Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the latest superhero movie to illustrate and expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has broken all kinds of box office records in the days since it opened – not least in eclipsing Iron Man 3 to enjoy the biggest solo superhero launch in the history of cinema.
While its box office success lines the film studio’s pockets, the movie’s cultural significance is of greater note. Mixed audiences are flooding to see – and celebrate – a picture with a mostly black ensemble cast in an intelligent but fun movie that belongs firmly at the heart of contemporary pop culture.
If the mirroring of the superhero’s name in the historic socialist revolutionary Black Panther Party is mere coincidence, the picture’s release during Black History Month is a triumphant nod to achievements past and work to come.
Black History Month has been an “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history” since 1976. The Afrofuturist history of Black Panther’s fictitious Wakanda may be a science-fiction fantasy, but the themes and stories that originate there offer an accessible path into the struggle, triumphs, and hopes of people of color in the 21st century.
Here’s a movie a day to check out for the remainder of Black History Month 2018 for those who’d like to delve a little deeper!
Directed by Ava DuVernay – the first black female director to receive a Golden Globe Award nomination – and with Oprah Winfrey listed among both cast and producers, Selma bridges the gap between generations of celebrated African-American figures to tell the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.
David Oyelowo leads as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired by a cluster of racist clashes in Alabama, King tries and fails to convince President Johnson to lift restrictions on voting for black Americans. Refusing to quit, King unites with the thwarted voters of Selma, Alabama, to demand justice. The rest, as they say, is history – although a ‘history lesson that never feels like a lecture,’ according to Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper.
Jeff Nichol’s Loving appeared on our screens two years after Selma – and jumps forward from 1965 to Virginia, 1967. Similarly concerned with equal rights injustices in a time of social turmoil, Loving refocuses the issue from suffrage at the ballot box to interracial marriage – and an on the whole more personal story.
White construction worker Richard Loving (appropriately enough) falls in love with Mildred Jeter, a black woman. Interracial marriage remains illegal in Virginia, so they cross state lines to wed – only to find on their return home that state officials consider their Washington marriage license invalid. Threatened with imprisonment, the couple relocate out of state, where they begin a campaign to prove that the anti-miscegenation laws that threatened their liberty are unconstitutional.
Another Cannes premiere – and this time originating in France, too – Girlhood is a contemporary fiction set in the infamously tough banlieues (suburbs) of Paris. Karidja Touré makes an impressive debut in the lead as Marieme, an awkward teenager who is drawn into gang life with all it offers for a poor and marginalized young woman in today’s France: acceptance, fun, and self-respect.
Far from the didacticism of a kitchen sink drama, Girlhood instead offers a stylish and heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale. Marieme’s attempts to define her fate against the expectations of her socio-economic profile form the backbone of a compelling eye-opener on a side of contemporary Paris unseen in pictures such as Amélie.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Before Black Panther came Fruitvale Station: director Ryan Coogler’s debut picture, set in the very real milieu of Oakland, California, where Oscar Grant III was shot in the back by a white police officer on the 1st of January, 2009.
A moving illustration of the sentiment behind #BlackLivesMatter, Fruitvale Station avoids the temptation to document the outrage and passionate campaigning that followed the killing, opting instead to realize the victim through the hours preceding his death. Tender details of his troubled family life accumulate with a sense of impending tragedy as Coogler unveils a character not who died, but who lived.
British filmmaker Amma Asante has created a niche of looking at the possibility – or otherwise - of interracial harmony through the lens of romantic relationships and family politics. As with her later A United Kingdom, Asante sets the relationship against a backdrop of the British class system and its position in the broader socio-political environment of the time.
In the case of Belle, the title character is the illegitimate mix-raced daughter of an English aristocrat. Reluctantly accepted into the family home, she faces hypocrisy and flat-out cruelty at every step as she pursues those most fundamental of human rights: to be herself, to love and be loved by whom she chooses.
Black in Latin America (2011)
Only a fraction of the slaves that arrived in the Americas in the 16th-19th centuries came to the States; many landed in Latin countries such as Brazil, Cuba, or Mexico, where their descendants have had a mixed impact on and within the cultures that have developed ever since.
In this four-part TV documentary, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. leads a journey through contemporary black Latin America, his charm and knowledge ensuring that the partially written black history of the region is never allowed to eclipse the personal stories and experiences of the people he meets.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee’s passion project is a thorough biopic of the iconic human rights activist, a figure who remained controversial among both white and black communities right up to his assassination in 1965.
A street criminal who grew up in multiple foster homes, Malcolm Little straightened out in jail, joining the Nation of Islam and rejecting his birth name as an imposition on his family from their slavemasters. On his release, Malcolm X became a prominent figure both in and against the burgeoning civil rights movement as his ongoing self-education swayed the emphasis of his politics.
Here, he is played with charisma by Denzel Washington in a landmark picture that is as moving as it is important.
What films would you recommend for Black History Month? Leave your favorites in the comments below.