In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. And since 1988, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month, which is recognized and celebrated every year in a variety of ways, all across the country (including on this blog), throughout the entire month.
As this year’s Women’s History Month of celebrations comes to an end, here are 15 feature documentaries on notable black women in world history that you should add to your watch-lists, not only to close out the month, but to watch and appreciate beyond it. All these films are available in at least one home video format (DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, Digital Download, YouTube, Netflix etc). This is by no means a definitive list, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section below.
1 — “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” (2013)
In October 1970, Angela Davis was arrested in New York City in connection with a shootout that occurred on August 7 in a San Raphael, California courtroom. She was accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into the courtroom in a bid to free inmates on trial there (the Soledad Brothers) and take hostages whom he hoped to exchange for his brother George Jackson, a black radical imprisoned at San Quentin. In the subsequent shoot-out with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed, along with Judge Harold Haley and two inmates. Davis, who had championed the cause of organizing black prisoners and was friends (later became involved) with George Jackson, was indicted in the crime, because the guns used in the shoot-out were registered to her; but she went into hiding, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals; she was apprehended only two months later. Her trial drew international attention. Eventually, after about 18 months after her capture, in June 1972, she was acquitted of all charges. Shola Lynch’s “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” relives those eventful, uncertain, transformative early years of Angela Davis’ life; it aims to raise awareness and reignite discussion on the movement she joined and eventually led, by introducing it to a new, younger generation, in a simple, straight-forward, accessible style.
2 — Another Shola Lynch film, “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed” (2004)
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy for president of the USA, launching the first-ever run by a woman and person of color for presidential nomination, which, as you’d expect, engendered strong, and sometimes bigoted opposition, setting off currents that affect American politics and social perceptions to this day. Lynch’s film features stirring archival footage, music of the era, interviews with supporters, opponents and observers, and Chisholm’s own commentary – then and later (she passed away in 2005). A remarkable recollection of a campaign that broke new ground in politics, and truly reached out to ‘the people.’
3 — “Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992” (2012)
Dagmar Shultz’s film tells an untold chapter (the Berlin years) of the late writer, poet and activist, child of immigrants from Grenada, who died rather young at 58 years old in 1992. The film focuses on Audre Lorde’s years in Berlin during which she catalyzed the first movement of Black Germans to claim their identity as Afro-Germans. As she was inspiring Afro-Germans, she was also encouraging White German feminists to look at their own racism. The film serves as a historical document for future generations of Germans, profiling and highlighting, from the roots, the African presence in Germany, and the origins of the anti-racist movement before and after German reunification. It also offers analysis and an understanding of present-day debates on identity and racism in Germany. Consider it a companion piece to the 1994 documentary “A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde” by Ada Gray Griffin and Michelle Parkerson, which is also certainly a film you should see.
4 — “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai” (2008)
In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kenyan political and environmental activist died at age 71 in September 2011, losing a lengthy battle with cancer. “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai” documents the story of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging rural women and families to plant trees in community groups. The film centers specifically on Maathai, the movement’s founder, as she helps spark a movement to reclaim Kenya’s land from a century of deforestation, while providing new sources of livelihood to rural communities. The film follows her three-decade journey of courage to protect the environment, ensure gender equality, defend human rights and promote democracy – all coming from the simple act of planting trees. Lisa Merton and Alan Dater directed the film.
5 — “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks” (2003)
Lisa Gay Hamilton’s directorial debut, the documentary is a record of the graceful, seemingly indomitable actress Beah Richards – a sensitive portrait of an artist and activist who became especially iconic to generations of black actors. While Richards struggled to overcome racial stereotypes throughout her long career onstage and onscreen, she also had an influential role in the fight for Civil Rights, working alongside the likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Louise Patterson. After performing with Richards in Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks” director Lisa Gay Hamilton said she was compelled to get her inspiring story on film, and began the project with Demme as co-producer. Hamilton’s intimate interviews capture Richards’ passion and enduring elegance, and are interwoven with archival footage of her work, including riveting performances of some of her most famous poems. The film celebrates the life of the legendary actress, poet and political activist.
6 — “Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun” (2008)
Director Sam Pollard’s documentary on the path-breaking novelist, pioneering anthropologist and one of the first black women to enter the American literary canon (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), as well as one of the most vital, inventive voices in American literature. A definitive biography, 18 long years in the making, the film portrays Hurston in all her complexity: gifted, flamboyant, and controversial, but always fiercely original. It incorporates insights from leading scholars, and rare footage of the rural South (some of it shot by Hurston herself), with re-enactments of a revealing 1943 radio interview. Hurston biographer, Cheryl Wall, traces her unique artistic vision back to her childhood in Eatonville, Florida – the first all-black incorporated town in the USA. It’s a well-rounded, informative account of an exuberant, independent woman, outlining Hurston’s life and her near-miraculous achievements, drawing on an impressive and eclectic group of talking heads.
7 — “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” (2013)
Writer and activist Alice Walker made history as the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her seminal novel “The Color Purple (1982), for which she won the National Book Award. Delving into her personal life, “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” reveals the inspiration for many of her works. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s documentary tells Walker’s dramatic life story with poetry and lyricism, and features new interviews with Walker, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire and the late Howard Zinn in one of his final interviews. “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” charts Walker’s inspiring journey from her birth into a family of sharecroppers in Eatonton, Georgia, to the present. The film explores Walker’s relationship with her mother, poverty, and participation in the Civil Rights Movement, which were the formative influences on her consciousness and became the inherent themes in her writing.
8 — “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You” (2013)
Whoopi Goldberg directed the documentary feature on the life of pioneering comedian Moms Mabley. Having broken racial and sexual boundaries as a pioneering comic talent, the late Moms Mabley has long been an icon in the comedy world. In the film, Goldberg takes a deep dive into Mabley’s legacy via recently unearthed photography, rediscovered performance footage and the words of numerous celebrated comedians. A true passion project for Goldberg, “I Got Somethin’ to Tell You” shows Mabley’s historical significance and profound influence as a performer vastly ahead of her time. Moms Mabley was a pioneer in the comedy world and this documentary showcases her talent and pays homage to a woman who is still relevant today. Moms was the first and without her there probably would not have been a Totie, a Joan, a Kathy, a Wanda, or any of the others who may follow. Without Moms there certainly would not have been a Whoopi. With her boundary pushing stand-up she was able to get past the obstacles of all the “isms”; racism, sexism, ageism. Moms helped shape the idea that comedy could make a political and social statement and still be hilarious. Goldberg calls Mabley one of her role models. This documentary delves into the comedy of Mabley, and helps define her significance through clips, old photographs, television show appearances and interviews with famous and influential people who either knew and worked with Moms or were inspired by her.
9 — “Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess” (2015)
Roy T. Anderson’s documentary telling the story of the legendary “Nanny of the Maroons,” Jamaica’s only female National Hero who was confirmed by Jacqueline DjeDje, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, as “the first black female freedom fighter in the Americas – coming before Harriet Tubman, and even Sojourner Truth.” This eighteenth-century warrior queen led a band of former enslaved Africans in the mountains of Jamaica to a decisive victory over the mighty British army. Despite all the acclaim, Queen Nanny remains a mystery. Conceived by Anderson and History Professor Harcourt T. Fuller, this landmark documentary unearths and examines this mysterious figure that is Queen of the Maroons. “Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess” was filmed in Jamaica, Ghana, Canada, and the United States over the course of two years, and includes interviews with Maroons and scholars who are experts in Caribbean history and the study of slavery. This film features appearances by the “Queen of Reggae” Rita Marley, the widow of Bob Marley; Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister, The Most Hon. Portia Simpson-Miller; double Olympic and World Champion sprinter Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce; U.S. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke; historians Verene Shepherd, Linda Heywood, Afua Cooper and others.
10 — “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” (2016)
From co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack comes the feature-length documentary, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” which tells the remarkable story of Maya Angelou – iconic writer, poet, actress and activist – whose life has intersected some of the most profound moments in recent American history. The film pieces together the life of prejudice and oppression that made the seminal author of “Í Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” the great, inspirational writer whose name defies categorization. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers trace Dr. Angelou’s incredible journey, shedding light on the untold aspects of her life through never-before-seen footage, rare archival photographs and videos and her own words. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South and her early performing career (1957’s Miss Calypso album and “Calypso Heat Wave” film, Jean Genet’s 1961 play “The Blacks”) to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana and her many writing successes, including her inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” reveals hidden facets of her life during some of America’s most defining moments. The film also features exclusive interviews with Dr. Angelou, her friends and family, including Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Hillary Clinton, Louis Gossett, Jr., John Singleton, Diahann Carroll, Valerie Simpson, Random House editor Bob Loomis and Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson.
11 — “T-Rex” (2016)
“T-Rex” is an intimate coming-of-age story about a new kind of American heroine. For the first time ever, women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics. Fighting for gold from the U.S. was Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, then just 17 years old, and by far the youngest competitor. From the hard knock streets of Flint, Michigan, Claressa is undefeated and utterly confident. Her fierceness extends beyond the ring. She protects her family at any cost, even when their instability and addictions threaten to derail her dream. Claressa does have one stable force in her life. Coach Jason Crutchfield has trained her since she was a scrawny 11-year-old hanging out at his gym. Jason always wanted a champion; he just never thought it’d be a girl. Her relationships with her coach and her family grow tenser as she gets closer and closer to her dream. But Claressa is fierce and determined. She desperately wants to take her family to a better, safer place and winning a gold medal could be her only chance. She would eventually claim her sport in history as the youngest, and the first woman boxer to win a Gold Medal in her weight class. She would pick up another Gold Medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The tri-continental effort (North America, Europe and Asia) comes from directors Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepari, who begun work on the film in 2012.
12 — “A Ballerina’s Tale” (2015)
Nelson George’s documentary explores the rise of Misty Copeland, who made history as the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theater. It gives audiences an intimate look at a groundbreaking dancer during a crucial period in her life, as she makes the transition. On June 30, 2015, Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT’s 75-year history. It recounts her early struggles as a young dancer living in a welfare motel with her family, and provides an insider’s look at the cutthroat world of professional ballet, telling a moving story of dreams and perseverance, and reflects on her legacy as she trains and mentors talented hopefuls from diverse backgrounds, looking to take on the next major step in their ballet careers.
13 — “Iron Ladies of Liberia” (2007)
After nearly two decades of brutal civil war, Liberia is a nation ready for change. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated the country’s first elected female president and Africa’s first freely elected female head of state. A Harvard-educated economist and grandmother of eight who had been exiled to Nigeria and nicknamed the Iron Lady, Johnson Sirleaf won a run-off election with 59 percent of the vote, but faces enormous obstacles in rebuilding a war-torn country. Despite massive support both in Liberia and abroad, Johnson Sirleaf must not only find ways to reform a corrupt authoritarian government saddled by astronomical debts, but must also confront opponents loyal to former President Charles Taylor – all without alienating her voter base. Since taking office, Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, “Iron Ladies of Liberia” goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war. Other “iron ladies” seen throughout the film include Minister of Justice Francis Johnson-Morris, Commerce Minister Olubanke King Akerele and Minister of Gender Vabah Kazaku Gayflor. The film is co-directed by Daniel Junge, Siatta Scott Johnson.
14 — “The Real Shirley Bassey” (2001)
Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey, DBE began her career in the mid-1950s, and is best known for both her powerful operatic voice and for recording the theme songs to the James Bond films “Goldfinger” (1964), “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971), and “Moonraker” (1979). In January 1959, Bassey became the first Welsh person to gain a No. 1 single. In 2000, Bassey was made a Dame for services to the performing arts. In 1977 she received the Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist in the previous 25 years. Bassey has been called “one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain during the last half of the 20th century.” The life of Welsh singer is told through archive footage and with interviews of those who have known and worked with her since the 1950s, as she went on to become the greatest singer and diva of our generation. Directed by Michael Wadding, this film charts the story of this incredible woman.
15 — “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee” (2014)
Directed by her grandson Muta’Ali Muhammad, the documentary style film about Love, art and activism tells the life and love story of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis for the first time, incorporating candid and revealing conversations with the award-winning actress, playwright and activist Dee, conducted by Muta’Ali who not only discovers intimate details about his grandparents’ relationship, but also questions his ability to carry on the very dynasty that gave him life. In the film, the director breaks the wall between himself and his subject to ask heartfelt questions of his grandmother. Her answers only spark more questions for Muta’Ali, provoking him to dig deeper into the family archives and history, as he chronicles their remarkable journey as trailblazers in the arts community and activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Muta’Ali also shares exclusive video footage, family photos and memorabilia. In addition, a host of celebrity friends like Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Hill Harper, Samuel Jackson, Spike Lee, S. Epatha Merkerson, Phylicia Rashad, Glynn Turman, Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez and Malik Yoba share eyewitness accounts of this American legacy. Muta’Ali captures his grandmother’s perspective about life’s essentials: love, marriage, commitment, conscious art and activism. The film preserves the wisdom of Dee and Davis for many longing to create a tradition of rich living that impacts today’s society.
And there are others… consider this a starter list and feel free to recommend titles that you think should be included.
Now go watch some documentaries and learn more than a few things that you didn’t know of before!