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Five Films for February: Films Honoring Black History

This week, your Webb movie-guy continues to focus on under-the-radar films; so here are a few lesser-known titles honoring Black History Month:

“Belle” (2013) – Unbelievable real-life story of England’s Dido Elizabeth Belle. Illegitimate daughter of an African slave and an 18th-century admiral, Dido was raised a free gentlewoman in the upper-class household of her uncle, William Murray. Incredibly, as Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Murray then presided over a notorious court case involving 142 blacks who’d perished aboard a slave ship.

Not just about race, this beautifully acted film also covers portraiture, young love, and sibling rivalry. With Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Matthew Goode.

“Glory Road” (2016) – Another of Hollywood’s countless true sports-underdog stories, “Glory Road” chronicles the 1965-66 run of the first black basketball team to reach the NCAA playoffs.

With no recruiting budget, former college girls’ coach Dan Haskins (Josh Lucas) is tapped to run the boys’ team at Texas Western, where he starts hand-picking unknowns from high schools, street games and YMCAs. Aghast at his audacity, one white administrator cries, “You carryin’ on like Negroes gonna be the future of basketball — can you imagine that?”

Co-starring Jon Voight and Derek Luke, “Glory Road” makes that easy to imagine indeed.

“Just Mercy” (2019) – During the summer-long protests over the death of George Floyd, this true story about a black man unjustly convicted of murder became so painfully relevant that distributors streamed it free over numerous platforms. So, it’s fairly well known, but nonetheless neglected, as it failed to garner a single Oscar nom despite a sensational cast including Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson; Tim Blake Nelson dazzles as a witness whom police pressured into to providing false testimony.

Ironically, the protagonist’s arrest, conviction and subsequent retrial all occurred in Monroeville, Alabama, which prides itself on being the birthplace of Harper Lee — and the inspiration for her racial-justice novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Sidewalk Stories” (1989) – Charming modern silent film starring and directed by the wondrous Charles Lane, who recalls silent-master Buster Keaton in frame after black-and-white frame. Lane plays a good-hearted homeless man who ekes out a living painting portraits on the street; one night after witnessing a murder, he winds up caring for the dead man’s three-year-old daughter, all the while struggling to locate the girl’s mother.

This unique film is not only audaciously silent; it doesn’t even have title cards! Dialog is conveyed entirely through gesture, expression and lip-work. And the tiny actress is frankly astonishing.

Despite some surprising R-rated content in one scene, “Sidewalk” richly deserves its 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

“Till” (2022) – My favorite film from last year narrates the dreadful saga of Emmett Till, a black youth who in 1955 was tortured, lynched and dumped in a Mississippi river after allegedly flirting with a white housewife.

Danielle Deadwyler sets a stunning gold standard for female leads; she plays Till’s mother, who helped launch the imminent civil rights movement with her decision to hold an open-casket funeral displaying her son’s mutilated body.

Despite this, the film is generally restrained — refusing to show us the actual lynching; yet it brews up a shattering emotional cyclone. Why Deadwyler did not secure a well-deserved Oscar nod this year is beyond me. Both she and this film deserve a wider audience.