Screen’s picks for Black History month

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In honor of Black History Month, below are recommendations from Screen beat writers for films and television shows written or directed by Black creators. 

“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) — Recommended by Kyla Figueroa

With its breathtaking score and beautiful cinematography, Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of William O’Neal’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the death of BPP deputy chairman Fred Hampton. While Hampton’s assassination is the major plot point of the story, the movie rewrites the image of the BPP, from highlighing their intention to be “for the people” to their free breakfast program and medical clinic to Hampton’s own Rainbow Coalition. Overall, the movie sheds new light on mid-20th-century civil rights activism and makes the audience rethink what they have been taught about Black history. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) — Recommended by Malia Mendez

George C. Wolfe and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a carefully crafted film that honors but also crystallizes August Wilson’s 1982 play by the same name. Wilson’s narrative centers on Ma Rainey, dubbed “The Mother of Blues,” and her economic exploitation as a blues performer in Chicago, but a fictionalized accompanying band dominates the piece’s dialogue and points toward larger issues of Black capitalism, white power structures and their intersections in the entertainment industry. Viola Davis’s passion in the eponymous role is palpable, especially accompanied by the fact that she padded and greased herself to truly transform into the unapologetic Ma Rainey. 

In addition, Chadwick Boseman’s scenes as the ambitious young saxophone player Levee are charged with the impending tragedy of his death. Cast members have remarked that they were awestruck by his piercing performance of grief while filming, only to discover that this instinct was fueled by Boseman’s genuine turmoil as he silently battled cancer. Levee’s monologues are poignant regardless, guided by Wilson’s genius hand, but Boseman’s loss makes them particularly gut-wrenching. 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is gritty and beautiful as the “Mother of Blues” muse was, and it is a must-see (multiple times over). Luckily for us, it is only the first in a line of Wilson’s plays set to be adapted for release on Netflix. 

“I May Destroy You” (2020) — Recommended by Jared Klegar

“I May Destroy You” was my favorite show of 2020 — not because it is perfect, but because it dares not to be.

Michaela Coel stars as London-based author Arabella, whose poised exterior masks a messy personal life and troubled family history. Struggling to write her second novel, Arabella puts work aside and heads out for a night on the town with her friends. But when her drink is spiked, she has to piece together the evening’s events as the details return to her memory.

“I May Destroy You,” however, is no simple mystery — it tackles consent, trauma and intersectionality with more nuance than anything I’ve seen before. The series feels like a huge step forward for television, not only bringing the stories of the frequently marginalized to the forefront, but also revolutionizing how these stories can be told.

Multi-hyphenate Coel, who created, wrote and co-directed the 12-episode, half-hour drama, delivers razor-sharp scripts with layered narratives and complex, empathetic characters. The cast, rounded out by Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu, is uniformly stellar, finding the ache, joy and humanity in the deeply flawed people they portray. The soundtrack rocks. And the show’s voice is so strong that it can shift among tones, time periods and central characters without missing a beat.

Don’t be like the Golden Globes and overlook this series. Endlessly thought-provoking, constantly exciting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating and wholly captivating, “I May Destroy You” is essential viewing.

“Dear White People” (2017-present) — Recommended by Fateemah Faiq

I have one question for you: Do you miss school? If the answer is yes, “Dear White People” is sure to make you nostalgic for the rollercoaster of college life. The show revolves around Black students at a fictional Ivy League university. Its pilot begins with the events following a blackface party held on campus and deals with the fallout from the blatant racism that has reared its ugly head at the prestigious school. As the characters deal with the after-effects of the party, they struggle to find their own place on campus and in the world.

Show creator Justin Simien combines the air of stress and frustration felt by the students with moments of camaraderie, humor and self-discovery. “Dear White People”’s mixture of drama and light-heartedness provides familiarity and comfort for college-age viewers. The show’s characters encounter the same challenges faced by many students, especially students of color navigating race and identity. The show features a Black-themed house reminiscent of Stanford’s Ujamaa and showcases race issues seen on campuses all across America, including Stanford. 

“Dear White People” is an easy-to-consume Netflix original with three seasons of 10 25-minute episodes. Watch it for a throwback to campus life — and to see what being Black at a predominantly white institution might feel like. 

“Black-ish” (2014-present) Recommended by Rosana Maris Arias

Where do I begin? “Black-ish,” written by Kenya Barris, is a wonderful sitcom that focuses on Black identity in America, specifically following a Black upper-middle class family in a white Los Angeles suburb. Mother Rainbow Johnson — a Brown University graduate and anesthesiologist — and father Andre Johnson — an advertising executive for a marketing firm — raise their five children to know their roots and understand their privilege. 

The characters are beautifully written, as each has their own unique personality and quirks. As the show discusses Black history and identity, it also tackles conversations about the coming-of-age experience, police brutality in the United States and various other themes reflecting its diverse viewership. Guest appearances by prominent Black figures such as American hip hop band The Roots, Raven-Symoné of “That’s so Raven” and Zendaya of “Shake It Up” occur throughout the series. And to top it all off, Barris’ comedy — often hyperbolized from his own life — is fabulously bold.

“Black-ish” does not disappoint one bit. In fact, the show’s success resulted in two spin-offs: “Grown-ish,” which follows daughter Zoe in college, and “Mixed-ish,” which tells the story of mother Rainbow’s experience growing up in a family with a Black mother and a white father in the 1980s. “Black-ish” is a must.

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

This article originally stated that there are 10 episodes of “I May Destroy You.” It has been updated to reflect that there are in fact 12 episodes. The Daily regrets this error.

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Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is a staff writer for Arts & Life and contributing writer for Opinions and The Grind at the Stanford Daily. She is from Stockton, California and is studying English with a track in Creative Writing. Her favorite subjects to write about are TV, film, books, theatre, activism, and lifestyle. Contact Kyla Figueroa at kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.
Malia Mendez ’22 is the Screen desk editor for the Arts & Life section of The Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.
Jared Klegar is a Staff Writer for Arts & Life and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. Born and raised in New York City, he looks forward to the day when live theater can resume safely. Contact him at jklegar 'at' stanforddaily.com.
Fateemah Faiq ’22 is a Screen Staff Writer for the Arts & Life section of The Daily. She is majoring in Linguistics and minoring in Data Science. Geek out with her about TV or send watching recommendations at faiqf ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Rosana is an Arts & Life Contributing Writer and a News Staff Writer from La Puente, CA. She enjoys a good hike and is her dog’s biggest fan. The SoCal native misses playing the alto saxophone and looks forward to someday watching the Dodgers (in-person) win another World Series game. Contact her at rmaris 'at' stanforddaily.com.