I could not let Black History Month go by without honoring the five Black stories or works by Black filmmakers that have significantly influenced me as a person and as a film lover. As a young Black girl coming of age in the South during the ’90s, there was one thing that really made me stand out from the other girls my age — my love and obsession with Classic Hollywood and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Growing up, I loved to get lost in the world on the screen and swept up in the glamour of the Hollywood starlets, the rawness of Pre-Code era films, and the hilarity of a screwball comedy.
However, even as a young girl, there was one thing that sorely stood out for me — the lack of Black stories (or at least those that weren’t filled with racist stereotypes and caricatures) and Black actors on the screen (and I don’t mean us playing the bumbling/wisecracking help). Sure TCM would spotlight Black films during February or maybe every now and again when Sidney Poitier or Lena Horne was the “Star of the Month,” but that was never enough. Even back then, I wanted to see our “real” story/life on the screen (not just the story of suffering and slavery). We live real lives just like everyone else — we have high and lows, drama and laughs, the same universal elements of life — and I wanted to see that portrayed. So we had to seek it out.
Imitation of Life
One of the first Black stories that stood out to me was Imitation of Life. While the Black story is couched inside the story about an aspiring white actress (played by Lana Turner) who takes in an African-American widow (to help her raise her daughter nonetheless) who has a mixed-race daughter who is desperate to be seen as white. My mother absolutely loved this movie (the 1959 version), and I remember her sitting down with her two young girls to watch this film on more than one occasion, and afterward, we would talk about how the film made us feel.
Even though I’m more of a fan of the 1934 version starring the great Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, who was a familiar Black face from various “the help” roles in other movies of the time, and Fredi Washington, the pioneering African-American actress, and activist who herself had fair skin and green eyes (the later version of the film used an actress who was of Mexican and Jewish descent for the role). We had conversations about colorism in the Black community and “passing” and “code-switching” (even though that’s not what we called it then).
At its core, the film is about family, identity, and race and is an evergreen story that is still relatable today. I think what my mom really wanted to do, was drive home the notion that we should always be proud of our heritage and background — even though at times it may be a difficult journey — and the fact that a mother’s love is unconditional. I will never forget those moments spent with my mother and sister, and this film will forever have a place in my heart, even though it’s not perfect — but I think the sign of a good film is that it leaves a lasting impression.
Next up is 1974’s Claudine. This is a real black love story of its time — and timeless. The iconic Diahann Carroll (who I had first been exposed to in 1961’s Paris Blues, which I also love) plays a single mother of six on welfare who falls for garbage man James Earl Jones in 1970s Harlem. This film was a slice of life — it was raw, honest, sincere, heartfelt, and funny. Carroll commanded the screen (and her performance got her an Oscar nomination that year), and it was cool seeing a young James Earl Jones. Their chemistry was undeniable, and the actors who played the kids made this film authentic — I felt like I knew this family or had family members just like them.
It felt good to be able to see people like us represented on the screen in all our glory — good and bad — because that’s life. At the end of the day, this is a movie about family — regardless of race — and it’s universal. And it just felt damn good to see positive Black family depictions and a strong Black mother, Black joy, and the normalization of Black love on the screen — and they stood up to “the Man” at the same time. Claudine is flawless — if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor!
The Color Purple
Another film that will forever hold a place in my heart is 1985’s The Color Purple. I must have seen this film at least 20 times! Growing up, my sister and I would always hang out at my mother’s hair salon after school, where they had a list of Black movies on repeat (The Color Purple, The Five Heartbeats, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, What’s Love Got To Do With It, and Crooklyn — which will be making an appearance later on). This was Black excellence on the screen, as kids, we were being educated on our past and present, but in an entertaining way.
These films helped build a sense of community in the shop — they sparked debates and discussion — tears and laughter. But The Color Purple was like nothing else to me. Based on the novel by the incomparable Alice Walker and directed by the genius that is Steven Spielberg, this film meant so much to me. Even though the film was helmed by a white man, the all-star Black cast was a veritable who’s who of Black Hollywood (then and in years to come) — Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Laurence Fishburne, Hawthorne James, and Margaret Avery — this film was spellbinding.
Spielberg directed the film with such respect for the story. And the acting — man, don’t get me started. And to see a Black woman really leading a film of this stature — this film goes down as one of the best films of all time. It’s a film about a Black Southern woman’s journey struggling to find her identity after suffering abuse from the men in her life for decades. It’s a story of trauma and legacy, perseverance, tenacity, friendship, and finding oneself. It’s a story of Black femininity that doesn’t conform to white European standards. It’s a very personal story with such a universal appeal and impact. And on top of that, it’s damn beautiful — this film is visually stunning.
Daughters of the Dust
1991’s Daughters of the Dust blew my mind — and not just for what was portrayed on the screen, but for what happened behind the screen. A film written and directed by a Black woman (Julie Dash) — this was life-changing for me! Affirmation that we belonged in this industry… was just as good as anybody else in this industry, and our stories deserved and needed to be told. Growing up in South Carolina, this hit close to home. I was familiar with vaguely familiar with the Gullah culture (the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia) and was told stories of our distant relatives down Charleston way that were Geechie, but never before had I seen them on the big screen (it would be another 3 years before Nick Jr.’s Gullah Gullah Island would air).
This was amazing — it was real, tangible history with an immediate connection to me personally brought to life. It was like a glimpse into another world — the filmmaking of Dash and cinematography of Arthur Jafa transported you to another time and place. And it was visually breathtaking. This was Black excellence at its finest and showed that we deserved to be in the same conversations as other (white male) auteurs. It is a shame that this film is not known and seen by more people — it is truly a work of art on every level.
And last but not least, is 1994’s Crooklyn by the one-and-only Spike Lee. Another one of the films that were played on repeat in my mother’s salon, Crooklyn will forever hold a special place in my heart and be one of those films that my younger sister and I really bonded over and connected with. It’s one of those films that helps you to appreciate the art of filmmaking at a young age. This film is a vibrant portrait of a school teacher and her jazz musician husband and their five kids living in Brooklyn in 1973.
The film is loosely based on the lives of Spike Lee and his siblings. Crooklyn was personal and comical, yet it still touched on social issues (as all of Lee’s films do) in a way that relatable and understandable for a young kid. It’s a coming-of-age story with a young Black girl at its center. We saw ourselves on the screen — her struggles with her natural hair, her interactions with her siblings, and the broader issues of conforming to European beauty standards, classism, and the plight of the urban family in the 1970s (and still today). This film said so much and had some great performances from Alfre Woodward, Delroy Lindo, and Zelda Harris, among others. Truly one of Spike Lee’s more underrated films (might actually be my favorite of his), but still worth the designation of being a “classic!”
These are the five films by Black filmmakers or that are about the Black experience that has had a lasting effect on me — whether it allowed me to see myself or served as a way of better connecting with my family and history, these films will forever live in my mind and heart. They allowed me to see positive portrayals of Black families and Black love, as well as showing me that Black women could do anything. They taught me to love myself and be comfortable in my own skin. They taught me that the Black experience is not one thing — it’s personal yet universal. And it is for this, I am forever grateful for these films and these filmmakers and the stories they told.