Warning: This piece contains spoilers, and includes some discussion of police brutality and violence.
Choosing three must-see films in honour of Black History month was straightforward to some degree as there are a fair few to choose from. Yet, at the same time, it was incredibly frustrating because there are hardly any films exploring black British history.
The three I have chosen are all American. They all, to a significant extent, speak to the experiences both African-Americans and black British citizens face, and reflect how we all navigate the current socio-political climate. It is important to note that our experiences are not the same though.
The lack of films depicting the history of black Brits is a serious problem. By continuing to speak up about this, my hope is that we create opportunities, and space, for black British filmmakers to document and tell our history. But, for now, here are the three must-see films I would recommend watching to learn more about Black History, as well as the lived experiences of black people, and why…
HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)
In Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; NASA mathematicians who played an instrumental role during the Space Race.
Our protagonist Johnson (P. Henson) has been working as a human computer in a gender and racially segregated division of NASA for years, when she finds herself roped into the Space Task Group. There, she is the first black woman on the team. Jackson (Monáe) is assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, where she works as the only black female engineer, but without the formal qualifications, and Vaughan (Spencer) supervises the black mathematicians - but does not receive a Supervisor’s pay.
The dynamic between these three trailblazers is uplifting and fun-spirited; elements very much reflected in the style of the film. Yet, their respective journeys are underpinned by the real struggles of balancing family and career, whilst navigating daily micro-aggressions and blatant racism.
Little has changed since, and in a world where the amount of black women in STEM roles continues to be few and far between. Having these now visible role models, that young women can grow up emulating, has never been more important.
It is shocking to think that without Hidden Figures, these women may have very well remained hidden figures. This speaks of an even bigger issue in America, and most certainly European history, whereby the contributions and lived experiences of black people are either diminished or, more often, completely erased. On this level, the film implores us to question key moments in history.
FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. A 22-year-old black man who was violently pinned down by a police officer, and subsequently shot on New Year’s Day in 2009. We follow Grant during the last 24 hours of his life, which, not only chronicle the events leading up to his death, but more importantly, show us the man he was. From the love he had for his family and community, to the fears and aspirations he held for himself and his young family.
We unfortunately hear countless stories of black men dying at the hands of police officers. While we may feel saddened during the three minutes the news story runs for, these victims soon become nothing more than a statistic. In contrast, Fruitvale Station harrowingly puts a human face to the police brutality epidemic. An epidemic that is not just an American problem.
Despite the lack of mainstream news coverage, many black British men find themselves in danger at the hands of police. This concerns us too, and is why Fruitvale Station is so powerful. It unites the roots of the problem: the perception of black men as a threat and the inability to see them as human, through the undeniable humanity of Oscar Grant.
Detroit chronicles the events surrounding the 1967 Detroit riots and, more specifically, the incident at the Algiers Motel; where three black teenagers were brutally beaten and killed by white policemen.
John Boyega's performance as the well-intentioned security guard Melvin Dismukes, and his trajectory throughout the film, is particularly striking. Dismukes does everything right. He is polite, respectful towards his white colleagues, diligent, and ultimately keeps to himself. He is the poster boy for "The Good Immigrant". And so, when Dismukes finds himself on the wrong side of the Algiers Motel incident, with the police trying to frame him for their actions, we desperately root for him to come out of it unscathed.
As we realise Dismukes’ safe departure from the scene will not be as straightforward as we had initially hoped, our discomfort in watching the events unfold grows. Detroit fully captures what a systemically racist institution looks like, while Dismukes' predicament embodies how oppressive it feels as a victim of such an institution. The film calls on us to consider the very institutions around us, and reckon with how unravel the privilege that protects some whilst actively working against others.