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By Andrea L. Zopp

Have you seen any good movies lately? Chances are you have. According to Nielsen’s 2012 study of moviegoers, African Americans step out to the cinema at least six times a year. We love action and adventure movies and, among other ethnic groups, we are the highest viewers of dramas.

What really resonates with me from the Nielsen research is that African Americans have a long history of supporting films where we see ourselves. We gravitate towards movies that have characters we can relate to or can aspire to be. I believe that this desire to see ourselves onscreen is directly linked to how we respond to the ways in which we are portrayed in cinema.

This is the time of year when movie awards buzz reaches fever pitch. It’s also the time of year when many pundits—both in the media and around the office water cooler—have a tendency to weigh in on the presence, or lack thereof, of African Americans among award nominees. And social media, where blacks dominate, goes into overdrive whenever a film depicting African American history or culture hits the theaters and when one of our own gets recognized for their work.

Many of us are keenly aware of the role films play in shaping our perceptions of who we are, who we can be, and influencing how others see us. As a result, we are justifiably protective and hold anyone who dares to tell our stories accountable for what they put on the big screen. Image matters. Movies matter, especially when we are in the plotline.

I’m a lover of history and of good movies. So it stands to reason that one genre of film that I have a strong affinity for is the documentary. Documentaries are powerful tools that, when done well, can remind us of a significant chapter in history. They can also give us a snapshot of contemporary issues, forcing us to do self-reflection on how far we have come as a people and what remains unfinished business.

At the Chicago Urban League we believe in showcasing films that inform, enlighten and motivate people to take action. Since 2012, we have convened the community during Black History Month to screen documentaries, engage in dialogue about the issues presented in the films and depart with steps they can take to empower themselves, their families and neighborhoods.

Through these film screenings we motivate the community to put in the necessary work to break down the barriers that continue to stand in the way of African Americans having the opportunity to receive a quality education, get a good paying job and live in a safe neighborhood.

This February we tackle those issues and more during our Black History Month Film Festival. We started on February 4th with American Promise, a film that follows two African American boys from elementary school through high school as they and their families navigate the rigorous prep-school process.

On February 11th we will screen The Central Park Five, which recounts the 1989 case of five black and Latino teens that were arrested, charged and wrongly convicted of brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. The case and the public and media scrutiny of black and Latino youth that followed and the tragic aftermath is explored in this film.

The seemingly inescapable issue of colorism in the black community will take center stage on February 18th when we screen Bill Duke’s Dark Girls. And on February 25th we close the series with Chi-Raq, a short film that gives a direct, in-your-face look at the violence decimating many neighborhoods.

Each screening will be followed by a panel discussion with local leaders and audience engagement around the topics presented. We encourage you to join us for these free events and be a part of the solutions-driven conversations. Let’s celebrate our history and, through the power of documentary filmmaking, challenge ourselves to do even more to make our communities better.

As contemporary leaders and stakeholders, we owe it to the generations that will follow us to leave this world better than we found it. One day they will read about, study, and see a visual record of what we did or did not do on their behalf. Let’s make sure the stories that are told about us are good ones.


Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. For more information about the 2014 African American Film Festival visit