It’s February, and that means it’s Black History Month again. Naturally, a site devoted to nonfiction ought to honor the occasion with a look at great documentaries about black heroes and accomplishments. But I don’t want to focus too much on the history of struggle. Most docs on the African-American experience have involved tragedy and/or civil rights. Many heroes depicted are civil rights leaders, or they’re men and women who’ve made achievements in sports and music. There are far fewer films about more common black people or even those who are notable for other things. Where is the inspiring black equivalent to Man on Wire, for instance?
Through this month, we’re going to be highlighting docs tied to Black History Month that are currently available to watch (many of the old ones are not). Some will celebrate heroes, some will celebrate the not-famous. Some will be actual historical record, while today’s list is specifically films that use archival cinematic documentation for the purpose of telling and depicting history. These are black history documentaries, and you should make time to watch them, even if not necessarily in the designated time of the year.
Nine From Little Rock
Part history, part propaganda and part “where are they now?” profile, this 1964 short from Charles Guggenheim (his first to win an Oscar) was commissioned by George Stevens, Jr. of the United States Information Agency Motion Picture Service. The task of the USIA films was to sell the world on America, particularly during the Cold War, and this was one of a handful meant to respond to a foreign criticism of the U.S. for hypocritically treating blacks poorly in spite of being “the land of the freedom and equality.” Stevens got the idea to revisit the story from 1957 of nine African-American students admitted into Little Rock’s Central High School thanks to President Eisenhower’s intervention. Hosted and narrated by one of the nine, Jefferson Thomas, the 18-minute film gives a brief history of the event and then we’re given an update on where each of the students went to college and what their plans are, seven years later. One really interesting part of the film is when we’re given a look at Ohio’s Central State University, which had its own integration pushback from the other side, having been founded as an all-black college. As was the case for USIA films, this was not publicly release domestically but became a hit overseas in 1965.
Watch the film below via the National Archives and read more about it in Tony Shaw’s book Hollywood’s Cold War.
King: A Filmed Record From Montgomery to Memphis
A literal event film, this Oscar-nominated three-hour work of history and biography originally played in theaters for one night only, on March 24, 1970, and wasn’t available in its entirety in any form for a very long time, even after it was added to the National Film Registry, until Kino Lorber’s recent theatrical re-release (ongoing, it’s in Baltimore later this month) and DVD. Helmed by two major Hollywood directors, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet, the doc comprehensively chronicles more than a decade in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. through a compilation of newsreel and other archival footage, including audio-only recordings of some speeches, mixed with appearances and narration by movie stars, both black and white, including Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Clarence Williams III, Charlton Heston, Ben Gazzara, Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I remember long ago thinking it weird that such a movie involved so many white people, but why shouldn’t it? King was a hero for all of America, for all of us.
Available on DVD (which you can rent from Netflix if you still have that kind of subscription). You can also find the incomplete short version streaming on the web, but it’s best to see the long version.
And representing the other major civil rights activist of the 1960s, here is another Oscar-nominated film, this one from 1972 and much less successful. Yet it was distributed by Warner Bros., which was a pretty big deal for the time. The origins of this feature doc were in a dramatic adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which interestingly enough supposedly had Charlton Heston in consideration for the lead — I can’t believe in the late ’60s that anyone truly pitched that as a possibility, and other names historically rumored for the part were James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier and Billy Dee Williams. That project, twenty years after turning into this 90-minute compilation of archival footage with narration from Jones (reading from the book in first-person), Ossie Davis and Steve Benderoth, also evolved into the biopic directed by Spike Lee. The doc was directed by Arnold Perl (credited as co-writing Lee’s movie), who’d died a year before the film hit theaters.
Eyes on the Prize
Not a documentary film but a 14-hour miniseries, created by Henry Hampton and released over two seasons on PBS. One episode of which (“Bridge to Freedom — 1965”) somehow earned an Oscar nomination. Narrated by former Georgia state representative and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, the series is celebrated for being an exhaustive history of the American civil rights movement and beyond. One of its aims was to give new attention to the people less remembered than MLK, such as Mose Wright, Fannie Lou Hamer and Charles Houston. The first season chronicles the movement from 1954 (with Brown v. Board of Education) to 1965 (Selma to Montgomery marches), while the second season follows up through 1985. It’s not necessary to start with this over anything else on this list, but it’s obviously a good and lengthy introduction to much of what gets covered in other films that have come before and after.
The first season is available on DVD and to stream on Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime subscribers, too). The second season appears to be out of print (likely due to licensing expirations) but can be bought as part of the $250 box set for educational use. The companion book is also recommended.
Adam Clayton Powell
Another Oscar-nominated biographical history about a man whose legacy ought to be maintained with each generation, this documentary profiles Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African-American congressman from New York State (and from the Northeast). He was a Baptist minister who represented Harlem from 1945 to 1971 (with a bit of a break in the late ’60s due to an official Congressional exclusion for various reasons), finally being voted out of office the year before he died. Directed by Richard Kilberg and narrated by Eyes on the Prize’s Julian Bond, the 54-minute film came at a perfect time, airing on PBS soon after David Dinkins took office as New York City’s first African-American mayor. And it’s worth revisiting now that we have our first African-American president. The doc is neither overly positive nor negative but merely makes account of Powell’s remarkable achievements as a legislator, for a time one of the most powerful men in the country, as well as his terribly flawed later years.
Available on iTunes and streaming on Amazon Instant Video.
The Road Taken
Black History Month is not just an American occasion. They also observe it every February in Canada, as well. And while not as known as in the U.S., there were civil rights issues going on up north, as obviously racism is not something contained within borders nor necessarily excluded from generally tolerant places. The National Film Board of Canada has produced a number of docs focusing on these less familiar stories, and this 54-minute feature from 1996 about job discrimination against black train porters by Selwyn Jacob is one of the better examples, particularly for its noteworthy jazz score composed by Joe Sealy. There have been similar docs made in the U.S. about African-American train workers, such as Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle and the reenactment-heavy Rising From the Rails: The Story of the Pullman Porter, but neither is as easily seen as this one.
Available via the NFB below.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed
The story of Shirley Chisholm, who appears as an interviewee in Adam Clayton Powell, is another sadly not remembered enough today. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and in 1972 she ran for president. She came in fourth place out of the 13 Democrats running and ninth out of the nearly 80 possibilities for the vice president ticket. Shola Lynch, now better known for Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed this double Independent Spirit Award nominee, which has been criticized for being a documentary about how Chisholm was the first black woman to make a bid for the White House in spite of Chisholm repeatedly stating that’s not how she wants to be seen or remembered. I think that’s what makes the doc interesting, though, not bad. And it definitely has relativity to Barack Obama’s presidency and the potential of a Hillary Clinton bid in 2016.
Available on DVD.
For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots
There are docs about the various wars that African Americans have fought in, and most of them address the idea that these men and now women have fought for a country in the name of freedom and democracy even while their race was anything but free or equal or properly represented. Unfortunately, many of them, such as a couple by the recently deceased William Miles, are currently unavailable (never mind that his Oscar-nominated Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II was infamously revealed to be filled with accidental inaccuracies, I’d still love to see it). This two-part TV movie/miniseries by Frank Martin from 2010 suffices in their place by covering all U.S. wars from the American Revolution to the invasion of Iraq with attention to the irony of the patriotism of black servicemen and servicewomen. It has a lot of dramatic reenactment, which I’m not a fan of, but the rest is strong enough for me to recommend it, and it sure does feature a ton of talent, from hosts Halle Berry and Colin Powell and narrator Avery Brooks to other voiceover work from seemingly all of Hollywood, including both black and white actors and actresses.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975
The most interestingly structured of the films on this list, Goran Olsson’s 2011 Sundance winner about the Black Power movement in America is also notable for being made by a Swedish director. And consisting of only footage shot by Swedish journalists, found in the Swedish Television archives. That has made some people dissatisfied with the limitations of the doc’s scope, but as Olsson has told me directly it’s not supposed to be something you’d find on The History Channel. Some might not even qualify it as history at all, but history doesn’t have to mean definitive history and there is room for a foreign perspective on these people and events. And then on top of that have the domestic perspectives of African-American celebrities, some more directly relevant than others, overlaid as if they’re riffing on the material, only with serious commentary. It is more cinema than history, as Olsson would say, but it is a novel form of black history nonetheless.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali
I wanted this list to avoid docs about athletes and entertainment stars, but I’m making an exception for Bill Siegel’s recent feature on Muhammad Ali because I don’t see it as a sports documentary, and as I point out in my review from last fall, I don’t even consider it a biographical film so much as “a history of the man.” Concentrated on Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War and refusal to enlist and the scrutiny and legal action that followed, it’s a documentary on a historical time in Ali’s life, on a historical time for the Nation of Islam and a historical time for America. As a comparison, the more acclaimed doc When We Were Kings (the director of which, Leon Gast, is an executive producer on this film) is more concentrated on just being a part of Ali’s life and boxing career. With that qualification out of the way, I also have to applaud this doc once again for employing only directly significant archival footage with no random stock material as filler. Siegel and the people at Kartemquin Films don’t screw around when it comes to historical documentaries.
This list was first published on February 7, 2014.