The Oscar buzz is loud for 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong’o for her riveting portrayal of Patsey, an enslaved woman who manages to out-pick her male counterparts in the cotton field and find a sliver of happiness despite her circumstances. Nyong’o’s performance—which earned her a best supporting actress nomination—is the most recent in a long list of portrayals of black women who persevere when the world is trying to beat them down.
In celebration of Black History Month, here are 10 movies that empower black women.
The Dream Catcher
Tracy (Diana Ross) has a talent that can’t be confined to her job at a Chicago department store job or be quelled by a boyfriend (Billy Dee Williams) who puts his goals first. She chooses to chase her dreams all the way to Italy, where she reaches international fame as a model and launches her fashion career. When she gets in over her head, she heads back home where love, more appreciative this time around, awaits her.
The Color Purple (1985)
This big-screen version of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel follows Miss Cellie (Whoopi Goldberg), who has had a hard life (to put it mildly)—first being raped by her stepfather and having her children taken away, then married off to an abusive husband (Danny Glover) and separated from her sister, Nettie. But in the end—and with the support of her sister-friends—she finds the strength to start over as an entrepreneur and is eventually reunited with her family.
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Circle of Sisters
The film version of Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel features four women (played by Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon) who would go crazy dealing with all the cheating and lying men they encounter if they didn’t have a support system. Luckily, they have their sisterhood. When their romantic lives go haywire, they lean on each other—and a good glass of wine—to get by.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)
Based on the 1937 novel by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, the TV adaption showcases Janie Crawford (Halle Berry), who wants more than the restrictive life available to a Southern woman in the early 20th century. She wants to be treated as an equal by her man, and she finds what she’s been looking for in Tea Cake (Michael Ealy), a younger guy who makes love to her in one of the steamiest scenes ever shown on TV.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Black Girl Magic
Precious as she is precocious, Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a survivor in this fantasy-tale in the Louisiana Bayou long before her home is engulfed in a flood. Just 6 years old, she and her single father—who has little clue how to raise a girl alone—protect each other on their journey to survive. When he falls ill, she finds her way back to him, undeterred by a prehistoric animal that stands in her way. She explains with determination, “I got to take care of mines.” As if there is any other choice.
Coffy (Pam Grier) takes on the underworld in this blaxploitation (kinda cheesy) revenge fantasy. Someone has to pay when her sister gets hooks on drugs. And why send a man when a woman can do the job just fine? Coffy uses her looks to lure in street hustlers and mob bosses until she find her sister’s supplier.
Out of the Box
Seventeen-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) is living a double-life trying to balance her mother’s expectations of her—mainly to get a boyfriend—and struggling to define herself as a young lesbian. After an explosive “coming out” that separates Alike from her family, her father asks her to come home. She’s declines, powerfully insisting, "I'm not running; I'm choosing."
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) was ahead of her time—some might say she still is. In Spike Lee’s first feature film, Darling unbinds herself from sexual double standards that expect women to be chaste and men to “sow their oats.” She explores her sexuality by assembling the “perfect man” with three different suitors.
Something New (2006)
Love Without Boundaries
Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) puts love on the back burner to pursue a corporate career. She has it all professionally, but a romantic partner still eludes her. After some prodding, she takes a chance on a good man, who happens to be white, despite her family’s disapproval, and finally finds love.
The Women of Brewster Place (1989)
Change Your Circumstances
Adapted from the debut novel of African-American author Gloria Naylor, this TV miniseries assembled an all-star cast that included Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Jackée Harry, Robin Givens, Lynn Whitfield, Lonette McKee, Paul Winfield, and Mary Alice. The group of characters has endured enough hardship to be driven to a rock and a hard place, a literal brick wall. The women came together to tear it down in the end, a symbolic gesture of being fed up and wanting a better life than they had.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.