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Film Finders: Exploring Special Topics

Banner Image with photographs of African American authors

Summer / Fall 2017 Display

"African-American Literature on Film" poster image

The Film & Video Collection's Summer / Fall 2017 display was created in anticipation of the concurrent "Issues and Debates in African American Literature" exhibition.

The Special Collections exhibition featured materials reflecting important social and cultural debates within the African American community, from the “proper” role of art and literature to the words and ideas of LGBTQ people. Focusing on the period from the early 20th century to the present, "Issues and Debates" will feature books, manuscripts, ephemera, photographs, and artwork. Authors to be represented include Alice Dunbar Nelson, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka and many others.

Explore how several of these authors (and others) have had their life and work represented on film below.


Their Eyes Were Watching God           Beloved           Native Son           I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings           11486           71332           37100


African American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. It presents experience from an African-American point of view. The genre traces its origins to the works of such late eighteenth century writers as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, reaching early high points with slave narratives and the Harlem Renaissance, and continuing today with authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walter Mosley. 

A subgenre of African American literature which began in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative. Slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: Tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif.

The Harlem Renaissance from 1920 to 1940 brought new attention to African American literature. While the Harlem Renaissance, based in the African American community in Harlem in New York City, existed as a larger flowering of social thought and culture—with numerous Black artists, musicians, and others producing classic works in fields from jazz to theater—the renaissance is perhaps best known for its literary output.

Beginning in the 1970s, African-American literature reached the mainstream as books by Black writers continually achieved best-selling and award-winning status. This was also the time when the work of African-American writers began to be accepted by academia as a legitimate genre of American literature. As part of the larger Black Arts Movement, which was inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, African-American literature began to be defined and analyzed.

Among the themes and issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, religion, slavery, a sense of home, segregation, migration, feminism and equality.   (New World Encyclopedia & Wikipedia)


Richard Wright

Native Son (DVD 16579); Black Boy (DVD 2280)

Writer and poet Richard Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in Roxie, Mississippi, and published his first short story at the age of 16. Schooled in Jackson, Mississippi, Wright only managed to get a ninth-grade education, but he was a voracious reader and showed early on that he had a gift with words.  To pursue his literary interests, Wright went as far as to forge notes so he could take out books on a white coworker's library card, as blacks were not allowed to use the public libraries in Memphis. 

In 1927, Wright finally left the South and moved to Chicago, where he worked at a post office and also swept streets.  He eventually joined the Federal Writers’ Project, and in 1937, with dreams of making it as a writer, he moved to New York City, where he was told he stood a better chance of getting published. A year later, Wright published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four stories, and the book proved to be a significant turning point in his career. The stories earned him a $500 prize from Story magazine and led to a 1939 Guggenheim Fellowship.

More acclaim followed in 1940 with the publication of the novel Native Son, which told the story of 20-year-old African-American male Bigger Thomas. The book brought Wright fame and freedom to write. It was a regular atop the bestseller lists and became the first book by an African-American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. It is generally agreed that Wright's influence in Native Son is not a matter of literary style or technique.  Rather, he affected ideas and attitudes, and his work has been a force in the social and intellectual history of the United States in the last half of the 20th century.

In 1945, Wright published Black Boy, which offered a moving account of his childhood and youth in the South. Black Boy remains a vital work of historical, sociological, and literary significance whose seminal portrayal of one black man's search for self-actualization in a racist society strongly influenced the works of African-American writers who followed, such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

Wright became so disillusioned with both the Communist Party and white America that he moved to Paris in 1946, where he lived the rest of his life as an expatriate and died there in 1960. (From and Wikipedia)

James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro (DVD 18748)

Born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, James Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, going on to garner acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni's Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head as well as essay works like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time.

While not a marching or sit-in style activist, Baldwin emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling work on race. While he wrote about the movement, Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Joining CORE gave him the opportunity to travel across the American South lecturing on his views of racial inequality. Baldwin became so involved in the movement that he was featured on the cover of Time on May 17, 1963.

While his literary fame faded somewhat in his later years, Baldwin continued to produce new works in a variety of forms and also spent years sharing his experiences and views as a college professor. In the years before his death, he taught at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College.

He died in 1987 in France.  Using Baldwin's unfinished final manuscript, “Remember This House”, I Am Not Your Negro (2016) follows the history of the Civil Rights Movement through the 1960’s to the present day Black Lives Matter protests.  The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. (From

Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress (DVD 501 and eVideo)

Walter Mosley was born January 12, 1952 in California.  He is a writer of mystery stories noted for their realistic portrayals of segregated inner-city life.  His first novel was Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), with “Easy” Rawlins, an unwilling amateur detective from the Watts section of Los Angeles. Mosley uses period detail and slang to create authentic settings and characters. He explains his desire to write about "black male heroes" saying "hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes... There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.” Mosley has won numerous accolades, including induction into the New York Writers Hall of Fame and an honorary doctorate from the City College of New York.  (From Wikipedia)

Zora Neale Hurston

A Heart with Room for Every Joy (DVD 15172); Their Eyes Were Watching God (DVD 3602 and eVideo)

Born in Alabama on January 7, 1891, Zora Neale Hurston was a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance. She released her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, in 1934. Two years later, she received a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed her to work on what would become her most famous work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). From 1935-1937 Hurston was employed by the US Government as a chronicler of life histories for the Federal Writers' Project. Hurston interviewed members of the African-American, Arab-American, Cuban-American, Greek-American, and Italian-American communities. Her interviews with African-Americans in Florida—many of them former slaves or the children of slaves—inspired much of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston died in 1960. More than a decade later, Alice Walker wrote about Hurston in the essay "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," published in Ms. magazine in 1975. Walker's essay helped introduce Hurston to a new generation of readers, and encouraged publishers to print new editions of Hurston's long-out-of-print novels and other writings. (From and

Alice Walker

The Color Purple (DVD 13611 and eVideo)

Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. The youngest daughter of sharecroppers, she grew up poor.  Living in the racially divided South, Walker attended segregated schools. She graduated from her high school as the valedictorian of her class. With the help of a scholarship, she was able to go to Spelman College in Atlanta. She later switched to Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker visited Africa as part of a study-abroad program.

After college, Walker worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality for all African Americans.  Walker became interested in the Civil Rights Movement in part due to the influence of activist Howard Zinn, who was one of her professors at Spelman College. To continue the activism of her college years, Walker returned to the South from New York. She participated in voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights, and children's programs in Mississippi.  She also emerged as a prominent voice in the black feminist movement.

She worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer. Walker won both the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her 1982 novel, The Color Purple. Three years later, Walker's story made it to the big screen: Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple, which was a critical success and received 11 Academy Award nominations. Walker is also an acclaimed poet and essayist. (From


Precious (DVD 7368 and eVideo)

Sapphire, the pen name of Ramona Lofton, was born in California on August 4, 1950.  Her work features unsparing though often empowering depictions of the vicissitudes of African American and bisexual life. Lofton moved to New York City in 1977 and became heavily involved with poetry. She also became a member of a gay organization named United Lesbians of Color for Change Inc. She wrote, performed and eventually published her poetry during the height of the Slam Poetry movement in New York. Lofton took the name "Sapphire" because of its one-time cultural association with the image of a "belligerent black woman," and also because she said she could more easily picture that name on a book cover than her birth name.  Sapphire’s first novel, Push, brought praise and controversy for its graphic account of a young woman growing up in a cycle of incest and abuse.  A film based on her novel, renamed Precious, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. The cast included Mo'Nique, who won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Precious' mother.  In 2011, she released The Kid, a semi-sequel to Push.  (From Wikipedia)

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley: Make Her Black and Bid Her Sing (DVD 5976)

Born in Senegal/Gambia in about 1753, poet Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on a slave ship in 1761 and was purchased by John Wheatley as a personal servant to his wife. The Wheatleys educated Phillis and she soon mastered Latin and Greek, going on to write highly acclaimed poetry. She published her first poem in 1767 and her first volume of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, becoming the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Wheatley had to defend her authorship of her poetry in court in 1772. In 1776, Wheatley wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington; he replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge, stating that he would be “happy to see a person so favored by the muses.”  Having been freed from slavery, she later married and struggled financially, with Wheatley unable to find a publisher for her second volume. She died in Boston in 1784. (From Wikipedia)

Ntozake Shange

For Colored Girls (DVD 9006 and eVideo)

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in Trenton, New Jersey on October 18, 1948. As a self-proclaimed black feminist, she addresses issues relating to race and feminism in much of her work.

In 1966 Shange enrolled at Barnard College in New York City. Shange graduated cum laude in American Studies, then earned a master's degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She married during her first year in college, but the marriage did not last long. Depressed over her separation and with a strong sense of bitterness and alienation, she attempted suicide. In 1971, having come to terms with her depression and alienation, Shange changed her name. In Xhosa, Ntozake means "she who has her own things" (literally "things that belong to her") and Shange means "he/she who walks/lives with lions" (meaning "the lion's pride" in Zulu).

In 1975, Shange moved back to New York City, after earning her Master's degree. In that year her first and most well-known play was produced — for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf for which she won the Obie Award.  In 2010, it was adapted into the film For Colored Girls by Tyler Perry. She has also written novels including Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane, and Betsey Brown. Among her honors are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and a Pushcart Prize. (from Wikipedia)

Toni Morrison

Beloved (DVD 75 and eVideo); Toni Morrison Uncensored (DVD 10620); Toni Morrison: A Writer’s Work (DVD 10621)

Born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor and professor. She graduated from Lorain High School with honors in 1949. At Howard University, Morrison continued to pursue her interest in literature. She majored in English and chose the classics for her minor. After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University and completed her master's degree in 1955. She then moved to the Lone Star State to teach at Texas Southern University. Her novels are known for their epic themes, exquisite language and richly detailed African-American characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, SulaSong of SolomonBeloved, JazzLove and A Mercy. Morrison became a professor at Princeton University in 1989 and continued to produce great works, including Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In recognition of her contributions to her field, she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African-American woman to be selected for the award. Morrison has earned many accolades and honorary degrees, also receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.  (From

I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts

I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts (VHS 6973)

A Peabody Award-winning look at a century of African-American arts by Henry Hampton, the creative force behind Eyes on the Prize and Eyes on the Prize II, the definitive chronicle of the American Civil Rights Movement. This work celebrates the extraordinary achievements of 20th century African-American writers, dancers, painters, actors, musicians and other artists. Six episodes engage viewers in compelling stories of struggle and creativity, featuring the sounds of jazz, blues, soul and rap that the world identifies as America’s music, poetry and fiction that challenge ideas of race and ideals of democracy, images that capture our conflicts and our common ties, and dance, theatrical performances and movies that have thrilled and inspired a century of audiences. Authors highlighted include:  James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, and others.

Maya Angelou

And Still I Rise (DVD 18547 and eVideo)

Born on April 4, 1928 as Marguerite Annie Johnson, in St. Louis, Missouri, writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In 1952, the future literary icon wed Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took her professional name—a blend of her childhood nickname, "Maya," and a shortened version of his surname.  A member of the Harlem Writers Guild and a civil rights activist, Angelou organized and starred in the musical revue Cabaret for Freedom as a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also serving as the SCLC's northern coordinator.

Spending much of the 1960s abroad; she first lived in Egypt and then in Ghana, working as an editor and a freelance writer. Angelou also held a position at the University of Ghana for a time.

Her enormously successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die. She later wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning”, which she recited at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Angelou's career has seen numerous accolades, including the Chicago International Film Festival's 1998 Audience Choice Award and a nod from the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1999 for Down in the Delta; and two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category.  (From

Ralph Ellison

An American Journey (DVD 2278 and eVideo)

Born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Ralph Ellison studied music before moving to New York City and working as a writer. He started to work as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers Program, and was befriended by writers Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, who all mentored the fledgling scribe. He published his bestselling first novel Invisible Man in 1952; it would come to be seen as a seminal work on marginalization from an African-American protagonist's perspective. Upon its release, Invisible Man became a runaway hit, remaining on bestseller lists for weeks and winning the National Book Award the following year. Ellison traveled throughout Europe in the mid-1950s, and lived in Rome for two years after becoming an American Academy fellow. Ellison's unfinished novel Juneteenth was published posthumously in 1999. Ellison died from pancreatic cancer in 1994. (From

Paul Robeson

Here I Stand (DVD 18662)

Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson went on to become a stellar athlete and performing artist. When he was 17, Robeson earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers University, the third African American to do so and became one of the institution's most stellar students. Then, from 1920 to 1923, Robeson earned a degree from Columbia University's Law School, teaching Latin and playing pro football on the weekends to pay tuition. Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer in 1923, but left after encountering severe racism at his firm.

He starred in both stage and film versions of The Emperor Jones and Show Boat, and established an immensely popular screen and singing career. In the late 1920s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where they lived for more than a decade.  A beloved international figure with a huge following in Europe, Robeson regularly spoke out against racial injustice and was involved in world politics. Robeson published his biography, Here I Stand, in 1958. Robeson was blacklisted during the paranoia of McCarthyism in the 1950s. He died in Pennsylvania in 1976. (From

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Beloved DVD coverNative Son DVD coverI Am Not Your Negro DVD coverThe Color Purple DVD coverTheir Eyes Were Watching God DVD coverFor Colored Girls DVD coverPrecious DVD coverDevil in a Blue Dress DVD cover