Professor Charles Swanson’s Top Films for Black History Month

Oversimplification of Her Beauty art - Professor Charles Swanson's Top Films for Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, we asked our Chair of Production, Charles Swanson, to suggest films that celebrate the African American experience. Below, he shares his recommendations of movies from African American filmmakers, including both fiction and documentaries. We have focused on a few of them; for the complete list, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The Learning Tree – Gordon Parks
Buck and the Preacher – Sidney Poitier

Historically, I think it’s important to look back and see what early African American filmmakers were able to accomplish, as we had little access to the creation of “our” stories. It was often a Herculean feat getting a movie made, not to mention getting it distributed. There were, of course, the “chitlin’ circuit” films that represented African Americans in a way that was less than desirable, and the rare white films that included African Americans in roles of service or servitude.

But as far as early films where African Americans were wholly involved—running it, producing it, directing it—I would point to two: The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks and Buck and the Preacher by Sidney Poitier.

The Learning Tree is a semi-autobiographical, melodramatic tale of the South through the eyes of the talented photographer, cinematographer, and artist, Gordon Parks. Parks both wrote and directed the film, and it is the first Hollywood studio film to be directed by an African American.

Buck and the Preacher, on the other hand, is a tongue-in-cheek, fun black western directed by the great Sidney Poitier, whom I don’t think many people know as a groundbreaking African American filmmaker. It was the first film he directed.

She’s Gotta Have It – Spike Lee

Spike Lee made such a huge impression when he came onto the scene as a filmmaker. Whether or not you like what he’s done in every film, there is no denying his commitment to exploring aspects of the African American experience, African American love stories, and a lot of the time, the struggles of being an African American male in society. She’s Gotta Have It, his debut film, was groundbreaking because it was one of the first films to courageously address the representation of blacks in American cinema. It’s an intelligent, urban, contemporary look at African American men and women, their sexual relationships and the power dynamics between them.

Malcom X – Spike Lee

Malcolm X is a seminal American film. It’s an epic story of an African American hero: a thief, a hustler, then a devoted believer; a man who thought one way at the beginning of his life, then through trials and tribulations, he finally finds universal enlightenment, which ultimately, and unfortunately, costs him his mortal life.

Love Jones – Theodore Witcher
Medicine For Melancholy – Barry Jenkins

Love Jones and Medicine for Melancholy are two films that deal with black romance in a way that’s not overplayed. African Americans can watch these two films and likely agree that they are honest and often awkward depictions of aspects of our experiences in love and romance.

When We Were Kings – Leon Gast
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes – Byron Hurt
Eyes on the Prize – PBS

There are a few standout documentaries for me. Being a fan of Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings is one of my top picks. It documents the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaire, and it highlights everything going on during that time—the funk music, the clothing. It’s a fantastic film.

Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes is an important documentary that examines and asks questions that need to be answered about the issues of sexuality in the hip-hop community.

The PBS special Eyes on the Prize does such a great job telling the story of many of the players of the civil rights movement. It reminds us why we celebrate Black History Month today.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terence Nance

This is one of the freshest, young films out there by an eclectic, up-and-coming black filmmaker named Terence Nance. I first saw it at Sundance, and I just fell in love with the journey that the film takes you on. He uses live-action, 16 mm footage and animation to tell the story of his complex relationship with a young woman.

Professor Swanson’s Suggested Films

The Learning Tree – Gordon Parks
Buck and the Preacher – Sydney Poitier
Wattstax (Concert Doc) – Mel Stuart
Cooley High – Michael Schulz
Spook Who Sat by the Door – Ivan Dixon
Sounder – Martin Ritt
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman – John Korty
She’s Gotta Have It – Spike Lee
Do the Right Thing – Spike Lee
Eyes on the Prize – PBS
Boyz n the Hood – John Singleton
Malcolm X – Spike Lee
Clockers – Spike Lee
Love Jones – Theodore Witcher
4 Little Girls – Spike Lee
When We Were Kings – Leon Gast
Eve’s Bayou – Kasi Lemmons
Medicine For Melancholy – Barry Jenkins
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes– Byron Hurt
Pariah – Dee Rees
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terence Nance
Restless City – Andrew Dosunmu

Professor Charles Swanson is an accomplished cinematographer. Click here to see the trailer for his most recent project (cinematographer), Small, Beautifully Moving Parts.