Teaching Black History Month With 4 Wonderful Films
February's Black History Month affords teachers time to turn students' attention to the history of black Americans. Using film to do this can engage students and introduce them to a history not often studied, such as the history of African-Americans in the military and in medicine. Below are four films that can kick off Black History Month with great results.
1) A Raisin in the Sun: An American masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun is a play that should be both read and watched. Through the dreams and defeats of the Younger family, students will learn about American history through a black perspective, seeing how racism and prejudice affected the daily lives of African-Americans and had an impact on their life-long goals. Through Lorraine Hansberry's adept writing, students will become familiar with the Great Migration, Pan-Africanism, housing discrimination, and Langston Hughes. In addition, the play is useful for revisiting the fundamentals of drama, with material for discussions about characterization, symbols, irony, motif, plot, and theme.
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2) The Tuskegee Airmen: Introduce students to the history of African-Americans in the military. The Tuskegee Airmen were members of the 99th Fighter Squadron and the first black fighter pilots to fly for the Army Air Forces. During World War II, they made great strides in establishing equal participation for black people in the military. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, black soldiers attempted to gain the respect of a prejudiced nation. The Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated that they could, indeed, perform complex tasks on a level with the best military men around. It was after the Second World War ended that President Truman called for the full integration of America's military forces. The valor and competence of the Tuskegee Airmen were one of the precursors of this decision. Use this film to give students a glimpse into the amazing history of our African-American soldiers.
3) Partners of the Heart and Something the Lord Made: A story about a black man working alongside a white surgeon, together revolutionizing medicine, isn't unusual today. In 1944, it was unbelievable. And yet, for thirty years, Vivien Thomas (a black man with only a high school education) and Dr. Alfred Blalock (a white doctor) worked together to develop a life-saving heart operation known as the "blue baby operation". Partners of the Heart, a documentary, and Something the Lord Made, historical fiction, tell of the relationship between these two extraordinary men. Thomas, whose dreams of college were wiped out along with his savings in a bank failure during the Great Depression, went to work as a janitor for Dr. Blalock at Vanderbilt University.
Through Thomas' talents and Dr. Blalock's guidance, the two made great advancements in the medical world. However, it wasn't until Dr. Blalock died that Vivien Thomas was given the credit and respect he deserved. He ended his career as an honored instructor in surgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.
4) Remember the Titans: A sports movie that goes beyond team versus team, Remember the Titans tells the story of a high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia. It's 1971 and racial tensions are high. Following the stories of the two head coaches (one black, one white), the two-star players (also black and white), and the dynamics of the team itself, Remember the Titans is a near-accurate tale about the end of segregation in the South. Use this move to cap a unit on the Civil Rights Movement, or at any point during Black History Month, and you will engage and inspire students to look beyond the prejudices they hold in their own lives and make something better in the world.
There are several fabulous movies that can make a memorable Black History Month. For a powerful retelling of true stories of former slaves, check out Unchained Memories. As a result of the efforts of the Federal Writers' Project to preserve the recollections of those who experienced slavery firsthand, this film is a compelling, riveting piece. To explore the presence of African-Americans in the Civil War, try Glory, a film about the first black army regiment in the Civil War.
Black History Month can be explored through films such as these and students will find themselves enthralled, and educated, by the dramatic stories on screen.
By: James Frieden
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