12 Overlooked Films to Watch During Black History Month


We’re a little over a week into Black History Month. It’s a month that honors the heritage and history of Black Americans, and since we talk a lot about movies on this website, let’s honor the great works of Black culture in cinema that deserve a little more attention. There are go-to films that line up perfectly with the message of Black History Month. However, it is time to dig a little deeper. We can’t study race in America with superficial messages in our movies that tackle the subject. It’s important to further explore and share stories that may not win countless Oscars and high praise from critics.

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There’s more out there to see, more knowledge to learn and share, and as the saying goes, Black history is American history. Whether it is documentaries, biopics, or slice-of-life movies, it is important for everyone, no matter the color of their skin, to seek out these films and spread the word. Show them some love this time of year and any time of year. Here are the underrated films you should be watching during Black History Month.

12 Loving (2016)

Loving is the true account of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga). An interracial couple who were married in Virginia in 1958 and eventually arrested for it. The case against them or for them (however you want to look at it) ends up becoming one of the biggest civil rights cases in American history. All because they were two people who found one another and fell in love.

Historical Melodrama

Jeff Nichols is known for making great melodramas, and this is no different. Richard and Mildred spend nine years fighting for their rights to be a happily married interracial couple who want to raise their family in the town they grew up in. It does have depictions of the racist South of the era. Yet, Nichols does a great job of focusing on the story of the bond between Richard and Mildred and how they can overcome the hardships of just being themselves.

Rent on Prime Video

11 Cooley High (1975)

Released in 1975, Cooley High is about two friends who are both in pursuit of what they want out of life after they get out of high school. However, in the setting of 1960s Chicago, they learn it may not be as easy as they thought it would be to make their dreams come true.

1970s ‘Hangout’ Classic

The 1970s are loaded with what you would call ‘hangout’ films or ‘slice of life’ films. Most of the movies that you would categorize in this subgenre are targeted at a white audience. Cooley High was one of the first to honestly give you a view of life in 1960s Chicago, set near the Cabrini-Green projects. The film follows Preach and Cochise, two young men on different career paths, but the film tracks their development towards those goals. Cooley High has some highs and lows for its two main characters, as it is a comical and yet accurate observation of being a young Black man in America at the time.

Stream on Tubi

10 Is That Black Enough For You?!? (2022)

In 2022, Netflix released the documentary Is That Black Enough For You?!? Film critic Elvis Mitchell directed the movie, which examines the boom of Black-led films throughout the 1970s. From the era of Blaxploitation movies to beautifully made art-house cinema led by Black actors. The history of Black Americans in films is all there for us to see and learn about.

The Definitive Documentary of the Landmark Era

There are going to be a few documentaries on this list, so buckle up. Any film historian, Black or white, would want to seek this out. For two plus hours, it studies the origin of Black American-led films and the filmmakers behind them, all the way through the 1970s to contemporary films. Is That Black Enough For You?!? does not miss a beat in the information it provides and loads itself up with countless interviews chock-full of cultural information. It’s highly underseen; don’t let it fall into the abyss of Netflix’s content algorithm.

Stream on Netflix

Related: 10 Underrated Black Coming-of-Age Movies

9 Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Robert Townsend wrote, directed, and stars in Hollywood Shuffle, a satire about a hot dog stand employee who aspires to be an actor. In his pursuit to achieve that dream, he goes through a funny but frustrating journey for any Black actor to get a role in a film, as he takes on just about any stereotypical roles for black men in Hollywood at the time.

One of the Greatest Satires of All Time

Hollywood Shuffle was shot for 100,000 dollars, and it has gone on to become an iconic comedy in pop culture that puts a mirror up to society as it satirizes the Black experience in Hollywood. By the time the credits roll, you wonder if, despite the inclusive and diverse push in showbiz these days, have we really gotten any further in terms of race in America? Robert Townsend is a gifted artist who makes you laugh with him, not at him. Keep your eyes open when watching, as this is an early role for Kennen Ivory Wayans and his younger brother Damon Wayans in it.

Stream on Roku

8 Losing Ground (1982)

Losing Ground follows Seret Scott as Sara, a college professor whose marriage is on the rocks with her eccentric, insensitive painter husband. As the two begin to see their relationship crumbling, they’re forced to look at one another in another light.

Losing Ground is Ahead of its Time

For 1982, Losing Ground feels like an A24 drama from the 2020s. It’s ahead of its time, and a lot of filmmakers these days owe a bit of gratitude to Kathleen Collins. There are not many films of this era, either indie or major releases, that take a look at two Black adults in a relationship with one another and the issues that can arise. It’s one of the first films ever directed by a Black woman.

This character study of sorts has some humor to it, which includes Sara yelling at her husband and how he likes to use his penis as a paintbrush. A few fun facts: Kathleen Collins never got a distribution deal for the film; her daughter ended up selling the original negative after her death to a distributor, and for you horror fans out there, Losing Ground has Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in this film in the role of ‘Duke.’

Stream on The Criterion Channel

7 School Daze (1988)

Spike Lee’s sophomore film is about a historically black college that deals with race and social structure on campus. School Daze stars Laurence Fishburne as Dap, a student eager to get into social activism and politics who one day hopes to unite the student body as one. The flip side to all of this is Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), a leader of a fraternity who focuses more on keeping a strict social order on campus. Conflict is bound to arise.

Spike Lee’s Overlooked Masterpiece

School Daze came out in between Spike Lee’s debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and a movie that some argue is the best depiction of racial tension in America, his third movie, Do the Right Thing. School Daze is a perfect satire that has a setting we don’t see more of these days, but by 1988’s standards, there weren’t a lot of films about college life for young Black men and women. Spike Lee’s comedy-drama dives deep into themes of colorism, female self-esteem, and social mobility, all within the Black community. We overlook this film a lot because of the career Spike Lee would have after its release.

Stream on Pluto

6 Medicine for the Melancholy (2008)

Medicine for the Melancholy follows Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins who play Micha and Jo’, a Black man and woman who meet at a party and connect on a deep level. They have a one-night stand, but afterward they soon realize that they have differing views on the world, which conflicts with their quick but meaningful connection. Do they go their separate ways or seek through their differences?

Barry Jenkins’ Early Directorial Effort

Barry Jenkins would go on to direct Best Picture winner Moonlight less than a decade later, but in early 2008, his low-budget drama would premiere at South by Southwest and be met with massive praise. The film was shot on digital video and made for $15,000 on a fifteen-day shooting schedule. Jenkins story of love in San Francisco showed his strong but sensitive directorial voice years before we really got to know him. The city of San Francisco often feels like a character in it, as it studies two people who find one another and connect in a city not known for its diversity.

Stream on Tubi

5 The Last Black Man in San Franciso (2019)

To keep it going with San Francisco-based films, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about two friends, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors), who reclaim the house built by Jimmie’s grandfather. This event in their lives takes them on a journey only to test them on what the idea of ‘home’ really is to both of them.

Gentrification

From the trailer alone, The Last Black Man in San Francisco looks poignant and personal. Some of the cinematography looks like it came out of a painting, but for anyone who knows the Bay Arena in California, they know the messages being conveyed in the story. It’s the tale of the many Black people who built the area and started homes for themselves nearly half a century ago and are now being forced out due to the inflation of real estate prices. There is a sad theme woven throughout the movie of losing your identity and your home in not just a physical sense but a deep, existential sense.

Stream on Netflix

4 The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

The Brother From Another Planet is a John Sayles-directed cult classic about an escaped alien slave on the run from his home planet who lands on Earth, specifically in Harlem. There, The Brother makes friends, gets a job, and moves up in the world. However, two agents from his home planet are now on Earth looking for him.

A Cult Classic if There Ever Was One

Like many genre films of the era, if you’re really paying attention to them, there are some strong themes seeping through the low-budget nature of the film. The Brother From Another Planet has strong messages about immigration, refugee crises, community, and race in America. Everything that happens to The Brother that is new to him when he is on earth is a mirror being put up to American society.

It also must be mentioned that there was not too much Black representation in the science fiction genre prior to this little indie. You can stream the film on multiple platforms these days, but The Brother From Another Planet is currently in the public domain now.

Stream on Tubi

3 Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Sorry to Bother You has become one of the biggest cult films of the last decade. Starring LaKeith Stanfield and taking place in an alternate reality in Oakland, California, Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a telemarketer who gets promised corporate glory, all the while his friends begin to protest corporate greed. Thus, there is an internal conflict in Green as he goes on to discover some pretty wild things going on behind the scenes at his job.

A Bold New Voice

Like the trailer states, director Boots Riley is a bold new voice in cinema. Sorry to Bother You is about themes that are always intertwined. Underlying topics like labor, capitalism, race, and societal hierarchy are coated all over every scene of the film. The commentary on current American norms is spot on, and just when you think you have this film figured out, the third act takes an absolutely bonkers turn that you don’t see coming.

Stream on Roku

Related: 12 Best Movies About Capitalism

2 Summer of Soul (2021)

Summer of Soul

Summer of Soul

Documentary about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which celebrated African-American music and culture and promoted Black pride and unity.

Release Date
July 2, 2021

Director
Questlove

Cast
Dorinda Drake , Barbara Bland-Acosta , Darryl Lewis

Runtime
1hr 58min

Summer of Soul is a documentary that tells the story of the six-week period during the summer of 1969 where thousands of people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was there that Black culture, music, and fashion were all celebrated. The documentary gives you a front-row seat to performers like Stevie Wonders and Nina Simone, and footage of it has not been seen in over 50 years until this documentary was made.

Questlove’s Directorial Debut

Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson proves he is more than just an icon behind the drum set; his skills are honed as an artist even more as he makes his directorial debut with this film. The summer of ’69 had Woodstock at the forefront of news outlets, and the Harlem Cultural Festival never received the same amount of press, yet it lasted for almost half the summer at Marcus Garvey Park. It’s an extremely monumental moment in Black culture being captured on screen and is a must-watch during Black History Month.

Stream on Hulu

1 Killer of Sheep (1978)

Killer of Sheep is directed by Charles Burnett, and it takes place in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, a predominantly African American part of the city. The main focus of the film is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker whose depressing, macabre job starts to wear on him and his family as they struggle to stay afloat while living in poverty.

The Themes of Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep takes a good look at the black working man in America in a brutal, honest way. It is a painfully realistic look at a father torn between the brutality of his job and the weight of keeping a family afloat while living in poverty. It’s a gritty look at America in the 1970s, specifically the Watts neighborhood, a place that a decade earlier was at the center of attention for an uprising after an altercation between 21-year-old Marquette Frye and a California Highway patrol officer.

The film had a small release but ended up getting locked away for close to 30 years due to rights issues with the music in the film. More recently, film lovers have found it and got it out there for more people to see. Killer of Sheep may be the main character’s profession at a slaughterhouse, but it doubles as a metaphor for the role of many Black Americans under the grip of capitalism.

Stream on Kanopy



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