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African American Films in the
National Film Registry

 

 

black movies article archives
Celebrating Black Soldiers in Film. A List of Great Movies to Watch.
African American Films in the
National Film Registry
Three Black Movies Added
to National Film Registry 2011
Black Disney Movies
Nothing But a Man
Stormy Weather
Cabin in the Sky
A Raisin in the Sun
Top 10 African-American
Christmas Movies

 

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Updated April, 2013

black film cinema imagePreserving History
In order to preserve American film heritage, the United States Congress passed a law in 1988 creating the National Film Preservation Board.  Every year, only twenty-five films are chosen to be preserved with this distinction, and these movies are given the special honor of being in the National Film Registry.

The films do not have to be theatrically released movies, but they must be artistically, culturally, or historically important to the United States.  They also have to be at least ten years old.

Contained within this list are notable African-American films that are also very important to Black cinema heritage.

Culturally Important
Currently, there are twenty-seven African-American movies in the National Film Registry.  These movies showcase pre-eminent African-American talent and they document significant events in African-American history.

Landmark Black Cinema
One of the landmark films included in the registry is Within Our GatesThis is the oldest known surviving film directed by pioneer African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux.   In fact, it is the oldest known African-American film available today.

Historical Films
Additionally, the list includes the documentary, King: A Filmed Record..Montgomery to Memphis. This film contains archival footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and speeches during a pivotal time in American history.

Contemporary Movies
Other, more recent cinematic great movies such as Do the Right Thing, Daughters of the Dust and Boyz ‘N the Hood are also a part of the National Film Registry.

Following is the list of these African-American films with a brief description about each of them.

List of African-American Films in the National Film Registry

The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Description:  African-American director Spencer Williams wrote, produced and directed this movie featuring an all-black cast.  Spencer Williams was one of few, most prolific Black film directors of the 1940s. This film was made specifically for African-American audiences.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Description: This movie won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.  Also, African-American director John Singleton won the Best Director Academy Award for this movie.  Only 24 years old at the time, he became the youngest person ever (of any race) to win a Best Director Academy Award.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Carmen Jones (1954)
Description: This is another, rare all-black cast movie that was made by a Hollywood studio in the 1950s. Carmen Jones is considered one of Dorothy Dandridge’s greatest movie roles.  She became the first African-American actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film. The cast includes many notable African-American actors and actresses such as Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Description: This was the first movie directed by an African-American woman to be released in theatres nationally.  African-American director Julie Dash spent ten years doing research on the Gullah culture and gathering financial support to do this film.  She has also received many accolades for this movie’s beautiful cinematography.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Description: This is an impactful drama about race relations in a multi-ethnic Brooklyn, New York neighborhood.  African-American director, Spike Lee, wrote the screenplay in two weeks and also stars in the film. This critically-acclaimed movie is often mentioned as one of Spike Lee’s best films to date.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Description: This is considered one of Paul Robeson’s finest performances.  This movie broke many stereotypes of the time because it dared to show an African-American man who was strong and shrewd.  Many white theatres in the South refused to show this film unless the scenes showing Paul Robeson speaking harshly a white man were removed.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Gone With the Wind (1939)
Description: This movie is controversial in the African-American community because of its depiction of Black Americans in the South.  However, it was a breakthrough performance for Hattie McDaniel that led to her winning the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in this film.  She was the first African-American to ever win an Academy Award.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Hoop Dreams (1994)
Description: This documentary took over five years to complete and allowed viewers an intimate peek into the lives who two young African-American men who aspired to become professional basketball players.  Never before had a documentary provided such an intimate view of the real struggles and triumphs of two young, inner-city Black men.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Imitation of Life (1934)
Description: During the 1930s, it was rare to see an African-American woman who wasn’t a stereotypical mammy figure.  This movie broke new ground because of the multiple relationships that were portrayed – between Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert (women of different races) and between Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington (mother and daughter).
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Description: “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is a famous line that originated from this film. Racial bigotry is explored one-on-one when a Northern black detective has to help solve a murder with a Southern white bigot.  Quincy Jones did the music score and was nominated for a Grammy Award. 
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
Description: This film shows the fight that ultimately resulted in Jack Johnson becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  Historically and socially, it was a momentous occasion for African-Americans because of the racial nature of the fight between a Black and a White man. This victory became a source of racial pride in the African-American community.
Available on DVD: No

Killer of Sheep (1977)
Description:This film, by African-American director, Charles Burnett, is considered a cultural cinematic classic.  Shot in the 1970s on a very small budget, Killer of Sheep poetically dramatizes the life of a man named Stan who works long hours at a slaughterhouse in Watts, California.  The film was never released theatrically because of problems with getting music rights, but was shown underground in churches and museums.  It contains over 22 songs from many African-American musical greats like Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
Description: This documentary chronicles one of the most important times and figures in African-American history.  It contains archival footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life from the bus boycott in 1955 to his assassination in 1968.
Available on DVD: No, but this documentary can sometimes be found on VHS video. Click here for details.

The Learning Tree (1969)
Description:  This was the first feature film directed by an African-American director that was also funded by a major studio.  African-American Gordon Parks wrote and directed this movie.  The story is based on his own life growing up in a small town in Kansas.
Available on DVD: No, but may be able to find used videos. (Read BCM Summary for details.)
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

malcolm x dvdMalcolm X (1992)
Description:  Directed by notable African-American director, Spike Lee, this movie is considered one of the best films ever made about the life of Civil Rights Activist Malcolm X. Denzel Washington stars as Malcolm X and the film is based on the book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley.
Available on DVD: Yes.
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939)
Description: This film documents the performance of African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson, after she had been barred from singing in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall because she was Black.  The Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from the hall which prompted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write a letter of protest and resign from the group.  Seventy-five thousand people came to hear Marian Anderson sing.
Available on DVD: No

Nothing But a Man (1964)
Description: This independent film was one of the few movies of the 1960s to show an African-American man with enormous emotional depth and strength.  It realistically captures the human side of racial prejudice in the Deep South. It also warmly tells a love story between an African-American man and woman.  This film was the only American competitive entry in the Venice film festival in 1964, and it won two awards – the Prix San Giorgio and the City of Venice Prize.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Description:  Written by African-American playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, this powerful, dramatic movie was a successful, long-running stage play before becoming a movie.  It stars some of the greatest African-American actors of all time – Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Louis Gossett Jr.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Profile

Shaft (1971)
Description: Directed by African-American director, Gordon Parks, Shaft is credited with ushering in the blaxploitation film era.  It also broke new film ground with its on-screen portrayal of a Black man who was fearless, smart and sexy.  Isaac Hayes wrote and produced the soundtrack for Shaft. He won an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song for the theme song.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

Show Boat (1936)
Description: African-American actors Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel are featured in this movie.  This was the first popular film to depict Black roles that were as important as the White roles.  Paul Robeson sings, “Ol’ Man River” which many consider to be one of the best scenes in the entire movie.
Available on DVD: No, but you can sometimes find used VHS video copies of this movie. Click here for details.

the spook who sat by the door movieThe Spook Who Sat by the Door (1929)
Description: A politician decides to force the CIA to accept Black recruits in order to gain favor with the public. The least rebellious, most passive Black man is the one who makes it through the rigorous training to become a CIA agent, but only as a "showpiece" and not as an active agent. When he leaves the agency, though, his true intentions and character come out.
Available on DVD: Yes. Click here for details.

St. Louis Blues (1929)
Description: Legendary jazz singer Bessie Smith stars in this historical short as a woman who is singing the blues because she caught her man Jimmy foolin' around with another woman and he is planning on leaving her. This is the only known filmed performance of Bessie Smith.
Available on DVD: Not by itself. You can purchase it on a Kino Collection of jazz and blues shorts which contains other famous African-American jazz and blues musician performances like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Click here for details.

Stormy Weather (1943)
Description: A virtual Who’s Who of African-American stars appear in this film – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller… the list goes on.  This was an all-black cast film and excerpts of some of the outstanding performances in this movie are still referred to today.
Available on DVD: Yes
Read Black Classic Movies Summary

the negro soldier movieThe Negro Soldier (1944)
Description: “The Negro Soldier” broke ground by portraying Black Americans as dignified and courageous. Produced by Frank Capra, it follows the evolution of black soldiers from basic training to combat and encourages able-bodied black men to join the World War II armed forces and fight the Nazis.
Available on DVD: Yes. Click here for details.

the nicholas brothers family home moviesThe Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
Description: The Nicholas Brothers are one of the most famous African-American dancing duos ever. The “Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies” captures rare footage of them performing inside Harlem’s “The Cotton Club” and in Broadway shows such as “Babes in Arms.” Footage also includes African American World War II soldiers, Harlem street life, a 1934 cross-country tour and more.
Available on DVD: No

porgy and bess movie dvdPorgy and Bess (1959)
Description: This famous film was directed by Otto Preminger and included an all-star cast that is now a "Who's Who" of Black entertainment. The cast included Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., Brock Peters, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll. Set in the fictitious slum of “Catfish Row” and controversial in its subject matter, “Porgy and Bess” was accused of stereotypical black portrayals. Nevertheless, this musical is considered an “overlooked masterpiece” and has won many awards including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
Available on DVD: No

jackson thriller video"Thriller" Video - Michael Jackson (1983)
Description: Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video is one the the most famous music videos ever made. It literally changed the way music videos were made afterwards and was the first music video to ever be released theatrically as well.
Available on DVD: Yes, but as part of a Michael Jackson DVD containing other Michael Jackson music videos. Click here for details.

uncle toms cabin image with sam lucasUncle Tom's Cabin (1914)
Description:  There are many movie versions of this classic Harriet Beacher Stowe novel, but this is the first one that actually starred a Black man as Uncle Tom. Sam Lucas, who was a highly-acclaimed vaudeville and minstrel show actor at the time, made history when he agreed to play Uncle Tom in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." This role made him the first African-American actor to star in a major motion picture film in a leading role.
Available on DVD: No. Hopefully, this 1914 film will be released on DVD in the near future.

Within Our Gates (1920)
Description:  This is the oldest known surviving African-American film directed by pioneering African-American film director, Oscar Micheaux.  He made this film in reaction to D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation, which showed the Klu Klux Klan as heroes of the South.  It is also historically important because it depicts a time after World War I when racism and lynchings were still rampant.
Available on DVD: Yes. Click here for details.

If you are interested in purchasing any of these films:
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CLICK HERE
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Nominate Films!
The National Film Preservation Board makes the decision every year about which films to include.  They can only choose, however, from among the films that the public submits to them.

If you have a list of African-American films that you believe should be included in this registry, please send your nominations! You can do so by going using this National Film Registry Nomination Link.

Or you can send a letter to the following address. 
National Film Registry
Library of Congress
Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation
19053 Mt. Pony Road
Culpeper, VA 22701
Attn: Donna Ross