Southern Movie Bonus: A Black History Month Sampler

In February, we take time to celebrate and recognize the contributions and achievements of African Americans. So, in honor of Black History Month, the Southern movies listed below are either about African Americans in the South or come from African-American culture in the South. From more recent years, moviegoers may be familiar with 2012’s The Help or 2013’s Selma, but here are six Southern movies that may be less familiar to modern audiences.

Green Pastures (1936)

Made at the height of the Great Depression, this primitive film features African-American folk religion versions of well-known Biblical narratives. Based on a story that was first a novel then a play, the movie stars Rex Ingram. Reports say that Green Pastures was immensely popular in its day and that its sales were through-the-roof.

Go Down, Death! (1945)

One of black director Spencer Williams’ “race films” from the 1940s, Go Down, Death! is another film with religious overtones, similar to his previous The Blood of Jesus from 1941. Both films were made in Texas, and illustrate the evils of the world and how the goodness of God stands in opposition to it. Though Williams doesn’t star in either film, he does act in both.

Porgy and Bess (1959)

This legendary musical, made by Otto Preminger,  features Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, and Sammy Davis, Jr.. Set in Charleston, South Carolina in 1912, the story centers on woman named Bess whose relationship with Crown and with the drug dealer Sportin’ Life take a turn when Crown kills a man. She seeks refuge with the disabled Porgy— until Crown comes back.

Gone are the Days! (1963)

This Civil Rights-era film, which stars Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, is based on the Broadway play Purlie Victorious. Set in Georgia, the story centers on a man who returns to the Georgia plantation where he was raised. However, he wants the plantation owner to think that his fiancee is really his cousin. The movie also stars Godfrey Cambridge, who was in both Purlie Victorious and Jean Genet’s The Blacks on Broadway.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing (1979)

Based on Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, this 1979 made-for-TV movie stars Diahann Caroll and Ruby Dee. Viewers familiar with Angelou’s book will know that she hails from Arkansas and that she was raped as a girl by her mother’s boyfriend. The young actress Constance Good plays Maya; other recognizable actors are Paul Benjamin and Ester Rolle.  This screen adaptation is not well-known but is regarded by some as an underrated classic.

The Sky is Gray (1980)

Based on an Ernest J. Gaines short story, this movie was also made for TV and is only forty-six minutes long. The story is set in early 1940s Louisiana and features a boy who has an unyielding toothache, which forces his mother to take him to town to the dentist. At their home on a farm, we see the extent of their poverty, made worse by the husband/father being drafted into the army. In town, we see the tense situation they have to navigate to ride the bus, see the dentist, use the bathroom, and eat lunch. Cleavon Little makes a brief appearance, but his character is not part of the main storyline.

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