28 Films for the 28 Days of Black History Month
Black Film Archive by Maya S. Cade
by Maya Cade
February 1, 2023
Sermons & Sacred Pictures by Lynne Sachs
28 Films for the 28 Days of Black History Month
Third annual edition of this Black film celebration.
Black Film Archive is a living register of Black films from 1898 to 1989. This Substack is its blog, thank you for being here. | This email may be too long for email, click the headline to read it in full. | This month, I’m proud to present a film series on tenderness in Black film at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. On opening night (2/10), I’ll be in conversation with Jacqueline Stewart. Join us?
The work that would become Black Film Archive started with an impulse to discover how Black films responded to a movement in June 2020. As countless Black Americans gathered in digital and physical arenas to refuse the status quo by questioning the roles policing, whiteness, and death have in our lives; I joined the choir, singing and pondering how media can contextualize the totality of our history. In this moment of collective imagining and reckoning, Black cinematic history became a prism of possibility.
In building the third annual edition of 28 films for the 28 days of Black History Month, I thought about Black Film Archive’s genesis. My initial pursuit through Black cinematic history was a formalized curiosity that confronted the assumed limitations of the past. Toni Morrison reminds us in her work that the past is more infinite than the future. By tending to Black film’s past, we can explore new worlds and the radical visions forged within them to create a more just future. The films selected here draw on Black cinematic history’s visions of resistance and struggles for social justice to imagine new worlds and a brighter tomorrow.
The films on this year’s list are in conversation with the dreams planted in June 2020 of a better Black tomorrow and every moment since. Using Black film’s past as a guide allows us to consider entirely new ways of thinking and sculpt new pathways through Black imagination. To conceive a world outside the constraints of the status quo is to believe in Black futures.
This guide contains 28 selections from Black Film Archive. They are simply a place to start or rediscover gems, to find yourself in or retreat to.
I hope this season greets you with peace, joy, and an abundance of great cinema. You can find the complete list and full descriptions on Black Film Archive here. View the list on Letterboxd here. Please enjoy.
No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (1968)
Capturing the pulse of righteous anger in 1968, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” is an intimate portrait chronicling anti-war protestors as they march against the country’s involvement in Vietnam.
Say Amen, Somebody (1982)
George T. Nierenberg’s acclaimed portrait of Black Gospel music is a joyous, funny, and deeply moving ode to the divine musical style.
In Search of Marcus Garvey (1981)
Written by Kathleen Collins, this short weaves the viewer through Black history in the spirit of Marcus Garvey.
Street Corner Stories (1979)
Employing cinéma vérité style, Warrington Hudlin grounds his film at a New Haven, Connecticut corner store, capturing the rhythm of Black residents’ jokes, attitudes, and political imagination.
A Study of Negro Artists (1936)
Showing the tenderness of the craft, “A Study of Negro Artists” displays artists at work in this early documentary study of Black art.
With No One to Help Us (1967)
Described as a community action film, “With No One to Help Us” centers on a group of working-class matriarchs in Newark’s South Ward, hoping to forge collective purchasing power by organizing a food-buying club.
Hands of Inge (1962)
This short documentary on acclaimed sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison, narrated by Ossie Davis, connects the artist’s practice with our desire for visibility as Hardison immortalizes Black figures with her hands.
Statues Hardly Ever Smile (1971)
Capturing the hypnotic wonder of a group of children in the process of creating art at the Brooklyn Museum, Stan Lathan’s “Statues Hardly Ever Smile” documents art as a tool for self-discovery and the essence of Black creativity.
Those Whom Death Refused (1988)
“Mortu Nega,” the Portuguese title of this film, tells the story of Bisa, a fictional heroine fighting to survive the effort for decolonization in Guinea-Bissau and the revolutionary process of liberation.
Back Inside Herself (1984)
Saundra Sharp’s visual poem is an ode to the joys of a Black woman finding her sense of self.
Something to Build On (1971)
This jazz-infused community vision of Black educational attainment provides young students with varied perspectives on the role college plays in their future.
Concerning the world of Teddy, a teenager in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, this film intimately explores his views on violence, the system, community involvement, and love.
Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock (1983)
Michelle Parkerson’s loving portrait documents the sonic soundscapes of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an acapella group singing to end the oppression of Black people worldwide.
Ujami Uhuru Schule Community Freedom School (1974)
This glimpse of an Afrocentric primary school in Los Angeles reminds us all that we’re never too young to concern ourselves with preserving and protecting Black history.
Lynne Sachs’ exploration of Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Memphis-based minister and filmmaker, employs Taylor’s films, audio recordings, and imagery of Memphis at the time to present a unique portrait of his role in chronicling Black life.
Style Wars (1983)
Set during the graffiti movement of the 1980s, “Style Wars” is an essential document on the revolutionary spirit of artistic impulse. The film centers on the teenagers who rocked the foundation of New York City–and by extension, the world– with this growing subculture of hip-hop.
Harlem: Voices, Faces (1973)
Initially criticized for its frankness about Black life in Manhattan’s infamous neighborhood, “Harlem: Voices, Faces” allows the community’s working class to paint a portrait of their own lives.
Personal Problems: Part One and Two (1980)
Bill Gunn’s intimate, free-wheeling “meta soap opera” examines the textuality of Black families and, by doing so, offers a deep reading of Black souls.
A Time for Burning (1966)
“We are not gonna suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies,” expresses Eddie Chambers in this study of racial conflicts in the Lutheran church as one congregation attempts to integrate.
The Women of Brewster’s Place (1989)
Through this multigenerational tale, “Brewster’s Place” celebrates the kinship between Black women and the bonds that tie us.
No Maps on My Taps (1979)
George T. Nierenberg’s essential document celebrates the infectious joy and history of tap dancing, a Black American export.
Tongues Untied (1989)
A visionary documentary that sings the style, culture, and oppressions unique to gay Black men.
Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues (1989)
Borrowing its name from Ida Cox’s Blues classic, “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” showcases the genre’s role as a source of empowerment and tool for survival.
Starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, “Mahogany” chronicles fashion student Tracy (Ross) from her humble beginnings to becoming an international phenomenon. At the heart of the film, which focuses on the way love awakens the senses, is the question: What is success without someone to share it with?
Daydream Therapy (1977)
This L.A. Rebellion short is a visually inventive look at the inner life of a Black domestic worker who dreams of an escape.
Visions of the Spirit: a Portrait of Alice Walker (1989)
Filmed over the course of three years, this intimate documentary keeps the Pulitzer-winning author company at home in California, on the set of The Color Purple (1989), and in her hometown of Eatonton, Georgia.
The Pocketbook (1980)
This lively adaption of Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, Ma’am” centers on a young boy who questions his life trajectory after being caught snatching an older woman’s purse.
Sun Ra: Joyful Noise (1980)
Robert Mugge’s documentary is an affectionate portal into the mind of the extraordinary Black philosopher, musician, poet, and revolutionary.
The first edition (2021) predates Black Film Archive and is here. The second edition (2022) is here.
A French style of filmmaking that places its subject(s) in everyday situations with genuine dialogue and naturalness.