In honor of Black History Month, AFI is highlighting a list of select films to celebrate Black storytelling, from timeless classics to unforgettable contemporary films that have influenced our culture. The incredible motion pictures below have been named to our AFI lists, honored with AFI AWARDS, screened at AFI Festivals and selected for AFI Movie Club.
Black History Month Movie Guide
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, centers on a free man – played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film was honored with a 2013 AFI AWARD – recognizing it as one of the year’s outstanding achievements in the art of the moving image. Watch an exclusive AFI Archive video of director Steve McQueen and learn more about 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
The remarkable true story of “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith was brought to the screen by Academy Award® nominee Queen Latifah and Academy Award® nominee Dee Rees. BESSIE (2015) earned 12 Primetime Emmy® nominations, including one for Queen Latifah for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie. The film also won an Emmy® for Outstanding Television Movie, along with wins in Outstanding Cinematography, Music Composition and Sound Mixing. Learn more about the AFI Movie Club selection BESSIE.
Honored with a 2018 AFI AWARD, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), adapted from Ron Stallworth’s true story about his undercover investigation into the Ku Klux Klan as a Black detective in the 1970s, was directed by Academy Award® winner – and AFI Honorary Degree recipient – Spike Lee. In 2020, AFI Movie Club hosted a conversation with film critic Shawn Edwards and Ron Stallworth, the author and real-life inspiration for the film. Watch the full conversation along with an exclusive AFI “Behind the Scene” featurette with film’s acclaimed composer Terence Blanchard.
A riveting rendition of “Carmen,” CARMEN JONES (1954) stars Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, who earned an Academy Award® nomination for her performance as the title character, making her the first African American woman to be nominated for a leading role. In 1992, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Watch Anika Noni Rose announce the film for AFI Movie Club. Learn more about CARMEN JONES in the AFI Catalog.
THE COLOR PURPLE
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985), based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ranks #51 on AFI’s list of the most inspiring films in American history and was Nominated for 11 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture. The film marks the feature debut of Oprah Winfrey and a breakthrough performance for Whoopi Goldberg. Watch Kerry Washington introduce the film for AFI Movie Club, where she explains how the film connected her family and brought them together. Learn more about THE COLOR PURPLE in the AFI Catalog.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Originally conceived as a “short, silent film” about an African American family from the Carolina Sea Islands, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991) was written, directed and produced by AFI Alum Julie Dash (Class of 1974) – who soon realized there was too much material for just a short film, so she combined her research with personal family stories and West African ritual traditions to expand the narrative into a feature. With the release of the film, Dash became the first African American woman director to receive a nationwide distribution deal. In 2020, AFI interviewed Dash about her trailblazing career. Learn more about DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST in the AFI Archive.
Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot, DETROIT (2017) captures the story of a police raid in 1967 that results in one of the largest citizen uprisings in U.S. history. The film won Outstanding Independent Motion Picture from the NAACP and stars John Boyega, Algee Smith and Anthony Mackie among an ensemble cast, who won Best Ensemble from the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA). Learn more about DETROIT in the AFI Catalog.
DO THE RIGHT THING
Appearing on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of all time, DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) explores racial tensions exacerbated by the summer heat in a New York neighborhood. An imperative work from iconic director and 2011 AFI Honorary Degree recipient Spike Lee, the film features Public Enemy’s powerful call to action – “Fight the Power” – which was since ranked #40 on AFI’s list of the greatest movie songs of all time. In 2020, Spike Lee joined AFI Movie Club for an exclusive, live conversation moderated by W. Kamau Bell to discuss the iconic film. Watch the full conversation, along with exclusive “AFI Behind the Scene” videos with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and production designer Wynn Thomas.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons made her feature directorial debut with EVE’S BAYOU (1997) – working with cinematographer and AFI Alum Amy Vincent (AFI Class of 1991). This stunning drama, inspired by Lemmons’ memories of her childhood trips to Louisiana, stars Samuel L. Jackson, Diahann Carroll, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield and Jurnee Smollett in a breakout role. In addition to winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and the film receiving seven NAACP Image Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, Lemmons also received an Outstanding Directorial Debut award from the National Board of Review. Watch Kasi Lemmons talk with AFI Fellows about creating the distinctive look of the film.
Produced and directed by AFI Life Achievement Award recipient Denzel Washington, FENCES (2016) stars Washington and Viola Davis, who went on to win an Academy Award® for her performance. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, and August Wilson, who adapted his 1985 Tony Award®, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, received a posthumous Oscar® nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. AFI honored the film with a 2016 AFI AWARD, noting that “Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’ thundering performances infuse lightning into the words of August Wilson’s iconic stage play, sparking emotion to leap from the screen and live in the heart.” Learn more about FENCES.
Both a psychological thriller and a deft social satire on racism in America, writer/director Jordan Peele’s GET OUT (2017) was honored with a 2017 AFI AWARD and earned four Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture, and Jordan won a historic Best Original Screenplay Oscar®. Watch the full AFI Movie Club conversation about GET OUT with film critic Shawn Edwards, as well as an exclusive AFI “Behind the Scene” featurette with GET OUT producers Sean McKittrick and co-producer Beatriz Sequeira (AFI Class of 2003).
GLORY (1989), the powerful tale of the Union Army’s first African American regiment in the Civil War, stars two AFI Life Achievement Award recipients – Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Washington received an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. The film also won Academy Awards® for Best Cinematography and Sound. Learn more about GLORY in the AFI Catalog.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (2016) explores the history of racism and white supremacy in America through the writings of acclaimed novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and activist James Baldwin – including personal observances and remembrances of civil rights advocates Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film was presented at AFI FEST in 2016, as well as at the AFI Conservatory where Peck shared his experience directing the powerful documentary with the next generation of AFI storytellers. Read AFI’s interview with Peck for AFI FEST 2016 and learn more about I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Academy Award®-winning MOONLIGHT, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018) is a lyrical and moving adaptation of author James Baldwin’s 1974 novel – and a masterpiece unto itself, earning a 2018 AFI AWARD as one of the 10 outstanding films deemed culturally and artistically representative of the year’s most significant achievements in the art of the moving image, with AFI’s official rationale stating, “Stand-out performances by KiKi Layne and Stephan James transcend the film’s time period and demand attention be paid today, with Regina King’s fiercely sympathetic embodiment of family and community reminding audiences ‘to trust love all the way.’” Learn more about IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK.
IS THAT BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU?!?
From celebrated writer and film historian Elvis Mitchell in his directorial debut, IS THAT BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU?!? (2022) is both a documentary and deeply personal essay. The film examines the craft and power of cinema from a perspective often overlooked: the African American contribution to films released from the landmark era of the ‘70s. Crucial artistic voices, including director Charles Burnett, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Zendaya and others, offer their distinctive prism on the creators and films that dazzled and inspired. Watch Elvis Mitchell’s introduction to the film for AFI FEST 2022.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Honored with a 2020 AFI AWARD, the official rational stated, “Towering performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal drive the collision of unending horror.” The film went on to earn five Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture, with the film winning Best Original Song (“Fight for You”) and Kaluuya winning for Best Actor. Watch director, co-writer and producer Shaka King talk about the film with AFI Fellows and go “Behind the Scene” in this exclusive AFI Movie Club video. Learn more about JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021).
THE KILLING FLOOR
THE KILLING FLOOR (1984) – based on true events – explores the labor movement after World War II and an African American migrant’s struggle to build an interracial union in the Chicago Stockyards. In 1985, the film won the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize for Dramatic film. AFI Alum and director Bill Duke (AFI Class of 1978) took AFI “Behind the Scene” of the historical film in this exclusive video. Learn more about THE KILLING FLOOR.
Honored with a 2021 AFI AWARD, KING RICHARD (2021), directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is based on the remarkable true story of a family whose unwavering resolve and unconditional belief ultimately delivers two of the world’s greatest sports legends. The film stars Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. Watch the cast and crew of KING RICHARD talk about the film at the 2021 AFI AWARDS event.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES
Nominated for five Academy Awards®, LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) is an unflinching look at the life of legendary singer Billie Holiday. The film stars Diana Ross in her feature film debut, and her performance earned her critical acclaim and an Oscar® nomination for Best Leading Actress. The soundtrack was Motown’s fastest seller to that date and the album reached number one on the U.S. pop album charts. From the AFI Archive, listen to co-star and AFI Trustee Emeritus Billy Dee Williams talk about the film and Diana Ross. Learn more about LADY SINGS THE BLUES in the AFI Catalog.
LEAN ON ME
Based on the true story of retired Army drill sergeant Joe Clark and his distinctive disciplinary style while in his role as a principal of a New Jersey high school, LEAN ON ME (1989) stars AFI Life Achievement honoree and Academy Award® winner Morgan Freeman. In preparation for the role, Freeman shadowed Clark for several weeks at Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ, where the film was also shot. Though a number of liberties were taken in the film’s depiction of actual events, Clark said that the film was “95% accurate.” Learn more about LEAN ON ME in the AFI Catalog.
THE LEARNING TREE
THE LEARNING TREE (1969) marked the feature directorial debut of celebrated author, photographer, composer and poet Gordon Parks who broke barriers as the first African American filmmaker to direct a major motion picture from a Hollywood studio. The film, based on his own semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas, became one of the first 25 films selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ newly founded National Film Registry. From AFI’s Robert Osborne Collection, watch TCM host Osborne’s introduction to the film. Learn more about THE LEARNING TREE in the AFI Catalog and discover where to stream the film here.
LOVE & BASKETBALL
Starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, the groundbreaking sports drama LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000) marked the feature directorial debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood. Prince-Bythewood, who also wrote the film, spoke with AFI Fellows at the Conservatory about making the film and how the love story was central to the success of the movie. This past year, Prince-Bythewood also received critical acclaim for her most recent film, THE WOMAN KING, an AFI AWARD honoree. Learn more about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s films, including LOVE & BASKETBALL, in the AFI Catalog.
LOVING (2016) stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the couple at the center of Loving v. Virginia – a landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage are unconstitutional. To celebrate the film, AFI Movie Club hosted a special conversation with LOVING star Ruth Negga, who earned a Best Actress Oscar® nomination for her performance, and film critic Shawn Edwards, and AFI also created a “Behind the Scene” featurette with writer/director Jeff Nichols about one of his favorite scenes in the movie. Watch these exclusive AFI videos and learn more about LOVING.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Directed by acclaimed playwright and Tony Award®-winning director George C. Wolfe and based on the play by August Wilson, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020) stars Viola Davis as the influential blues singer Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as the band’s talented but troubled trumpeter. The film was honored with a 2020 AFI AWARD, with the American Film Institute noting, “As the ‘Mother of the Blues,’ Viola Davis etches her name in granite as a true national treasure, and this film stands apart as a must-feel experience to know the power and poetry of Chadwick Boseman.” Watch an in-depth exclusive conversation with the film’s director and learn more about MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.
MOONLIGHT, a poetic tour de force, was one of the 2016 AFI AWARD honorees and “illuminates the peerless power of cinema to inspire empathy for others and embrace a greater understanding of ourselves.” Based on an unpublished play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” and written and directed by Academy Award® winner Barry Jenkins, the film received eight Academy Award® nominations and won for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Watch Barry Jenkins talk about the swimming scene during a seminar at the AFI Conservatory.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI…
Directed by Regina King and written by Kemp Powers, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… (2020) stars Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr., with music by Terence Blanchard. Recognized with an AFI AWARD in 2020 as one of the most outstanding achievements in the art of the moving image, the official rationale states: “ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI…is a knockout. This powerfully imagined gathering of giants – Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown – announces the arrival of Regina King as a singular voice behind the camera.” In this exclusive AFI video, go “Behind the Scene” with the stars of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… as they discuss the filming the rooftop scene.
PARIAH (2011), the feature directorial debut of Academy Award® nominee writer and director Dee Rees, chronicles a young Black woman discovering her sexuality and asserting her identity as she deals with the pressures of her family and society’s expectations for her life. Rees collaborated with editor and AFI DWW Alum Mako Kamitsuna (DWW Class of 2011), and the pair spoke to AFI Conservatory Fellows about their experience working on the landmark film. Learn more about PARIAH and watch AFI’s exclusive conversation with the filmmakers.
An imperative work of both history and cinema directed by Ava DuVernay, SELMA (2014) was recognized with a 2014 AFI AWARD, naming it among the most outstanding motion pictures of year. According to the official rationale, “SELMA dreams of a day when America lives by the rule of its writings — that all men and women are created equal. Ava DuVernay leads this march into history with an inspired vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — whose spirit is embodied by David Oyelowo in a transcendent performance.” Watch star David Oyelowo in an exclusive AFI “Behind the Scene” conversation about SELMA.
Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the most inspirational films of all time, SOUNDER (1972) features tender and heartbreaking – and Oscar®-nominated – performances from Paul Winfield and AFI DWW Alum and AFI Honorary Degree recipient Cicely Tyson. The film was selected for AFI Movie Club and featured an exclusive introduction from Don Cheadle. Learn more about SOUNDER and its historic accolades in the AFI Catalog.
SUMMER OF SOUL (. . .OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)
The documentary SUMMER OF SOUL (. . .OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED) (2021) was honored with a Special AFI AWARD in the year of its release. The official rationale highlighted the director’s visionary approach, “Transporting audiences back to the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, with footage previously thought lost to history, Questlove turns back time and welcomes all into the embrace of a joyful, life-affirming event. This sublime and urgently necessary documentary blends music, memory, culture, community and, ultimately, the vibrant amplification of Black voices…” Learn more about SUMMER OF SOUL.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN
Directed, written by and starring Cheryl Dunye, THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996) follows aspiring filmmaker and video store clerk Cheryl, self-referentially portrayed by Dunye, who embarks on a documentary project tracing the unwritten history of an unidentified Black actress spotted in a number of films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. For AFI FEST 2020’s Cinema’s Legacy program, AFI invited film scholar Dr. Racquel Gates to curate a collection of four films that reframes the notion of “classic” through a Black perspective. The program asks viewers to rethink the relationship between blackness and broader cinematic concepts, treating the very idea of “Cinema’s Legacy” as an open-ended question rather than a self-evident statement. Watch Dr. Gates talk about THE WATERMELON WOMAN
WITHIN OUR GATES
From pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, WITHIN OUR GATES (1920) is considered to be the oldest surviving feature film made by a Black director. In 1992, WITHIN OUR GATES was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. According to the AFI Catalog, the archived print contains a title card stating that the film was preserved using a single surviving print found in Spain, and the original English intertitles remain lost, except in four cases where brief frames of the English titles were inadvertently left when the Spanish version was created. Learn more about the history of WITHIN OUR GATES at the AFI Catalog.
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I would add Imitation of Life to the list.
What about Mudbound and Fruitvale Station, shot by our own Rachel Morrison?