February is Black History Month and movies are an excellent supplement to lessons on this often under-taught subject. There are a number of films that can expand upon themes from the curriculum, and some present information rarely taught to students. Here are five stellar movies that can supplement lessons about the experience of African-Americans.
1) Partners of the Heart and Something the Lord Made: It was an astounding image for 1944 when segregation was the rule and black surgeons were unknown. A black man with a high school education stood on a stool behind one of America’s most accomplished surgeons as together they undertook the first “blue baby operation.” The black man, Vivien Thomas, was telling the surgeon, Dr. Alfred Blalock, where to cut, what to sew together, and how to keep the patient alive during the pioneering heart operation.
The frail child on the table had been born with a congenital heart defect that deprived her of oxygen. The operation rearranged the blood vessels leading to the heart and lungs to correct the problem. Thomas was Dr. Blalock’s lab technician. Together they had developed the operation and Thomas had performed it over a hundred times on dogs in the laboratory. Dr. Blalock had tried the operation only a few times on dogs. Now, the operation was being performed for the first time on a human being, a desperately ill patient who would die very soon if her heart condition wasn’t corrected. Dr. Blalock wisely insisted that Thomas look over his shoulder and guide him through the operation.
These two movies, one a documentary, the other historical fiction, tell the story of young black man who dreamed of going to college but was denied the chance when the bank that held his savings failed during the Great Depression. He found a job cleaning dog cages for Dr. Blalock who was then as a professor at the Vanderbilt University medical school. Dr. Blalock was a very prejudiced man in many ways, but he knew talent when he saw it. He allowed Vivien Thomas increasing responsibility in his laboratory as the young man’s talents became evident. Although the doctor and Thomas worked side by side for decades, Thomas was never given the salary, the respect, or the credit that he justly deserved until after Dr. Blalock died. Only then was Thomas recognized as one of the most talented professors of surgery in the nation.
2) Unchained Memories: In the 1930s, the last generation of Americans who had lived under slavery was getting close to the eighty-year-old mark. Writers from the Federal Writers’ Project fanned out across the South to record the memories of former slaves. The producers of this film wove some of the most interesting stores into a wonderful series of vignettes. In this film, actors provide dramatic readings of these recollections. A narrator, describing the history of slavery in the United States, pieces the episodes together. Unchained Memories provides first hand accounts of the human costs of slavery and the lives of slaves in the American South. ELA teachers can also use this film to supplement lessons on narrative and memoir.
3) The Tuskegee Airmen: The Tuskegee Airmen tells the story of the African-American 99th Fighter Squadron in World War II. This film shows another step on the road to full equality for African-Americans in the U.S. military. This long march began during the American Revolution when blacks fought for independence. During the Civil War, black foot soldiers gained the respect of the nation and demonstrated that they could fight under the conditions of modern warfare. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that African-Americans could excel at the controls of complex fighter-bombers. General Benjamin O. Davis and other black officers during and after the Second World War demonstrated that they could successfully lead large military units. In 1948, President Truman ordered the complete integration of the armed forces. The experience of The Tuskegee Airmen was one of the reasons that the President could convince the American people and the officers in the military, that this was the right decision. The Tuskegee Airmen is a great introduction to the role of black soldiers in the military, an important subject for American history.
4) Glory: At the beginning of the Civil War, most white Americans believed that blacks could not be disciplined to make good foot soldiers in a modern war. The belief was that they would run when fired upon. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white abolitionist, and hundreds of black volunteers in his regiment, gave their lives to prove that black men could fight as well as whites. Glory accurately details the story of Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, which was the first black army regiment commissioned during the Civil War. The 54th served with distinction and by the end of the Civil War black soldiers were a substantial part of the Union Army.
There are other movies that will make fabulous additions to any secondary level classroom studying Black History Month. A Force More Powerful offers wonderful archival footage of students being taught non-violent civil disobedience before they embarked on the Nashville sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. Remember the Titans shows a freshly integrated football team in 1970s Virginia. While there are fictional elements to this film, its stories about black-white relations are true and actually happened. A Raisin in the Sun teaches students about a plethora of topics, including: the Great Migration, Pan-Africanism, the on-going problem of housing discrimination in the United States, families under stress, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and the poetry of Langston Hughes. People like the family in A Raisin in the Sun, with the determination to claim their part of the American Dream, were the driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Black History Month is an important educational opportunity, and these films will offer students a glimpse into stories they haven’t heard before, sparking discussion and generating ideas that can be harnessed into thought-provoking essays and homework assignments.
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