Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor star in “Origin,” the new film from director Ava DuVernay.  Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/courtesy of NEON

Happy Black History Month! Now let’s all listen to an old white guy’s thoughts on race in the movies! But I kid this old writer from a state currently second in the nation for least diverse population. (Thanks to Vermont for just edging us out for the bottom slot.)

While nobody especially needs me to tell them what’s what in terms of being Black in America (seriously), I’m at least qualified to talk about the history of Blackness in cinema, being a movie nerd and all. So here’s a handy personal roster of illuminating, entertaining and controversial movies with something to say, and where to watch them.

“In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

With the recent passing of director Norman Jewison, it’s a fine time to recall one of the most stirring, controversial and groundbreaking moments in American cinema, pulled from this crackerjack cop thriller set in the deepest of Jim Crow South. (Underscoring the relevance of the film’s narrative, Jewison relocated the intended filming from Mississippi to Illinois upon seeing just how hostile his first choice was to his star.) Sidney Poitier’s refined Philadelphia cop Virgil Tibbs is in Sheriff Rod Steiger’s Mississippi town to help investigate a murder when the two mismatched lawmen visit the palatial plantation home of a wealthy White aristocrat suspect. The man is all false civility in the face of this outsider – at least until Tibbs has the temerity to ask actual questions about his whereabouts at the time of the murder. When the old man suddenly slaps Tibbs in the face, it’s a shock. When Tibbs immediately slaps the man back, it’s a revolution. Black moviegoers roared. White ones were as shocked as if Tibbs had reached right out of the screen to slap even the most sympathetic viewers right in their complacency. It’s on Amazon Prime Video.

“42” (2013)

You’ll notice a scarcity of straight-up historical documentaries on this list. It’s not that there aren’t great and essential nonfiction films recounting the multitude of inspiring and or horrific stories from history, it’s just that when I think back to the movie moments that truly stuck with me, they’re ones where the alchemy of performance, message and writing combine to strike the right chord. For me, this story recounting Jackie Robinson’s rise to break baseball’s long-unspoken ban on Black players is right in my wheelhouse. Does it say something about me that I need to be led to greater understanding of racism and heroism by a sports film? Probably. But that doesn’t detract from the late Chadwick Boseman’s indelible performance as Robinson, called up to the major leagues despite universal scorn, death threats and player uprisings by the cantankerous Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey. (Harrison Ford seems to be channeling Popeye from time to time, but he still gets to me.) Americans love sports, and baseball has inspired generations to wax poetic about the purity of the game, even as generations of Black players toiled in the underfunded, segregated Negro League. Boseman’s Robinson was put into a no-win situation – and won. Boseman’s performance (the film was advised by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, played by Nicole Beharie) is all dignity and fire, as the decorated World War II soldier must maintain his composure through beanings and racist abuse from fans, opposing players and even teammates, and still manage to play at the highest level. I wept like a child. Available on Amazon Prime Video.


“BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed by Spike Lee in 2018, this 1970s-set story is as relevant and rousingly necessary now as ever. Especially considering that the film’s main antagonist, then Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (played chillingly by Topher Grace) is still active in Republican politics, having supported both Donald Trump and Tulsi Gabbard for president. John David Washington (son of Denzel) plays real-life Colorado cop Ron Stallworth, who decides to go undercover in the KKK. With the help of a white colleague (Adam Driver), Stallworth infiltrates the Klan with phone calls where he puts on a “white” voice, eventually uncovering a major white supremacist terrorist plot (and fighting against racist forces in his own department). With similarly violent racist terrorism on the rise, it’s a gritty, feel-good story that shows one Black man taking down the worst of the worst – and helpfully proving that racists aren’t very bright. Streaming on Fubo.

“Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror” (2019)

I’ve always contended that movies are the most powerful method of communication and persuasion in the history of media – for good and for ill. And genre films like horror are especially adept at sneaking messages into their bloody narratives. This eye-opening and endlessly entertaining documentary about the history of Black people in the horror genre from director Xavier Burgin begins with a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic “Birth of a Nation,” which is not a horror film – unless you pay attention to Griffith’s contention that the post-Civil War Black population is nothing but violent savages and the KKK are the good guys. As the film points out, even then there were protests against the film’s racism, but its massive success and enshrinement in the canon of Great American Films set the tone for how Black people were represented on screen. Throughout this thoughtful, wide-ranging documentary, we hear from icons of Black horror (Tony Todd, Keith David, Jordan Peele, Ken Foree, all delightful) as they share their experiences as moviegoers being shaped by what they saw growing up, and as actors and creators trying to adjust perceptions through their work. What we watch influences us, and examining the stereotypes and tropes we’re watching only makes us better people. Watch it on Shudder, AMC+, the Urban Movie Channel or Direct TV.

Origin (2023)

Director Ava DuVernay took on the challenging task of turning Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 nonfiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” into a biographical film where the author’s quest to write her bestselling discussion of the roots of racism mixes with strikingly dramatic re-creations of some of the most pivotal historical moments in the growth and cancerous spread of racism as ideology. Starring the great Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as the determined Wilkerson, the film counterposes the historical scope of the author’s work with her present-day struggle to break through the blind spots and resistance of even the supposedly enlightened white publishing and educational establishments. Brand new and racking up awards, DuVernay’s film is showing at various times through Sunday at PMA Films. Also look for PMA to help celebrate Black History Month on Feb. 10 with its free noontime screening of “NYICFF Kid Flicks: Celebrating Black Stories,” followed by a 3 p.m. showing of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the documentary about writer James Baldwin’s time in the civil rights movement ($10/$7 for members and students). For more information, go to

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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