“Moonlight” Shines at Oscars: Exemplifies Cultural Richness & Artistic Contribution of Black History Movies

Since February is the shortest month in the year, we here at MoreMentum decided to extend Black History Month through March.

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That’s right; it’s unofficially officially Black History Month in March!

We did it for a great reason too.

There were so many spectacular films this year starring African American actors that we just didn’t have enough time to cover them all. Plus, like the rest of the world, we were waiting on the Academy Awards and what a historic night it was for films that will rightfully take their place in black history movies.

MoreMentum congratulates all three Academy Award-winning and nominated films that beautifully celebrate the African American experience.

Denzel Washington’s directorial dynamo, Fences was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar along with Washington himself, who was nominated in the Best Actor category. And the Oscars delighted us with a special tribute to 98-year-old Katherine Johnson, the real-life NASA math wizard that Taraji P. Henson portrayed in the space race film Hidden Figures. The film garnered three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay.

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NASA/Bill Ingalls | American musical recording artist, actress, and model Janelle Monáe, left, American actress and singer Taraji P. Henson, American actor, film director, and producer Kevin Costner, and American actress Octavia Spencer arrive on the red carpet.

But, the film industry’s biggest night belonged to Moonlight and its 8 Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture, and Best Film Editing. Director/Writer Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won Oscars for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. Mahershala Ali took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Moonlight also took home the top prize, an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Now that we’re celebrating Black History Month in March, we have the opportunity to give Moonlight its proper spotlight!

As a matter of fact, we want to take a moment to pay homage to the “Top 10 Black History Movies” that we believe highlight the contributions, trials, triumphs, and in some instances, little-known historical facts, related to the African American experience throughout history. These socially relevant films also chart the evolution of African American images in cinema.

Each of the “Top 10 Black History Movies” represents a different era, starting with the early 1900s until now.

The scripted history lesson you’re about to embark upon will transport you back in time to when the KKK was at its peak and most dangerous, segregation was the law of the land, and racial hatred against African Americans was commonplace and sadly, sometimes encouraged in every aspect of life.

(Note: Some spoilers ahead)

Top 10 Black History Movies

10. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Filmmakers: Director: D.W. Griffith / Writer: Thomas Dixon, Jr. / Actor: Lillian Gish

Plot: The movie begins with the introduction of slavery as well as two wealthy families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. They start out as best of friends, but their relationship is strained once the Civil War forces them to choose opposite sides. Battle scenes reveal a divided and ravaged nation and the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the slaves and abolitionist supporters. But, even in the midst of war, a love story blooms as Phil Stoneman falls in love with Margaret Cameron and her brother Ben is smitten with Elsie Stoneman.

By the second half of the film, Lincoln is assassinated and the Reconstruction Era begins. Chaos ensues as ex-slaves are now able to assimilate into society, but white Southerners accustomed to being their masters, resist and resent this newfound freedom. African Americans (some played by white actors in blackface make-up) are characterized as depraved, ignorant, and a threat to white people. A black soldier expresses his love for a white woman, but she rejects him and runs into the forest. He chases her and she’s so afraid of him that she jumps off a ledge and falls to her death. This incident sparks the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who subsequently forms a lynch mob, tracks down the black soldier, and hangs him. The KKK continues to use violence and terror to intimidate black citizens and prevent them from voting or enjoying any of their Constitutional freedoms. From this point on, the KKK is heralded as the saviors and heroes of the South. The movie ends with a lavish Stoneman / Cameron wedding.

History: This 3-hour silent movie epic was D.W. Griffith’s and Hollywood’s very first blockbuster. Many film critics regard the film as groundbreaking for its innovative use of fades, close-ups, color tinting, and elaborate battle scenes utilizing hundreds of extras. However, there are just as many detractors who regard the film as an affront on civil rights for its offensive display of African American stereotypes and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the NAACP launched a failed attempt to ban the movie and the film went on to become a commercial success. In 1992, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and slated for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Extras: Here’s why it made our list of black history movies: Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, this was the first American film screened at the White House. The movie was based on a book and stage play entitled The Clansman and as it turned out, the film was actually used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. This resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan resulted in the largest enrollment and deadliest activity in its history. In 1983, a British TV movie entitled Birth of a Nation deals with the educational system in Europe. In 2016, filmmaker Nate Parker released The Birth of a Nation, a critically-acclaimed period piece that tells the true story of Nat Turner, a preacher and literate slave who led an uprising in the desperate hope of finding freedom and humanity for all enslaved African Americans.

9. Within Our Gates (1920)

Filmmakers: Director & Writer: Oscar Micheaux / Actor: Evelyn Preer

Plot: Following World War I, Sylvia Landry, a bi-racial school teacher, dreams of starting a school for underserved African American children. She travels to Boston hoping to find support and funding, but along the way she is hit by a car. As she fights for her life, flashbacks reveal that Sylvia was adopted by black sharecroppers. Her proud father realizes that he’s been shortchanged by their white landowner and confronts him, which results in a fight. Soon thereafter, another white man shoots the landowner, but Sylvia’s adoptive father is blamed and lynched alongside his wife. The landowner’s brother attempts to rape Sylvia, but stops when he finds out that he is actually her biological father. The flashback ends back in Boston. Sylvia finds out that a rich white woman was driving the car that hit her. Struggling with her conscience, the rich woman pays Sylvia $50,000 which she accepts and uses to build a school.

History: Within Our Gates was Oscar Micheaux’s second silent film and critics assumed that it was a direct response to The Birth of a Nation. But Micheaux dispelled those rumors and stated that his main intention was to shatter negative stereotypes. His films showed the humanity of African Americans while also revealing the vast number of social prejudices that African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era post World War I.

Extras: Micheaux was the son of slaves and the first African American to produce a feature length film. He produced over 40 films that spanned from the early 1900s to 1940. His main goal was to bring dignity, humanity, and reality to the African American experience in film. Micheaux was also a prolific writer and authored seven novels, including The Homesteader, a book that he adapted into a critically-acclaimed and commercially successful feature film. Micheaux was undoubtedly the most prolific black filmmaker of his era, but sadly, he died in poverty in 1951 at the age of 67. His influence is still felt today and the doors that he kicked open over a century ago allowed modern day filmmakers like Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay, John Singleton, F. Gary Gray, and so many others, to break through and thrive. Micheaux’s gravestone says it all and best; it simply reads, “A man ahead of his time.”

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8. Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Filmmakers: Director: Vicente Minelli / Writers: Joseph Schrank & Lynn Root / Actors: Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson

Plot: Little Joe, a two-bit gambler is killed over his mounting debts, but magically brought back to life and given six months to change his evil ways. He’s faced with two options: he can follow “The General” (The Lord’s Angel) for a shot at going to Heaven; or he can side with “Lucifer Jr.” (Satan’s Son) and end up in Hell. Initially, Little Joe is the perfect citizen and husband to his devoted wife Petunia (Ethel Waters), but that all changes when Lucifer Jr. allows Little Joe to win the lottery. His newfound riches and fame attract beautiful home wrecker Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) who easily convinces Little Joe to leave Petunia.

One night while he and Georgia Brown are out celebrating, Petunia confronts Little Joe in an attempt to win him back. A hurricane suddenly appears and at the same time, Georgia’s jealous ex-lover, Domino shoots Little Joe and kills him. Petunia also dies in the skirmish and she and Little Joe end up together, climbing a stairway to Heaven. In an instant, Joe awakens. He realizes that his injuries weren’t fatal after all and that the battle for his soul was merely a dream. Now sincerely repentant, Little Joe finally becomes the perfect husband Petunia had always prayed for.

History: This selection in our black history movies listing is a groundbreaking film that features an all-African American cast. And before becoming a pioneering musical, Cabin in the Sky made its heralded debut on Broadway. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” sung by Ethel Waters.

Extras: Because of racism and limited roles for African American actors, this film was Lena Horne’s first and only leading role in an MGM musical. Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington also make cameos in the film. Cabin in the Sky was Vicente Minelli’s directorial debut. He and Judy Garland, who starred in The Wizard of Oz, are the parents of Oscar-winning actress Liza Minelli.

7. A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Filmmakers: Director: Daniel Petrie / Writer: Lorraine Vivian Hansberry / Actors: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Louis Gossett, Jr.

Plot: The Younger family has long outgrown their cramped, tiny apartment on the East side of Chicago. Four adults and a small child share a communal bathroom and each of them feels the paralyzing stress of living in a space much smaller than their dreams. But hope lingers in the air as everyone waits with bated breath for a $10,000 insurance policy check that is scheduled to arrive any day.

Walter Lee (Poitier), the man of the house since his father died, wants to use the money to open a liquor store believing it will bring them financial security. His wife Ruth (Dee) shares her mother-in-law Lena’s (McNeil) dream of buying a house and planting a garden. Beneatha (Sands), Walter Lee’s free-spirited, younger sister and med student, is only concerned with paying her tuition, while her nephew Travis just wants to be a kid and sleep in his own bed.

The money finally arrives and Lena takes $3,500 of it and makes a down payment on a nice house in an affluent and recently integrated section of town. In an attempt to assuage Walter Lee’s angst, she gives him the remainder of the money and instructs him to set aside $3,000 for Beneatha’s tuition and use the rest for his own business ventures. Against Lena’s wishes, Walter Lee invests all of the money in the liquor store venture, only to find out days later that one of his partners had stolen the money and left town.

Tensions escalate to a fever pitch as Walter Lee has an emotional meltdown over disappointing his mother and losing the money that his father worked all of his life to save. Beneatha confronts Walter Lee and only makes matters worse by her sharp criticism. Ruth, fearful that they’ll never break out of poverty, falls into a deep depression and contemplates an abortion. Lena helps the family regain their faith in God and one another and as planned, they move into the house of their dreams.

History:  A Raisin in the Sun began as a play and debuted on Broadway in 1959, running for 530 performances. The play’s original title was The Crystal Stair The title pays homage to the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” (also referred to as “A Dream Deferred“). It was the first play produced on Broadway by an African American woman, and Hansberry was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. The film also won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, Hansberry died in 1965 at the tender age of 35.

Extras: When I found out that Lorraine Hansberry was a black woman, it had an extremely profound effect on me. I attended a predominantly white school in Tennessee and my guidance counselor told me that I shouldn’t pursue writing because there weren’t any successful black writers. She suggested that I consider nursing instead. I was bummed, but not for long. My family always knew how to cheer me up and one of my sisters gave me a book entitled A Raisin in the Sun. I read it in one sitting and was just floored to find out the author was the same color as me. From that moment on, I was bound and determined to follow my dreams and pursue writing. I’m so glad I didn’t listen and the lesson that I learned is this: “Never let someone else’s words define you.”

6. Sounder (1972)

Filmmakers: Director: Martin Ritt / Writer: Lonne Elder III / Actors: Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks

Plot: A sharecropping family immobilized by the chokehold of the Great Depression fight for scraps of dignity, food, and their humanity amidst a racially divided South. Nathan Lee Morgan (Winfield), a proud father and gentle soul, finds himself unable to feed his wife Rebecca (Tyson) and four kids. To avoid starvation, Nathan Lee steals a ham from a neighbor’s smokehouse. His actions set in motion a hurricane of irreversible tumult that finds their beloved dog Sounder shot and near death. Nathan Lee finds himself in an abusive, hard-labor prison camp for a year where he is demoralized and stripped of his humanity. Rebecca and her oldest son David Lee (Hooks) visit Nathan Lee when they can. They attempt to keep his spirits up and his will to live.

David Lee finds comfort in their faithful dog Sounder who also grieves Nathan Lee’s absence. To feed his own sorrow, David Lee confides in a local school teacher who volunteers to teach him how to read. David Lee has a newfound confidence and one day while performing his chores, his father returns home, but sadly he is crippled both physically and emotionally. Rebecca runs down the road to meet Nathan Lee and their endless embrace say what words cannot. Sounder’s battered body resembles Nathan Lee’s and for the first time since he left, Sounder lets out a bark that lets everyone know his joy has returned too.

Weeks pass as they settle into their old normal. Rebecca happily looks on as Nathan Lee and Sounder head for the woods for their first hunting venture since his return. Night turns to day and Sounder hobbles back home without his master. David Lee has a sense of dread and his worst fears are realized as Sounder leads him to his father’s dead body. Sounder loses his will to live too and two weeks before Christmas, he crawls underneath the porch and dies. Life is still hard for the Morgan family, but their love for one another, faith in God, and strength to survive holds them up and pushes them on.

History: The young adult novel Sounder was published in 1969 and was written by white author William H. Armstrong. Sounder, the film was written by African American screenwriter Lonne Elder III. In the novel, the only character that had a name was the dog Sounder and that storyline was the prominent focus. In the film, the family members were given names and constituted the power of the drama, while Sounder took a secondary, but no less important role in this fourth entry on our list of black history movies.

Extras: At the Academy Awards, Sounder was nominated in numerous categories: Best Picture-Robert B. Radnitz, Producer; Best Actor-Paul Winfield; Best Actress-Cicely Tyson; and Best Writing-Lonne Elder III. The film was a critical and box office success, grossing close to $17 million dollars. It cost only $1 million to produce. It was the 15th highest grossing film of 1972. A sequel to Sounder was released in 1976.

5. Glory (1989)

Filmmakers: Director: Edward Zwick / Writer: Kevin Jarre / Actors: Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman

Plot: This period drama is a sweeping epic that pays tribute to the courageous African American men of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union Army. The film is told through the viewpoint of white commanding officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick), the son of a powerful abolitionist. Colonel Shaw witnesses and pushes back against the many atrocities that the black soldiers in his unit are subjected to. They are denied basic privileges, saddled with backbreaking duties that demean, demoralize, and remind them of their former slave status.

This deplorable treatment drives Colonel Shaw to fight for the rights of his soldiers and against the bigotry of his superiors. After Shaw shows his solidarity, the men begin to feel like real soldiers and in turn, trust Shaw with their lives. The dedicated group of 600 men is symbolically led by fearless runaway slave Trip (Washington) and studious gravedigger John Rawlins (Freeman). The men of the 54th Regiment begin to win small battles and prove time and again that they are just as good a soldier as any other man.

Their battle victories leads to them being assigned a dangerous mission that culminates at a Confederate stronghold in Fort Wagner, South Carolina. On Colonel Shaw’s command, they heroically charge the well-protected battery and face return fire from over 1,000 Confederates. Though valiant in their efforts, the 54th is greatly outnumbered. In the end, Shaw, Trip, and many other soldiers are killed fighting for the country they love. Only 256 men survive, but their legacy lives on today.

History: The film was based on the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard; as well as the wartime letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.  Glory was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three, including Denzel Washington for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won the British Academy, Golden Globe, NAACP, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, Political Film Society, among others.

Extras: More than 180,000 African American soldiers (and roughly 19,000 sailors) fought for the Union in a segregated branch of the military called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The courage of the soldiers in the 54th Regiment led to more African American men being accepted into different branches of service. As a result of these men’s courage, dedication, and keen skills, President Lincoln deemed that utilizing African American soldiers helped turn the tide of war.

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Library of Congress | Sergeant William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry carried the flag in the assault on Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863. Severely wounded twice, he was awarded the Medal of Honor 37 years later for his valor in this battle.

4. The Great Debaters (2007)

Filmmakers: Director: Denzel Washington / Writer: Robert Eisele / Actors: Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker

Plot: Set in 1930 at historical black university, Wiley College, Professor Melvin Tolson (Washington), a respected, no-nonsense professor (and secret union organizer), coaches the school’s debate team to a record number of wins. When the team racks up multiple victories at meets against white colleges, they are invited to debate at Harvard University. During their preparation, their will is tested as they face romance, jealousy, a lynch mob, racial hatred, and a crushing sense of the Jim Crow era. In the end, they triumph over all and beat Harvard in the great debate.

History: In real life, the Wiley College debate team actually won the great debate against UCLA, not Harvard. UCLA were the reigning debate champions at the time, but the filmmakers felt that using Harvard would emphasize the gravity and historical importance of what Wiley accomplished. Also, because of segregation, when Wiley beat UCLA, they weren’t allowed to call themselves champions because black colleges weren’t recognized as truly being a part of the debate society. African Americans weren’t allowed to join the debate society until after World War II.

Extras: In 2007, Denzel Washington donated $1 million to Wiley College so that they could reinstate their debate team.  He also donated $10,000 to Central High School after they completed filming there. Denzel left no stone unturned and even chose the music for the soundtrack from over 1,000 options.

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The 1930 Wiley College debate team in Marshall, Texas. Henrietta Bell Wells, front row, center

3. Hidden Figures (2016)

Filmmakers: Director: Theodore Melfi / Writer: Theo / Actors: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner)

Plot: This powerful slice of history is the true story of female African American mathematicians at NASA in 1961. The film centers on recent widow and mother of two girls Katherine Goble (Henson), hopeful engineer Mary Jackson (Monae), and aspiring supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer). Katherine is a math genius who exhibited her advanced math skills when she was just a little girl. Mary Jackson is a brilliant over-achiever who never accepts “no” for an answer. Dorothy Vaughn is a meek but strong mathematician who teaches herself and her co-workers how to code the new IBM computer.  The ladies carpool to work every day and worked as “computers” in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Each of them displayed superior intellect and integrity.

When Russia kicks off the space race with a successful satellite launch, America, not to be outdone, prepares to send John Glenn into space. Leading the charge is Al Harrison (Costner), the head of the Space Task Group. Katherine is assigned to his department and becomes the first African American on the team. At first, she and Al’s relationship is contentious but once he lowers his own racial biases, he realizes that Katherine’s actually the smartest person on his team. For the first month on the new job, she endures racial discrimination, workplace scorn, and segregated bathrooms that force her to run several buildings down in order to use the “for coloreds only” bathroom. When Al finds out how much she’s suffered, he tears down the signs and demands that Katherine be allowed to use the bathrooms in the building.

As NASA preps for the launch, Mary solves an issue with the flawed experimental space capsule’s heat shields and John Glenn personally asks for Katherine to be involved in the talks to plot out his orbit. This emboldens Mary to pursue an engineering degree which she completes. And Dorothy’s request for a promotion to supervisor is rejected several times until her boss finally acknowledges the value of her work.

Friendship 7 makes a successful launch, but during the orbit, the space capsule has a warning light indicating a heat shield problem. Katherine successfully solves the problem and suggests that they leave the retro-rocket attached to the heat shield upon reentry. John Glenn and Friendship 7 land safely in the ocean.

In the end, Katherine finds love again and remarries. She and the “computers” are applauded for the contributions they made to the space program, and now, black history movies.

History:  Katherine calculated the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a new 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was renamed the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor. In the film, it was true that John Glenn asked that Johnson be the one to verify the IBM calculations. In the movie, John Glenn’s character was much younger than Glenn actually was at the time of the launch.

Extras:    The film was a critical and box office success, grossing $163 million worldwide. It was singled out by the National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2016 and was nominated for three Oscars, for Best PictureBest Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer. The movie was also nominated for two Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress (Spencer) and Best Original Score. Hidden Figures won the Screen Actors Guild Award  for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

2. Fences (2016)

Filmmakers: Director: Denzel Washington / Writer: August Wilson / Actors: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo

Plot: This searing and deftly-directed film is set in the 1950s and tells the multi-layered story of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker living a life of bitterness set against the backdrop of 1950’s Pittsburgh. He keeps an old baseball tied to a rope hanging from a tree in his tiny backyard. It’s a painful reminder of Troy’s failed attempts to become a baseball player in his youth. He’s held a grudge for 20 years and just can’t accept that he had merely gotten too old to play when the major leagues began admitting African American players.

His sorrow is like a cancer eating away at his relationships with his devoted wife Rose (Davis) and athletic younger son Cory (Adepo). Rose wants a fence built in the backyard, but Troy never seems to have time to finish the job. The only tenderness he shows is for his mentally challenged brother and his older son, a struggling musician. But, he treats Cory with contempt and Troy’s jealousy of Cory’s success in sports plays out when he refuses to allow his son to play in a crucial football game that would have garnered Cory a scholarship to college. Troy slips deeper into his own misery and cheats on Rose with a younger woman that he gets pregnant. The woman dies in childbirth and Rose agrees to raise the baby. Cory finally challenges Troy to a fight when he sees how hurt his mother is over Troy’s philandering. Cory loses the fight and Troy kicks him out of the house. Cory joins the military and ditches his own dreams of attending college.

In the end, Troy’s heart can’t sustain the weight of his disappointment and stops beating. He has a heart attack and dies. It’s been six years since Troy was home, but he takes leave from the service to attend his father’s funeral. His little sister, a constant reminder of his father’s turmoil, is a sweet little girl endowed with Rose’s kindness. The fence was built and even though it couldn’t keep death out, it did seem to keep the family together. Troy would’ve been happy to see that everyone made it home for the funeral. Before they leave, the sun shines on the family and they take it as a signal that Troy is finally at peace and made it into Heaven.

History: Fences premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 525 performances. James Earl Jones was “Troy”, Mary Alice “Rose”, and Courtney B. Vance “Cory”. The play was showered in accolades and won the Tony Award for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Jones), and Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Alice). Vance was also nominated but did not win. That same year, Fences also won a Drama Desk Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis also appeared in the first Broadway revival of Fences. The revival was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning 3 for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Washington), and Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis).

In 2016, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were nominated for Academy Awards and Davis walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in a Film. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture.

Extras: Writer/playwright August Wilson died in 2005. He had attempted to adapt his play for the big screen before, but he refused to make a feature film without an African American director at the helm. Wilson wrote 10 plays that amassed numerous awards and critical praise. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays Fences and Piano Lesson.

1. Moonlight (2016)

Filmmakers: Director & Writer: Barry Jenkins / Story by: Tarell Alvin McCraney / Actors: Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert

Plot: This beautifully crafted, heartbreaking coming-of-age film tells the story of Chiron, an African American man from a dangerous neighborhood in Miami dealing with the truth of his sexuality. Chiron’s mother (Harris) is an abusive, long-suffering drug addict who falls in an out of sobriety; but never long enough to be an effective parent. After being attacked by bullies, Chiron finds shelter and comfort from Juan (Ali), a Cuban drug dealer who gives Chiron the only parental guidance and fatherly support he’s ever had. Their relationship blossoms and Chiron trusts Juan with his deepest feelings about his sexuality. Without being overly didactic, Juan merely tells Chiron to find his own path and trust the choices that he makes for his own life.

The movie unfolds in three stages as we watch Chiron learn the meaning of homosexuality at age 10 (Hibbert), grapple with his identity as a gay teen (Sanders), and finally make the decision to live his full truth as an adult (Rhodes). Chiron’s best friend Steve takes the journey with him from childhood to manhood and along the way, he’s the sounding board, hiding place, and safe haven that Chiron retreats to when he needs to feel fully alive. But, Chiron’s criminal behavior drives a wedge between him and Steve’s friendship. Finally, Chiron grows tired of living a lie and suffering from the bad choices he’s made. In one sweeping moment, he drives to Steve’s house, declares his love for him and reflects on his childhood standing on the beach underneath the moonlight.

History: Moonlight won Best Picture – Drama at the 2017 Academy Awards. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. Mahershala Ali won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar. And Joi McMillon is the first African American woman to be nominated for an editing Oscar.

Moonlight was inspired by and loosely based on the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay and used imagery and dialogue that reflected the similar backgrounds of him and McCraney. The character Juan was based on the father of McCraney’s brother, who was the person who took up for McCraney when he was bullied for being gay. And the character Paula was a mash-up of Jenkins’s and McCraney’s mothers, who both battled drug addiction. And Liberty Square, the main location of the film, is where McCraney and Jenkins both grew up.

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Liberty Square housing

Extras: The film was produced by Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s production company. It was shot in 25 days and cost $1.5 million to make. To date, the film has grossed $26 million. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 269 reviews, with an average rating of 9 out of 10. And on Metacritic, the film holds a score of 99 out of 100, based on 51 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”. It was the site’s highest scoring film released in 2016.

There’s also an “honorable mention” film that we would like to encourage you to see as well—Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The film is Parker’s directorial debut and it’s an explosive period drama that depicts the slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, led by Nat Turner, an enslaved man. The film stars Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Gabrielle Union. The film won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. As a result, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the worldwide rights to the film for $17.5 million, the largest Sundance deal to date.

When explaining that his film is not a remake of the D.W. Griffith silent offering, Parker had this to say, “I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change”.

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Our selection of Top 10 Black History Movies provide timely subject matter and a stark reminder that America can only truly be the “land of the free” when it acknowledges, accepts, and celebrates the humanity of all of its citizens regardless of race, religion, or sexual preference.

We encourage you to explore other great films that celebrate the beauty of diversity. There are so many great movies out there and hopefully, you will find one that keeps you entertained, inspired, and encouraged year-round.

And don’t forget, Black History is American History.

 

 

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