It’s the first Black History Month of the decade and for the entire month of February, remarkable black icons, historic figures and civil rights activists will be rightfully acknowledged and praised. Black History Month is a time to highlight the unique struggles, triumphs and history of the African American population. It is the perfect time to learn something new or pay attention to a story or an issue that you haven’t been exposed to. Below are my top five films that you should watch this month to help you celebrate and appreciate black stories.
“Jewel’s Catch One”
Dir. by C. Fitz (available on Netflix)
This documentary tells the story of the well-known Los Angeles nightclub, Catch One, and its owner, Jewel Thais-Williams. Thais-Williams tells the story of how she was able to open Catch One and turn it into one of the most notable nightclubs in Los Angeles. Thais-Williams and the community within Catch One serve as a pillar in both Black and LGBTQ+ communities. Catch One served as a haven during the AIDS crisis and was home to a lot of important aspects of black and LGBTQ+ culture such as drag culture, voguing and music. She managed to keep the club open for four decades, despite facing significant racism, homophobia and hate. Thais-Williams is a national example of how endurance, resilience and kindness are all that we need to be of service to others.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Dir. by Barry Jenkins (available on Hulu)
Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film follows the story of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) who is trying to clear her lover’s name (Stephan James) after he is wrongfully convicted of a crime. Based on a James Baldwin novel of the same name, the film manages to capture the hopelessness and pain that the family experiences as a result of a racist society and criminal justice system while still making way for the couple’s turbulent yet persistent love story. Jenkins paints this tragic story against beautiful scenery and emphasizes the value of love in the face of hardship.
“Paris is Burning”
Dir. by Jennie Livingston (available on Netflix)
“Paris is Burning” is a 1990 documentary about the ballroom and drag scene in New York City. Livingston chronicles the ins and outs of ballroom culture in NYC after seeing two young men voguing in Washington Heights. She attends her first ball –– to film it for a class assignment –– and she meets Venus Xtravaganza, the famous “Princess of Drag.” Livingston explores the world of drag and presents it as an expression of race, gender, one’s dreams, identity and sense of fashion. The black and Latino populations in the film are presented as a wide range of sexualities, identities and gender presentations, all of which culminate in the ballroom.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Dir. by Liz Garbus (available on Netflix)
This documentary chronicles the life of Nina Simone, American soul singer and civil rights activist. Garbus uses archival audio and film to recount the life, thoughts and achievements of Simone while also highlighting her struggle to navigate life in America as a black woman. The film includes fond memories from her friends, ex-husband and daughter. The documentary is narrated by Simone’s own words, which adds another layer of authenticity to the film. We get the opportunity to see Simone through her own eyes and words, with several of her hit songs serving as the documentary’s soundtrack.
“For Colored Girls”
Dir. by Tyler Perry (available on Hulu)
This Tyler Perry film is originally adapted from Ntozake Shange’s 1975 original choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” It follows the story of a group of black women –– most of whom live in a Harlem apartment –– and tackles difficult issues such as sexual assault and domestic violence head-on.
The film uses poetry from the original work and tells the unique stories of women who have had to endure the world as black women –– and how they gain strength by sticking together.