10 Important Films Documenting Black History in the Making

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Two weeks ago we brought you a list of 10 great black history films, all of them documentaries chronicling events of the past. Now is the promised continuation of our celebration of Black History Month with ten more documentary works significant in providing historical record of African Americans and Black Canadians. This group is more on the side of record than history, as it includes mostly first-hand films rather than compilations of archival footage. This is the footage, whether for purpose of newsreel-style documentaries or Direct Cinema, verite or collaborative efforts.

Films of this sort present fewer landmark accounts and broad narratives, but they are definitely necessary to the story of black people in North America (we again include one film from Canada to recognize their shared observance of the occasion every February). The following titles show some monumental events, heroic achievements and paths toward progress, tales from the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Most of them you can watch right here, or easily on the web right now.

We Work Again

This 1937 film produced by the Works Progress Administration for Pathe Films showcases the WPA’s success in finding African Americans employment during the Great Depression, including jobs on public housing projects and in various arts endeavors. Of the latter, the 15-minute documentary is mostly notable for featuring the only known footage of Orson Welles’s all-black production of Macbeth.

Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert

Technically, this is simply newsreel footage more than it is a documentary film, but depending on the version you’re looking at, there can be made a case for the latter. Whatever you want to call it, this National Film Registry entry is a straight record of Marian Anderson’s famous 1939 Easter Sunday concert arranged by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after the opera singer was refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at Constitution Hall. Not only was it a major pushback in civil rights, one personally witnessed by 75,000 people on hand, but it is also believed to be the first open concert of its kind in Washington, many more of which would follow. The video below is just a newsreel bit of Anderson singing “America” courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which has been piecing together a 30-minute version of the whole concert with parts from the Hearst Metrotone News and NBC Radio recordings of the event.

The Negro Soldier

Frank Capra produced this propaganda film seen by all enlisting men, white and black, during World War II. Directed by Stuart Heisler and written by Carlton Moss (who’d worked with Welles on the Macbeth production seen above), this National Film Registry entry showcases the part played by African Americans during the global conflict, and it wound up helping to break racial barriers in the Army as well as offering a breakthrough in the depiction of black people in cinema. Much of it is staged, some of that to show past historical achievements of African Americans, the footage seen in the last third of the 40-minute film is relatively close to direct reality for this sort of short.

Wings For This Man

Another World War II propaganda film, this 10-minute short is narrated by future president Ronald Reagan and depicts the famous African American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Like The Negro Soldier, this documentary aimed to fight racism at home and in the military, Reagan notably stating that “you can’t judge a man here by the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose.” Both films deal somewhat with the irony of these men who were fighting for rights they may not have had, an issue that would be addressed more explicitly in history films like For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots.

Dresden Story

The obligatory National Film Board of Canada entry on the list. Among the NFB’s many films about the country’s black population, this one directed by Julian Biggs and produced for the On the Spot series may be the most significant in terms of history in the making rather than telling. Not that it’s any sort of stepping stone so much as an artifact of a place in a time, the focus is on Dresden, Ontario, which had made news for its continued refusal of service to black patrons by a number of local businesses, in spite of the province having recently passed anti-discrimination legislation called the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. After pointing out Dresden’s historical importance as the home of Josiah “Uncle Tom” Henson and the end point of the Underground Railroad, host Gordon Burwash interviews its citizens, first individually and then in groups — segregated between blacks and whites, ironically. One of the members of the black group is Hugh Burnett, a civil rights hero in Canada for his work with the National Unity Association and regular sit-ins that led to the passing of the Ontario legislation and furthered the cause throughout the country.

Integration Report 1

A historical figure herself for being credited as the first unionized African-American woman to direct a documentary, Madeline Anderson is best known for her later film I Am Somebody, about a hospital workers strike, but this is her first solo effort following her work for Direct Cinema pioneer Richard Leacock (initially as a live-in babysitter). The 20-minute Integration Report 1 actually contains some material shot by Leacock as well as Albert Maysles and features Maya Angelou and Lillian Hayman on the soundtrack. It follows events of the Civil Rights Movement — sit-ins, marches, etc. — between 1959 and 1960 in Birmingham, New York City, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and South Carolina, and includes appearances by Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Jackie Robinson, Jim Farmer, Robert F. Williams and A.J. Whittenberg.

The March

James Blue made this indispensable half-hour short for the United States Information Agency, which means it was produced particularly for export to other countries as a depiction of American democracy. It was also distributed at home and while today it’s celebrated as the filmed record of the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at the time it was criticized from the left and the right. One major complaint was that the U.S. shouldn’t be showing the world our problems, and the introduction by Carl Rowan was added to clarify its message. Marian Anderson can also be seeing performing here, and of course MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is featured — however, the beautifully restored version below is muted during this part due to a King family copyright on the material.

The Murder of Fred Hampton

One of the few feature films on this list, the Film Group’s documentary of Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton started as just another work of verite cinema, following its subject closely and without commentary. Then something that rarely occurs — but isn’t surprising with such an unpredictable, direct filmmaking style — happened: the subject was murdered by the Chicago Police Department during a raid. The project, directed by Howard Alk, continued as a documentary of the investigation, starting with incredibly immediate footage of the scene as Hampton was being removed from his bullet-ridden, blood-soaked apartment. Some of the second half becomes less of a strictly observational film in order to include all the necessary details, and that makes it one of the most fascinating cases of how volatile nonfiction cinema can be. The Film Group is one of the more unsung groups in the history of documentary, and some of their other records of black history are recommended, as well, including the recent addition to the National Film Registry, Cicero March, and the remarkably underrated feature-length doc American Revolution 2.

Street Fight

Jumping ahead a few decades, I need to include Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated debut feature from 2005 even if it is a chronicle of defeat. The documentary follows then-Newark City Council member Cory Booker during his 2002 bid for Mayor. It’s one of the best political campaign films in part because Booker is such an appealing subject but also because of the racial context of the clash between Booker and incumbent Sharpe James and what relationship and responsibility they each have to the black community. And as the now-U.S. Senator continues to advance in his political career, this early look at Booker’s drive and leadership gains historical importance.

11/4/08

Jeff Deutchman’s under-appreciated crowd-sourced collaborative documentary is a vital record of the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. It is unlike most election docs in that it doesn’t focus on the candidates as much as the voters and the national and international atmosphere of that titular date. We see chronologically edited footage from professional filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and Margaret Brown and amateurs from around the world, each merely capturing whatever was happening in their area, even if that might include skeptics and those voting for McCain. It’s a film filled with scenes that are seemingly unsubstantial on their own yet all are a piece of the zeitgeist. It’s interesting to watch some of it imagining the what if of Obama losing the election, and of course it was interesting to watch when it was released in 2010 as the spirit of that moment had long since passed and Americans weren’t quite as excited about our leader. It’s a documentary that will forever be historical record while it is also always changing depending on our perspective of the president and how we remember 11/4/08 and the years since.

This list was first published on February 19, 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.