Black History Month: the best movies to watch in February

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Those on the outlook for movies made by and starring African Americans wont be disappointed by the cinema breaking up the #OscarSoWhite narrative

While the Academys recent failure to recognize a diverse scope of talent has been an understandable source of consternation for many, this months Sundance film festival has highlighted a broad range of forthcoming, black-focused cinema well worth getting excited about.

The big tale out of Park City was Nate Parkers double-prize winning directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, an epic account of Nat Turners rebellion. Another directorial debutant, Don Cheadle, received strong notifications for his spirited Miles Ahead, a chronologically elastic portrait of the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, whom Cheadle portrays with grizzled vim. In a more romantic vein, Tahir Jetters How To Tell Youre A Douchebag has been lauded as fresh spin on the black rom-com template, while the co-leads of Southside With You a reimagining of Barack and Michelle Obamas first date also impressed.

Black non-fiction film-makers also made waves. Roger Ross Williams won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize for Life, Animated, a portrait of an autistic boys deep connection to Disney movies. Dawn Porter, meanwhile, won the Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking for Trapped, a harrowing documentary following the progress of southern reproductive health clinics as they struggle to provide care in the face of a hostile legal and political climate. Kiki the documentary about an outgrowth of New Yorks ballroom and voguing scene was a favourite at Park City too, offering insight into the live of LGBT dancers.

Away from Sundance, 2016 will also consider the long-awaited return of Barry Jenkins( Medicine For Melancholy ), whose new drama Moonlight has been described as a triptych about black queer youth, following Miami kids as they navigate the temptations of the narcotic trade and their burgeoning sexuality; Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in cat-com Keanu, the riotous trailer for which fell lately;( hopefully) Ava DuVernays Hurricane Katrina drama, starring David Oyelowo; and Lee Daniels intriguing-sounding biopic of Richard Pryor, with comedian Mike Epps boldly stepping into the great mans shoes.

Here are a host of films all available in cinemas, to stream, or on TV to enjoy this Black History Month.

In Cinemas


Jesse Owens of Ohio State winning the 220 -yard low hurdles event in the NCAA meet in Chicago. Photograph: Bettmann/ Corbis

For Black History Month, it stimulates sense embarking upon Stephen Hopkins Race( in cinema 19 February ), the first feature biopic film about African American athlete Jesse Owens, who won a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, in the process making a laughing stock of Adolf Hitlers myth of Aryan supremacy. John Boyega was initially slated to star as Owens, but dropped out when JJ Abrams came a-calling. The role is instead played by the promising young performer Stephan James, who made a strong impact in a small role as civil right activist John Lewis in Ava DuVernays Selma.

New York audiences, meanwhile, can consider themselves fortunate to be able to experience a rare slice of black cinema history. Downtown arthouse cinema Film Forum will screen a small, obliging selection of race movies black films constructed entirely independently of the burgeoning Hollywood system by trailblazing directors like Oscar Micheaux( Within Our Gates, 1919) and Spencer Williams( The Blood of Jesus, 1941.) The films have been restored as part of a Kickstarter-funded project entitled Pioneers of African-American Cinema on which Paul Miller( AKA DJ Spooky) has served as executive producer.

In an entirely different vein comes Michael Tiddes latest genre spoof, S& M caper Fifty Shades of Black( out now ), starring Marlon Wayans. Its crass, louche and lewd, but Wayans star power and box-office clout cant be ignored hes on course to become one of the highest-earning black comic starrings in movie history.



Viola Davis poses with the SAG award for best female performer in a drama series. Photograph: Paul Buck/ EPA

It rather flew under the radar last when it was released theatrically last year, but Lila and Eve( Netflix, 6 February) is a twisty vigilante thriller which affords the great Viola Davis a rare chance to glisten she plays a grief-stricken mother with arguably more vigour and commitment than the cinema deserves.( Fun fact: its directed against Charles Stone III, who created, and was the face of, the once-ubiquitous Budweiser Whassup commercials .)

In 1982, Ethiopian-born, American-based director Haile Gerima constructed Ashes and Embers, a scald, elliptical psychodrama about the slow spiritual awake of a troubled black Vietnam vet-turned-actor; its bleak tone is conspicuously antithetical to Hollywoods gung-ho Rambo fication of the war. To enable its release, the director, alongside his filmmaker wifeShirikiana Aina, and sister Selome, set up the company Mypheduh Films in the basement of his home in Washington DC. Its ultimately coming to Netflix( 29 February ), politenes of Ava DuVernays Array Releasing, and “its not” to be missed.

For a more contemporary flavor, try the recent short Cakes da Killa: No Homo, by talented Brooklyn film-maker JaTovia Gary. This stylish portrait of the eponymous lesbian rapper grips from its opening seconds, and offers a smartly layered, self-reflexive examination of identity and performance. Shot partly on place, it echoes with the energy of the New York streets at night.

Cakes da Killa: No Homo

Speaking of energy, Spike Lees pulsating, ambitious Chi-Raq( on Amazon Prime) a satirical, musical comedy-drama about gun violence in Chicago is now streaming on Amazon Prime. The cinema is so stuffed with incident, opinion and hairpin tonal transformations that its hard to fully parse in one sitting; online might well be the best place to unpack its myriad provocations.

On television


Spike Lees Michael Jacksons Journey from Motown to Off the Wall premiered at Sundance. Photo: Kerwin DeVonish/ AP

At Sundance, Spike Lee debuted documentary Michael Jacksons Journey from Motown to Off the Wall( Showtime, 5 February) the no-nonsense title lets you know what you should be in for. Moreover, this informative, snappy film should prove more than enough of a tonic for the bizarre recent news that Joseph Fiennes has been cast as Jackson in a forthcoming British TV drama.

Author and journalist Nelson George, who helped to fund Lees debut Shes Gotta Have It in 1986, has directed an assimilate, intimate documentary, A Ballerinas Tale, about Misty Copeland, who made history in 2015 when becoming the first African American principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre( ABT ). Its Tv premiere arrives on PBS on 8 February.

Finally, on the same channel, theres another chance to catch Stanley Nelsons The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution( 16 February ), a considered and informative account of the activist party stunningly rapid rise and implosion. Its packed with incisive revelatory archive footage and contributions from former members, commendably self-critical and unarguably timely given the contemporary national climate.

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