7 Times Black Movies Taught Us To Stay Woke
Revisiting the epic moments that taught us about activism, power and blackness.
Can you quote Miss Sophia, from The Color Purple, as if it were a Shakespearean soliloquy? Do you find yourself screaming “Rickkkkkkyyyyyy,” during Boyz In Da Hood, loud enough that it would be completely unacceptable in a public place? You are not alone. What would black movies be without the iconic moments that break our hearts, make us smile or lose our cool time and time again, no matter how many times we decide to watch it (like that time Morris Chestnut finally found out Taye Diggs was trifling in The Best Man).
But what about the subtle, and even overt, references to things that we know are true about the struggle for equality? All of these moments were epic by nature and makes it all worth it on a night in with your Amazon prime account. Let’s revisit seven films that made us raise our fists in solidarity.
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Photo: Film Crickets
There were plenty of powerful moments in Selma that made us think about the systemic oppression of African American people, and the fight for equality. Of those moments, David Oyelowo, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked a question that resonates even today: Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? This moment in the movie is iconic because many could call this a signal of a turning point for Dr. King. After Bloody Sunday, the death of JFK and Malcolm X, Dr. King stood behind the pulpit at Lee's funeral and pointed the finger at the systemic racism that has roots in local government, and is deeply entrenched in the fabric of the United States. He underscores that liberation will only happen when black people demand their power back by voting and marching. Today, Jimmie Lee Jackson is our Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd and countless other black youth, gone too soon.
Photo: TV Guide
The history of the "Fighting 99th" was largely unknown, but movies like The Tuskegee Airmen (which also inspired other films such as, Red Tails) has filled in the missing gaps about African American soldiers during World War I. If you had trouble finding this black classic, Amazon Prime video has got you covered! Starring popular black actors Laurence Fishburne, Allen Payne and Courtney B. Vance, one moment, in particular, draws on the challenges of fighting oppression, domestic and abroad. When the effectiveness of the Colored Pilot Project is called into question, Benjamin O. Davis (played by Andre Braugher) takes his seat at the hearing and points out what's obvious throughout the movie: black pilots and black people have to abide by different, and often difficult, rules. Davis asserted, "All we asked for was a chance to prove ourselves. A fair and impartial opportunity. We thought we had that chance, but you invite us to a poker game, hand us a fixed deck and then wonder why we can't win." It's a swift read worth watching again and again.
A Spike Lee classic that interrogates the intersections of race and class, and how that plays out in a Brooklyn neighborhood. If you’ve never had the chance to catch it on your favorite channels like HBO, consider it handled. All of your favorite subscriptions to premium channels such as Starz, Cinemax and Showtime make it a one stop shop to find your favorite television series and movies. Throughout the film, tension continues until it erupts in violence after Radio Raheem is brutally beaten by police. But an intimate scene, often slept on, happens right in Sal's Pizza shop in an exchange between the owner's son, Pino, and Mookie. Mookie asks about Pino's favorite athlete, his favorite musician and his favorite entertainer, all of which are black. Mookie gets right at the heart of the degrading use of the n-word, internalized prejudice projected on black men and women, and that fame doesn't make blackness an exception.
If you're a fan of stand-up comedians, watching Trevor Noah: African American is a refreshing take from an outsider's perspective on American culture, politics and expressions of blackness. The more memorable part of this performance was his observations on being black in America. For example, being mistaken as less than African, because of his light skin, and dissecting the idea of what it means to be "African American" as a binding label for anyone who is black. Noah, throughout his riff, teaches the importance of recognizing assumptions over reality, and even learning to laugh at our own widely accepted ignorance.
If you aren't hip to Teyonah Parris yet, this is a good start. Paris plays Lysistrata, the bold heroine who declares war on the gun violence in her community. The movie pulls from the Greek comedy Lysistrata, where women withhold sex from their husbands to punish them for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. In Spike Lee's version, we see how this comedy translates in Chicago, which is conveniently nicknamed "Chi-Raq."
The movie conveniently loops in how black women are often at the forefront of social movements for change. Paris delivers potent perspective when her motivations for organizing the movement are criticized and belittled in a heated exchange with Steve Harris or Old Duke. She colors in the lines about how women were trying to save lives, and how this small act of defiance was about a bigger picture.
This is more of a melanated spin on a Rocky classic and brought the franchise full circle when it comes to talking about the spirit of a true fighter. While we get to know Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan, there are several moments during the movie where we are both rooting for him and watching him struggle to become a man without a father. The first interaction between Adonis and Rocky is an eye-opening mashup between new school and old, race and masculinity. This first encounter illustrates one man's struggle to find support and a father figure, while dealing with the reality of what it means to fight your entire life. The intensity of their meeting would set the stage for an unlikely partnership, but also how being both black and male means being labeled a fighter whether you want to or not.
Bonus: If you love boxing films, you can indulge in Rocky IV, the documentary that inspired Creed and other film inspired legendary boxers like Mike Tyson... for free with `Amazon Prime.
Once you get past Cedric the Entertainer's wisecracks, the Barbershop series emphasizes how black-owned businesses are incubators in communities for social justice and empowerment. This movie, in particular, sheds light on how black business owners can create safe spaces for black men and women to talk about race, gender and class. Calvin's shop has changed quite a bit from the first movie, but the conversations inside the barbershop remain insightful. When the conversation about equal opportunity in America takes a turn, black and non-black people of color in the shop debate about the history of immigration, and how it impacts those communities differently. Not only does it share how oppression works across communities of color, but also revisits arguments about collective shame and personal responsibility.
If you love black films, but you can’t seem to find your faves in one place, try Prime and watch your world of movie selections (and your messages with your friends asking for the password) blow up. Whether it's an old classic or a contemporary spin on narratives we've seen before, each film takes a stab at dismantling stereotypes, challenging schools of thought or inspiring us to laugh through tears at the unique experiences of black men and women. Most importantly, they inspire us to think long after the credits roll, and to always #StayWoke.
If you haven't seen these movies, you're seriously sleeping, fam. All the movies listed are free with your Amazon Prime account, sign up today and celebrate this profound and liberating films that make us proud to be black.