Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.
For this month’s theme of black history month, there are no end of excellent films to mention. There’s Spike Lee’s first theatrical feature, the 1986 classic She’s Gotta Have It; the first Zimbabwean film to stream on Netflix, romcom Cook Off; and the oldest known surviving film directed by an African-American director (Oscar Micheaux), Within Our Gates, a 1920 film in the genre “race films” centred around a black female protagonist played by Evelyn Preer. Book-to-film adaptations triumph too. Precious and The Help both showcase the stories of black women on screen, and celebrate the actors involved, with Best Supporting Actress wins at the Oscars for Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer, respectively. While it may focus on two men returning to rural Mississippi after World War II and their dealings with racism in the south, the phenomenal film Mudbound proved to be a vehicle for female talent. Not only was Rachel Morrison the first woman to be nominated for her work as a cinematographer at the Oscars in 2018, but Mary J. Blige became the first woman to be nominated for Supporting Actress and Original Song in the same year.
In documentaries, black female icons Michelle Obama (Becoming), Beyoncé (Lemonade; Homecoming: a film by Beyoncé), and Misty Copeland (A Ballerina’s Tale) shine. Finally, any discussion of black women and film is not complete without the work of two critically acclaimed directors. Amma Asante directed two unmissable films based on real-life people and events: Belle, charting the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British Royal Navy captain in 18th-century London; and A United Kingdom, a biopic about the interracial romance between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, notable as it represented the marriage of a black African king to a white British woman. Likewise, Ava DuVernay’s impressive filmography includes the likes of 13th, Selma, A Wrinkle in Time (for which she was the first woman of colour to direct a nine-figure budget movie) and the recent Emmy-winning Netflix television mini-series When They See Us.
Our top five films for this month include a biopic; previously untold true stories; an adaptation of a young adult novel; and a beloved classic. Without further ado…
(2019, Dir.: Kasi Lemmons)
This moving eponymous biopic charts the story of Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo), the famed American abolitionist. Tubman escaped slavery, and using the Underground Railroad helped hundreds of slaves to freedom before the Civil War. Harriet – the first feature film about Tubman – is directed by Kasi Lemmons, the first black woman to join the director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and British actress Erivo made history at the 2020 Oscars with nominations for both Best Actress and her Original Song, “Stand Up”.
Harriet is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes; and stream on Sky Cinema
(2016, Dir.: Theodore Melfi)
Hidden Figures is a biographical drama about the African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race. Known as “human computers” these supremely talented women were instrumental in calculating the launch of astronaut John Glenn into space, all the while navigating the racism present in 1960s America. The wonderful central performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe and widespread acclaim for the film led to it becoming a commercial success and one of the most profitable films of 2016, bringing this untold story to a brand-new audience. NASA physicist Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Henson in the film) was honoured at the Oscars in 2017 with a heart-warming standing ovation.
Hidden Figures is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes
(2016, Dir.: Jeff Nichols)
Loving depicts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple at the heart of the landmark 1967 civil rights decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in ‘Loving V. Virginia’, which ruled that state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. This beautiful and tender film quietly showcases this ground-breaking moment in history, and the life of the Lovings and their struggle to live freely and together in a county adhering to Jim Crow segregation laws.
Loving is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video; and stream on BBC iPlayer
The Color Purple
(1985, Dir.: Steven Spielberg)
This classic 1985 film from Steven Spielberg adapts Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning coming of age novel, which tells the story of a young African American girl, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). The film highlights the struggles faced by African American women in the early twentieth century, from poverty to domestic violence and sexism. In 1986, The Color Purple tied The Turning Point for the most Oscar nominations without a single win. Interestingly, actress Cynthia Erivo – of Harriet, above – won the Tony award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in 2016 for her Broadway debut as Celie in the stage version of The Color Purple (she had previously played the role at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, before transferring to Broadway).
The Color Purple is available to stream on Sky Cinema; and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes
The Hate U Give
(2018, Dir. George Tillman Jr.)
In The Hate U Give, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a 16 year-old who witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The consequences of this act of violence ripple through Starr’s two worlds – the poor, predominately black neighbourhood in which she lives, and the affluent white school she attends. Based on Angie Thomas’ young adult novel of the same name, the film provides a deeply moving account of police brutality and structural racism in modern America through the lens of a teenage girl. The Hate U Give is especially poignant when viewed alongside recent protests in America, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Hate U Give is available to stream on Sky Cinema; and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.
About the Author: Emma Forth
I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.