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AARP Bulletin

8 Must-See Movies for Black History Month

These films provide a window into the African American experience

Home of the brave war movie best of black history month

James Edwards, Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy in "Home of the Brave." — Courtesy Everett Collection

World War II: Home of the Brave (1949) 

"What happens after the Second World War is the movie audience has changed; they're less naive, less innocent, and we start to see movies that deal with problems within American society," Bogle says. One of those movies is Home of the Brave, which follows a black World War II soldier, played by James Edwards, who returns from a special mission suffering from severe psychological trauma. "Edwards' character ends up in a mental ward, where the Army puts him through a series of psychiatric sessions to find out what's wrong. They dig into who he is and what he's experienced in life and, in a flashback, we learn that he's had to deal with racism from the time he was young." Although the movie was released prior to the civil rights movement, "it suggests to us that in America black and white are going to have to come together, and it's on white America to now examine itself and be prepared for a new day."

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Jackie Robinson starred as himself in "The Jackie Robinson Story." — Courtesy Everett Collection

Integration: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) 

Bogle says this low-budget film, in which baseball great Jackie Robinson played himself, was made with an African American audience in mind. It follows him from the time he's a multisport star athlete at UCLA to his major league debut in 1947, when he broke baseball's color line. "The interesting thing is Robinson was not a trained actor. But in looking at it today, it's nice to see him on screen with a young Ruby Dee as his wife, Louise Beavers as his mother and Joel Fluellen as his older brother." Branch Rickey, the man responsible for bringing Robinson to the Dodgers, understood that Robinson had what it took to make it on the baseball diamond, "not only by stealing bases and hitting, but being able to deal with the crowds and their attitudes," Bogle says. (Editor's Note: An updated version of Robinson's story, starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, is due out in 2013. The title, 42, was the number on Robinson's uniform. To honor Robinson, no other baseball player can ever wear that number.)

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Denzel Washington as "Malcolm X." — Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Black nationalism: Malcolm X (1992) 

"Malcolm X was very much a labor of love for [filmmaker] Spike Lee," and it shows the forces that shaped the black nationalist leader, portrayed by Denzel Washington, and the forces that led to his destruction, Bogle says. "The movie goes into Malcolm's background — his childhood in Nebraska, where the Klan burned down his home, his years as a street hustler, his political awakening in prison — and then his ability to connect to the masses as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam."

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From left: Ice Cube, Tyra Ferrell, Morris Chestnut. — Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

The hip-hop age: Boyz N the Hood (1991)  

Filmmaker John Singleton’s debut feature, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, still works today, Bogle says. “It’s a coming-of-age story, set on the mean streets of Los Angeles, that focuses on a boy who’s sent to live with his father; the idea being that his father can instill in him certain principles that will lead him on to manhood,” he says. “So it’s really about the responsibility of black fathers as well as individuals within the African American community. … I’m surprised I’m still moved by it.”

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video extra

MAKING HISTORY: Roots is featured in a new PBS series on Pioneers of Television. It's also one of the shows we spotlight in our slideshow about America's favorite TV miniseries.

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