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Movies for Grownups

AARP Bulletin

8 Must-See Movies for Black History Month

These films provide a window into the African American experience

En español | It's Black History Month, so find a spot on the sofa, grab the DVD remote and settle in for a cinematic ride through African American history.

Learn more about Black History Month at our Black Community hub on the Web

The AARP Bulletin asked film historian Donald Bogle to share his list of eight movies that depict the African American experience at pivotal stages in our nation's past. In addition to teaching film at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, Bogle is the prize-winning author of several books, including Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography and Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. His latest is Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters.

Roots movies must see black history month

LeVar Burton in "Roots." — Everett Collection

Slavery: Roots (1977)

The slave drama took a lot of people by surprise when it first aired as a television miniseries based on the Alex Haley novel. "People were curious about it," Bogle says. "The other thing that was a great hook for it, in terms of bringing in viewers of all ages, was its young protagonist, Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton. The younger audience could identify with him." Other notable actors in the story that followed several generations of a black family during slavery are John Amos, Lou Gossett Jr., Madge Sinclair, Leslie Uggams and Ben Vereen. "You had these exceptional performances and all of America was watching."

Must see movies black history month glory civil war

A scene from "Glory." — Tristar Pictures/ Courtesy Everett Collection

Civil War: Glory (1989)

Glory is about a group of African American soldiers in the Civil War. "We look at these men from the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and we see that they are heroic," Bogle says. "We see they, too, are making sacrifices and that they want their country to be a united country, and also free of racism." You get a sense of who these men are. "We hear them talk about experiences they had before they volunteered, but none of it's dramatized," which unfortunately is missing from the film. Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher offer strong performances, and Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his role as the fugitive slave Trip. "His performance alone makes this movie worth seeing."

Underworld poster movie black history month

Poster from the movie "Underworld." — Everett Collection

The Great Migration: Underworld (1937)

"This gangster film, directed by Oscar Micheaux, is one of my guilty pleasures," Bogle says. "It is in many ways a mangled film; there are problems with the sound. But it's also very interesting." The film opens at a Negro college in the South, and the hero, a talented young man (played by Sol Johnson), goes north to Chicago to seek his fortune. But what he gets is a world of congestion, crime, violence and people with a whole other sort set of moral values and ethics. "The thing you notice about Micheaux is he always had noble black characters," Bogle says. "They are the ones who hold on to these higher standards. They're the ones you can see as our leaders of tomorrow."

Pinky movie black history month must see

Ethel Waters and Jeanne Crain in "Pinky." — 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jim Crow: Pinky (1949)

In this film, which shows how African Americans had to live and function under Jim Crow segregation laws, the title character is a light-skinned black woman who returns home to the South after having lived as a free woman in the North. Ethel Waters earned an Oscar nomination for playing her hard-working grandmother, a woman who has lived in the South, and understands and accepts its rules. "The movie is about Pinky dealing with the racial bigotry that existed in the South and also coming to a deeper consciousness of who she is as an African American woman," Bogle says. He points out that one of the compromises of the film, directed by Elia Kazan, is that Jeanne Crain, a white actress, portrayed Pinky. "It was a well-written character and a black actress would have brought something else, but nonetheless I think Pinky is a movie audiences can benefit from."

Next page: WWII, baseball, black nationalism and hip-hop. »

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