12 Black history films we all need to watch according to Bristol's first Black-owned TV production company
Michael Jenkins and Dr Mena Fombo are experts when it comes to Black history films. The talented duo are the founders of Blak Wave Productions –the first Black-owned television production company in Bristol, England.
Committed to producing film and television which showcases the diversity inherent within the UK, Blak Wave productions give voice to unheard stories through fresh character-led content. Founded in 2019, their recent work includes an episode of Channel 4's Take Your Knee Off My Neck, and the BBC's Home Carnival Queen, which looks at British carnival culture through the lens of Black women.
Here, Four Nine speaks to Michael and Mena about what they consider to be some of the most important films on Black History, as well as the ones that inspired them to become filmmakers.
Black Wave Productions' favourite Black history films
As they stress throughout the course of our conversation, all aspects of Black cinema are historical – from the production to the financing. "When we're looking at Black history through film, we can't negate the fact that Black history was actually made in the making of those films," Michael explains. "We have to make sure we also watch these films because of who made them, or how they got made."
Some of the movies that Micheal and Mena reference hail from the 60s and the Blaxploitation era, and in these cases, Mena adds that it's important to appreciate them for what they are, and in the mindset of when they were made, "rather than with our 2021 heads."
Of course, this is not an extensive nor conclusive list, but the filmmakers believe it will give Four Nine readers an introduction to some of the films they consider to be important viewings.
1. Malcolm X - Spike Lee (1992)
The first film that helped give Michael a clearer perspective on the history of Black people in America was Spike Lee's film Malcolm X.
He tells me: "I watched that when I was really young, probably around 12-years-old. It really inspired me and changed my whole outlook on life and society. To see Malcolm X's story, and Denzel Washington bring him to life was just epic. It began my journey to understanding some of these historical figures."
Mena adds: "That was a game-changer for me too. Back then, [Spike Lee] was one of the few Black filmmakers you heard about in the UK, and I watched everything he made. Obviously, Denzel is a legend, but some of the other leading black actors were also great."
2. Goodbye Uncle Tom - Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (1971)
While Michael says he wouldn't recommend Goodbye Uncle Tom to any young person, or someone who would be triggered by its frank depiction of slavery, he says that it's "more grounded in reality" than the likes of 12 Years a Slave.
"The way that plantation life and slavery was portrayed was horrific, and uncensored," he says. "It's traumatising to watch these sort of things, just like seeing things like George Floyd's death. But at the same time, it does what a film should do, and it's why I make films. It really gives you a sense and feeling of a time, and what it could have been like."
3. Boyz n Hood - John Singleton (1991)
"I was 10 when Boyz n the Hood came out in 1991, and that film changed everything for me in terms of understanding gang culture, and rap music, and figures such as Ice Cube," Mena says.
"Films like Boyz n the Hood are quite stereotypical and negative when you think about it," Michael adds. "But as a young person, they were the only Black films that were readily available, so it was something to watch and get into. And the music too. It was really powerful for me."
4. Waiting to Exhale - Forest Whitaker (1995)
The first film that Mena saw in the cinema that had four Black female leads was Waiting to Exhale. Although she explains that it's not about Black history as such, it was historic in the sense that it made it over to the UK when many Black Hollywood films didn't – for fears that they wouldn't bring in enough revenue.
"A lot of Black films [at the time] came with a great soundtrack," she says. "And [Waiting to Exhale] had an all-female one. There's a whole period of time in the 90's where you'd get Black Hollywood films whose soundtrack would surpass the film, and you'd go watch it just for that, even if the film maybe wasn't as good as it could be."
5. The Color Purple - Steven Spielberg (1986)
"There are lots of films that talk about Black history but that may have not had Black directors, such as The Color Purple," Mena explains. "At the time there was a lot of kickback. But it has gone on to stand the test of time for being one of the earlier films that depicted black life within a historical context.
"And it changed the game for a lot of actors. Obviously, Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg were nominated for Oscars. It really stood out to me for showing Black American history on-screen in the 80s, which you didn't get to see much. Also, just in terms of the issues, it tackled – [there's] incest, queerness, abuse, and the post-plantation era."
6. Love & Basketball - Gina Prince-Bythewood (2000)
Mena says: "Things like Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball are historical in their making because it's just a story about Black love.
"It’s not the most groundbreakingly stylistic film, it’s simply a beautiful story, executed to perfection and it has a Black female director. To this day it's still in my top five favourite films."
7. The Last Dragon - Michael Schultz (1985)
"My father was heavily into martial arts and kung-fu films, so when I saw Taimak as Leroy Green in The Last Dragon, it was epic," Michael adds. "It was really influential because at the time there were hardly any Black people in the media we were consuming. So it was always exciting to watch a film with a Black cast.''
"When I was growing up in the 80s, I was obsessed with anything that had a Black cast," Mena corroborates. "In fact, I don't even have a catalogue memory of British movies from around the 90s to the 2000s, when I studied film, because I subconsciously and consciously boycotted the UK film industry, as I was like, 'Well, they don't have Black characters in them. So, I just consumed anything that was what we called at the time 'Black Hollywood'".
8. Sarafina! - Darrell Roodt (1992)
"Sarafina! is a film about South Africa, and it has Whoopi Goldberg in it," Mena says. "It's a beautiful musical, but it's about the student uprising during apartheid.
"I saw it at 11, I think, and it was my introduction to understanding more about apartheid. I always knew who Nelson Mandela was, but that film really introduced me to the issues."
9. Dancehall Queen - Rick Elgood and Don Letts (1997)
"Seeing the culture and music of the dance hall on-screen was just amazing," Michael says. "It's about a dancing competition, in a sense, and a woman wanting to be the dance hall queen.
"It was really just a glimpse into Jamaican culture that was completely omitted from the mainstream BBC, Channel 4 and ITV channels in the 90s."
10. Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973) and Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971)
Michael continues: "Films like Coffy and Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) were massive in the height of the Blaxploitation era. Obviously, they did show a lot of negative stereotypes about the Black community. But, at the same time, it was a way of getting stories told, and seeing Black people in a different light."
Giving some context, Michael adds, "Blaxploitation revived Hollywood, which is another hidden story that people don't really talk about. Cinemas were kept alive by these films, and in fact, they helped Hollywood be able to fund the blockbusters that came in the 70s, like Star Wars.
"What kept them going at that time were the cheaply made films by the Black community, and the kung-fu films that were imported from China. And Black people and their culture was exploited [so that's] where you get the genre of Blaxploitation.
"Looking at it now, it does seem quite regressive, but at that time Black people were used to seeing this stereotypical 'Mammy' character. These films were a chance to actually show Black people sticking it to the man, and standing up for themselves. There's a whole load of films within that genre we could talk about forever. But Coffy and Shaft really stick out for me."
11. Candyman - Bill Condon, Turi Meyer, Bernard Rose (1992)
For Michael, Candyman was very influential, especially as it featured the first Black horror protagonist.
"Although it had flaws, it was something I grew up very much believing until I hit my teenage years," he laughs.
12. The Bodyguard - Mick Jackson (1992)
"I don't know if it's seen as a Black film, but I would [mention] The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner," Mena adds.
"It was [significant] in the sense that they were one of the first interracial couples we saw. They argued that you couldn't have an interracial couple and it be a hit. Basically, and obviously, The Bodyguard went on to be an amazing film."
*Black History Month – to fully understand the present, we must educate ourselves on the past.