African American Movies for Kids | Working Mother

21 Great African-American Movies for Kids

Explore African-American culture with your family for Black History Month with these wonderful films.

February is Black History Month, and a wonderful way to share this rich culture and experience with our children is via fine films. Here's a superb kid-friendly cinematic collection of African-American movies, thanks to our media partner Common Sense Media.

 

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

This Scholastic Storybook DVD includes narrations of four children's books about the Civil Rights Movement and African-American history. Two focus on Martin Luther King Jr., one follows Rosa Parks and the bus boycott and the final story chronicles how a slave mailed himself to freedom. Although the DVD is preschooler-friendly (it's basically just narration accompanying images from the books and archival photographs), there are some words like "boycott," "segregation" and "lynching," not to mention the names of all of the pro-integration political organizations, that will go over younger viewers' heads. The stories provide powerful examples of individuals who stood up to, as author Nikki Giovanni calls them, "evil customs" and made a tremendous impact on history. Ages 4 + ($10, amazon.com)

 

Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story

Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story

Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story tells the uplifting true story of Janet Collins, whose dedication and determination led her to become the first African-American ballerina in the country to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. The animated short movie addresses instances of racism, such as Collins being asked to paint her face white to blend in, but largely focuses on the significance of her success given the 1930s time period. It's beautifully animated and easy to understand. Ages 5+ (netflix.com)

 

Garrett's Gift

Garrett's Gift

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Garrett's Gift

Garrett's Gift is a thoughtful, inspirational look at the history of famous inventor Garrett Morgan and the origins of his idea for the traffic light. Kids will learn about his childhood, where the clumsy boy was often daydreaming, and how his offbeat way of looking at things led to a significant advancement in safety. There are a few moments of near-accidents that provide the backdrop for Morgan's ideas. It offers historical information about significant achievements by African Americans and a discussion of where ideas come from. Ages 5+ ($15, amazon.com)

 

The Journey of Henry Box Brown

The Journey of Henry Box Brown

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

The Journey of Henry Box Brown

The Journey of Henry Box Brown is an educational, uplifting short film that tells the true story of a former slave who shipped himself to freedom in a crate in a harrowing 27-hour journey. In the animated short movie, Brown tells the story to a bird and various other animals, helping them understand the concept of and importance of freedom. Basic slavery conditions are discussed and include the selling of Brown's family, the deep sadness he experienced and the hardships that slaves endured. Though his new friends grieve with him for the loss of his family, the focus is on the broader importance of freedom, the moral wrongness of slavery and the powerful idea that no one is free unless we all are. These big ideas and the serious subject matter are told simply and positively in a way that young kids can understand. Ages 5+ ($13, amazon.com)

 

Pride

Pride

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Pride

This fact-based inspirational sports drama deals with racism head-on from its very first scene, in which Terrence Howard's character, Jim Ellis, is the only African American at a swim meet in 1960s North Carolina. A scuffle breaks out, and he ends up striking a white cop. He encounters bigotry again in the '70s when he ends up coaching an all-African-American swim team: The team's wealthier white competitors sabotage and ridicule the black swimmers at meets. But the drama also shows Jim's team making "honky" jokes and goofing off instead of taking competition seriously. Besides the opening brawl, there's another altercation in a pool, when Jim nearly drowns the local drug dealer. Ages 8+ ($7, amazon.com)

 

And the Children Shall Lead

And the Children Shall Lead

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

And the Children Shall Lead

This movie, about the way children persuade their parents to change their opinions in a racially segregated town, provides a great way to open discussion with children about racial issues. It is recommended for children ages 9 and up, but even children as young as 5 might be able to understand its larger themes. This film is both ideal for older kids and direct enough to hold teens' attention and important enough to be good family viewing. Ages 9+ ($4 used, amazon.com)

 

A Ballerina's Tale

A Ballerina's Tale

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

A Ballerina's Tale

A Ballerina's Tale examines the life and career of Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theater. Not only is Copeland a significant role model for any young girl who dreams of a career as a dancer, she's also emerged as a important example for the black community, showcasing the ways the rarified world of classical ballet is evolving and becoming more diverse. There's no swearing, drinking, strong language or sex, just lots of amazing dancing, so the film is excellent for anyone who's a fan of ballet. Ages 9+ ($13, amazon.com)

 

Thunder Soul

Thunder Soul

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Thunder Soul

This documentary is full of inspiring messages and strong role models. Although most children won't know the history of the legendary funk band featured in the movie, kids ages 9+ will be fine with the film. There are a couple of references to a band member's "thug"-like personality and the violence he left behind to stay in the band, as well as some brief mentions of how attractive the band was in the '70s. Some sensitive kids may feel saddened by the band teacher's decline in health and a couple of hospital scenes. Language is limited to "hell" and "damn." Overall, this is an inspiring look at a jazz band that revolutionized high school band competition. Ages 9+ ($15, amazon.com)

 

hidden figures

Hidden Figures

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is based on the inspiring true story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1950s and '60s as "human computers"—making calculations and contributions that helped launch the manned spaceflight program. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) were engineers and computers at NASA at a time when both women and people of color were still widely discriminated against, particularly in segregationist Virginia. where NASA's Langley Research Center is based. There's a little bit of romance (a few kisses, flirty comments and slow dancing) and a bit of salty language (mostly along the lines of "damn," "hell," and "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation). The film also offers a realistic look at the racial tensions of the Civil Rights era (segregated bathrooms, libraries, schools, facilities), and audiences will learn a lot about these pioneering women and what they had to overcome to make their mark at NASA. They're excellent role models, and their story is full of positive messages and themes, including integrity, perseverance, teamwork and communication. Ages 10+ ($10, amazon.com)

 

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans tells the inspirational true story about the struggles and victories of a newly-integrated high school football team in 1971 Alexandria, Virginia. As such, the film reflects the divisive nature of the times; the film begins with a near-riot scene between blacks and whites on the street separated by the police as bottles and windows break. The racial tensions of the town—segregation in restaurants, racial slurs, fist fights in the high school—are shown to highlight the backdrop in which the Titans must learn to get along and play together as a team. The movie includes racist comments and situations and some locker room insults. A major character is critically injured in a car accident. When the boys refer to a long-haired teammate as a "fruitcake," he responds by kissing one of them on the mouth. There are some scuffles and threats of more serious violence. Ultimately, Remember the Titans is a deeply moving film about the courage of individuals and the power of sports to transcend perceived and ingrained differences. Ages 10+ ($10, amazon.com)

 

Woodlawn

Woodlawn

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Woodlawn

Woodlawn is a faith-based drama inspired by true events at a Birmingham, Alabama, high school in 1973. The movie focuses on a sports chaplain who helped convert nearly the entire Woodlawn High School football team to born-again Christianity after it was desegregated, helping the players deal with racial strife on and off the field. Part football drama, part evangelical success story, Woodlawn does have serious themes and moments, but they're generally not as heavy as similar scenes in Selma or other secular films about the era. There's no use of the "N" word (as would have been commonplace at the time), but white men do say "colored," "boy" and "Negro" several times, and scenes of violence against African Americans include a brick thrown at a house, footage of bombings and burnings and fist fights resulting in a student being taken to the hospital. Viewers who aren't Christians or who don't go to church should know that there are clear messages that believing in Jesus is the one right way to live a meaningful life. Ages 10+ ($15, amazon.com)

 

42

42

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

42

Even sports-averse viewers will enjoy this inspiring biopic about the two years in which baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the sport's color barrier. It's not a complete biography—just a snapshot of the 1946 and 1947 seasons. Expect many uses of the "N" word; but considering the institutional racism of the 1940s, the word is important to convey the times. Other racial slurs include "boy," "monkey," and "coon"; other language includes occasional use of words like "s--t" and "a--hole." There are a few near fistfights between the Dodgers and opposing players, and at one point a fellow Dodger pushes Robinson; a fight almost ensues. Despite the difficult language and serious themes, the movie offers important historical and ethical lessons for younger viewers and sports fans. Ages 11+ ($14, amazon.com)

 

Betty & Coretta

Betty & Coretta

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Betty & Coretta

Betty & Coretta is a biographical story about the widows of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The movie is set during the Civil Rights Movement, so you'll see video footage of violent exchanges between police and protesters, the firebombing of a family's house and a re-enactment of Malcolm X's assassination. Language ("son of a bitch," "hell," "damn") is sparse, and sexual content is limited to references of King's marital infidelity. This moving story offers a unique glimpse into the historical events of this time period, shown from the point of view of the women who shouldered the weight of the cause after their husbands were killed for their work. Ages 11+ ($5, amazon.com)

 

Loving

Loving

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Loving

Loving is a powerful drama inspired by the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who got married in Virginia in 1958, even though it was illegal at the time. The Lovings are arrested, manhandled, and kicked out of their home as a result, and there are scenes with a menacing air due to others' dark, racist feelings toward them. Verbal threats and insults include the "N" word (and "bastard" is said in reference to the Lovings' children). Expect some social drinking and period-accurate smoking. But ultimately the message is one of hope and courage: Love and compassion conquer all, even hatred and prejudice. Ages 12+ ($13, amazon.com)

 

Drumline

Drumline

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Drumline

Drumline, about a college precision marching band, has some very strong language ("s--t" and more), mild references to drinking and moderate references to sex (specifically comparing playing an instrument to making love). A character is "accused" of being a virgin. Nevertheless, the behavior of the characters is admirable. Laila, one of the female protagonists, makes it clear that she is interested in a boyfriend, not a brief encounter. Parents should also know that the movie addresses some racial discrimination concerns, as the one white student in the band is at first looked at with suspicion, but later accepted warmly. Ages 12+ ($6, amazon.com)

 

The Express

The Express: The Ernie Davis Story

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

The Express

This true story, about the first black player to win college football’s Heisman Trophy, was originally rated PG-13 and was re-edited to earn its PG. It revolves around the issue of race in America in the '50s and '60s and is fraught with racial epithets and racist attitudes. There's also a certain amount of violence, including hard-hitting football action, and also dirty tricks like a coach directing his players to hit an opponent at the site of an injury. There's also some salty tough-talk from a football coach and depictions of the segregation and racial divides in the American South in the '50s and '60s. Ages 12+ ($9, amazon.com)

 

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

This film deals with a couple that approaches their parents with their impending (and hotly contested) marriage. The main conflict revolves around disagreements between parents and their children about interracial marriage and the generation gap in general. Ages 12+ ($10, amazon.com)

 

The Help

The Help

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

The Help

This emotionally intense adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling Civil Rights Era novel isn't likely to appeal to young kids but is a historically relevant drama that mature tweens can see with their parents. The film not only teaches about segregation and the importance of racial equality, it also shows how oppressed people have important stories to tell. The language is tame for a PG-13 movie except for the word "s--t," which is used several times, and one casual use of the "N" word by a bus driver. African Americans are referred to as "Negro," and a grown-up restaurant worker is called "boy" by white patrons. There's no graphic violence, but a character is obviously physically abused by her husband, and a woman has a miscarriage, leaving her in a pool of her blood. Reflecting the '60s setting, almost everyone (even a pregnant woman) smokes cigarettes and drinks. Ages 12+ ($9, amazon.com)

 

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

A Raisin in the Sun

This movie—which is based on the landmark play by Lorraine Hansberry—deals with racism in a very honest, often painful way. Mature topics and themes include abortion and poverty; one character demeans himself by playing into white stereotypes of African Americans and uses the "N" word, but it's understandable within the context of the story. The central family members don't always agree, but in the end they're all working for a better life. Aside from the complex subject matter, the movie has very little iffy content, making it an excellent choice for watching with older tweens and teens. Ages 12+ ($3 used, amazon.com)

 

Sounder

Sounder

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

Sounder

There's a bit of mild language in this film, about a family dealing with hardship after the patriarch is arrested for stealing food from a neighbor. But the language is all in the service of the movie, which doesn't pull punches in depicting the poverty, desperation, and bigotry of the rural South during the Great Depression. Ages 12+ ($9, amazon.com)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham

The Watsons Go to Birmingham

Courtesy of Common Sense Media

The Watsons Go to Birmingham

The Watsons Go to Birmingham tells the story of a black family who visits Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of the civil rights struggle. Although the warm, relatable family drama brings the Civil Rights Era to life for families, parents should know that the Birmingham church bombing is depicted, and one main character nearly loses her life. This scene, along with depictions of period-accurate racism and discrimination, could be disturbing to some kids, but also could be a great conversation starter. Ages: 12+ ($9, amazon.com)

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