by Ariel C. Williams
Although Black History Month has come to a close, Women's History Month ensures that we can continue honoring the legacies of Black women. And still, we know that celebrating the lives, stories, and achievements of women from the African Diaspora should not be relegated to just two months out of the year. For Harriet aims to exalt these women—no matter how large or small their impact—365 days out of the year.
Black women have a long history of being involved within the film industry, whether it be as actresses, writers, producers, directors, or the myriad other roles that goes into successfully making a film. Despite this, it has taken a long time for us to have movies that focus on our stories—particularly ones that recognize the historical influence of real-life Black women. With the success of Ava DuVernay's historical biopic Selma, we thought it important to showcase a few documentaries and biopics about legendary Black women that you should also watch.
1. Saartjie Baartman's StoryWe should all be familiar with the story of Saartjie Baartman (also known as Sarah), who history would dub "The Hottentot Venus." Born in 1789, many believe Baartman to have been a slave in Cape Town, South Africa when a British doctor, Williams Dunlop, "discovered" her. Dunlop was intrigued by Baartman’s unusually large buttocks, large breasts, and elongated labia, thus convincing authorities to let him bring her to Europe to be put on display as a “scientific curiosity.” Some research says that Baartman was taken against her will on this excursion, while others cite that she willingly boarded the ship. For the rest of her life, Baartman would be put on display in museums across Europe. After her death, Baartman's body would be dissected and "studied," and was also put on display posthumously. To learn more about Sarah Baartman, watch Part 1 and Part 2 of the French documentary, Saartjie Baartman’s Story, available on YouTube.
2. Introducing Dorothy DandridgeAt the Intersection of Hollywood and La Brea in Los Angeles, a statue of Dorothy Dandridge stands, as part of public artwork meant to commemorate four multi-ethnic leading ladies of classic cinema. However, Dandridge faced many challenges on her way to becoming one of the most successful African-American actresses during Hollywood's "Golden Age." Born in 1922, Dandridge would work as a singer, dancer, and actress for film and stage before gaining success as a well-known film actress and entertainer. In 1955, she would become the first Black actress nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing the title character in Carmen Jones, but would eventually lose to white film star Grace Kelly. Shonda Rhimes penned the 1999 biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Halle Berry gives an exceptional performance as Dandridge, documenting her rise to stardom and eventual tragic decline.
3. The Josephine Baker StoryThe Josephine Baker Story, starring actress Lynn Whitfield, garnered five Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe after it’s 1991 release. The film documents Josephine Baker's fearless ascent from her beginning days challenging the racism of the day in St. Louis, Missouri, to the eventual freedom she found as an ex-pat in France, dancing in front of diverse audiences who loved her jaw-dropping performances and barely there costumes. Josephine Baker's story is unique: from working as a domestic for wealthy white families in Missouri, to becoming a vaudeville dancer in New York, to becoming an international star with huge success in Europe, and her contributions to the Civil Rights movement, Baker has remained a beloved icon. Baker died on April 12, 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage. She was honored with a 21-gun salute, “making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors.”
4. What's Love Got to Do With ItIf Tina Turner has taught us nothing else, she’s shown us how to be exceptionally resilient in any situation. Starring Angela Bassett in her breakout performance as Tina, the acclaimed biopic What’s Love Got to do With It documents the entertainer's strength, tenacity, and success. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, the icon shuffled between her parents’ and grandparents’ households as a child due to domestic violence and an unstable home life. She would finally reunite with her sister and mother in St. Louis after her grandmother's death, where a young Anna Mae would meet Ike Turner at a local club. This union would begin Anna Mae's rise to becoming the legendary phenomenon we’ve grown to love, Tina Turner. The film also documents the abusive behavior of Ike, whom Tina would eventually leave to continue her success as a solo star.
5. The Rosa Parks StoryAffectionately called “The Mother of the Freedom Movement”, Rosa Parks served as an African American Civil Rights activist until the day she died. In The Rosa Parks Story, Angela Bassett portrays the leader’s story from her childhood in segregated Alabama, to what led her refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man after a long day’s work on December 1, 1955. As a result, Parks was arrested and jailed, thus prompting a 381 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional. Parks has remained a beloved historical figure for almost 60 years.
6. Lady Sings the BluesBorn Eleanora Fagan in 1915, Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Like many musicians during her time, Holiday had a rough upbringing and expressed their struggles in her music. She would enjoy major success as jazz singer and eventual icon, despite her ongoing battle with substance abuse. After her death, she would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Holiday continues to have one of the most distinctly recognizable voices in American music today. Diana Ross impeccably portrays pieces of Holiday’s troubled life and career in 1972 classic biopic Lady Sings the Blues, which was nominated for five Academy Awards.
7. Betty and Coretta
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two names that will be forever cemented in American history, as they have both come to define the Civil Rights Movement. However, these men's contributions were largely helped by their wives: Betty Shebazz and Coretta Scott-King. In the 2013 Lifetime movie Betty and Coretta, we learn how these women continued to have an impact after the assassinations of their prominent husbands, as well as their struggles as single mothers. Betty Shabazz (played by Mary J. Blige) went on to pursue higher education while raising six daughters on her own and Coretta Scott-King (played by Angela Bassett) continued to fight for Civil Rights as she raised four children on her own. Amidst their hardship, this biopic reveals the true friendship these two women shared, and why we can never forget how they were leaders in their own right.
Photo: Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues
Ariel C. Williams is a regular contributor to For Harriet.