry’s backlash against her radicalization during the civil rights movement. Simone was a singer and pianist of popular music, her career as a classical musician stalled by the racist barriers of the time. Once the civil rights movement swept the nation, Simone fully committed herself to highlighting Black struggle through her music and performances, beginning with her captivating and heart wrenching Mississippi Goddam. Watch it for the charismatic and haunting live performances by Simone.
8. Let The Fire Burn (2013)
This documentary highlights the tensions between the Philadelphia Police Department and the Black liberation group MOVE. The confrontation ended when the Police chose to bomb the houses of many MOVE organizers, killing leaders of the organization along with their children. During a political climate where “looters and rioters” are being taken to task for destruction of property, we are reminded through the story of MOVE that the Police are the real forces of destruction.
9. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)
This documentary views Black American struggle through the eyes of Swedish journalists and filmmakers. The found footage was put together into a film in 2011, mostly left untouched. In this film, Black American radicals, such as Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, speak with almost no commentary, letting these revolutionaries and their words take center stage. It’s a powerful film that centers Black militancy and its communist and anti-imperialist roots.
10. Proud Valley (1940)
In 1940, Paul Robeson starred in this film depicting Black solidarity with working class miners in Wales. Robeson’s portrayal of a Black sailor came out 10 years before he was blacklisted by McCarthyist policies for his socialist beliefs and activism in Black and labor struggles. In the original ending, the miners were able to gain total worker’s control of the mine; a radical ending that inevitably was dismissed by the studio. However, it stands as a rare film that centers Black and labor struggles together in solidarity.
11. Tangerine (2015)
In this slice-of-life film, the lives of Black Trans women are viewed without judgement, but instead empathy and humor. The film explores issues facing the Black Trans community such as the rights of sex workers, prison, drug use, and threats of violence with a casualness that allows this to play not as melodrama, but instead as day to day concerns to joke about with friends. It gets extra points for casting actual trans women as the main characters.