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What to Watch (Not Just) During Black History Month

Tilane Jones
Courtesy of Array

For me, Black History Month is best illustrated by my 92-year-old grandmother Ella Queen Johnson’s recall of our family stories. She shares these stories knowing that the wider world lacks a true and full recognition of the African American family legacy. For most of her long life, she has known that she should not look for depth and dimension in film and television as it relates to families like ours. This is the very reason why she told our history to us herself. My grandmother is a dynamic woman who is not formally trained as a teacher or a historian, but nonetheless, she is both. I am drawn to distributing films created by indie Black filmmakers through ARRAY as a continuation of her calling. By supporting storytellers in the telling of their truths, I am celebrating a great legacy and making my grandmother proud.

I was a young girl when Black History Month was officially recognized by this country in 1976. I point this out as a reminder that we have claimed and celebrated our strength far longer than it has been acknowledged. We have always celebrated our true history in an effort to make sure it is never lost.

In salute of what we call Black Forever Month, here are a few of my favorite films and series that have inspired and challenged me to continue to learn and celebrate my people. All of these works have been carried to wider audiences through our mission at ARRAY and ARRAY Releasing.

“Sankofa” (1993), written and directed by Haile Gerima: The film tells the story of the untold history of Black resistance.

“The House on Coco Road” (2016), directed by Damani Baker: The intimate documentary explores heritage and history against the backdrop of a brewing Afro-centric revolution as the U.S. government prepares to invade the island nation of Grenada.

“Colin in Black & White” (2021) and “13th” (2016), written and directed by Ava DuVernay: All-star athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick narrates the six-part series recounting his formative years navigating race, class and culture while aspiring to greatness; the Academy Award-nominated documentary examines America’s mass-criminalization and prison industry, illuminating how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

“In Our Mothers’ Gardens” (2021), directed by Shantrelle P. Lewis: The documentary celebrates the strength and resiliency of Black women and Black families through the complex and humorous relationship between mothers and daughters.

“Residue” (2020), written and directed by Merawi Gerima: The movie follows an aspiring filmmaker returning to his childhood neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that has been gentrified beyond recognition.

“The Burial of Kojo” (2018), written and directed by Blitz Bazawule: Shown through a magical realist lens, the film tells the story of Esi as she recounts her childhood and the tumultuous relationship between her father, Kojo, and her uncle, Kwabena.

“Jezebel” (2019), written and directed by Numa Perrier: The film follows a teenager navigating her dying mother’s financial struggles by working as an internet fetish cam girl in the ’90s.

“They’ve Gotta Have Us” (2018), directed by Simon Frederick: The three-part documentary series is a timely look at the impact of art, activism and race on Black cinema over three generations, featuring in-depth interviews with some of Hollywood’s most iconic voices.

“Burning Cane” (2019), written and directed by Phillip Youmans: Set among the cane fields of rural Louisiana, the film follows a deeply religious, God-fearing mother struggling to reconcile her tightly held convictions of faith with her troubled, self-destructive son.

“Better Mus’ Come” (2021), written and directed by Storm Saulter: Passion, politics and poverty collide as this stunning love story from the Jamaican filmmaker unfolds against a backdrop of political turmoil.

Tilane Jones is president of ARRAY the distribution, arts and advocacy collective founded with the mission to amplify Black voices, artists of color and women of all kinds in the cinematic canon. ARRAY Releasing recently debuted its 37th independent film.