29 Entertainers On The Black History They'd Like To See Onscreen

"I just want to see more of us on screen, because Black History Month is a month, but black people are forever, and they've always been forever." —Kofi Siriboe

This February, in honor of Black History Month and the continuous push for diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, we asked some entertainers what pieces of black history they would like to see onscreen. This included creating stories that center on time periods or focusing on specific people or particular events — whatever piqued their creative interests. Here are their slightly edited answers:

1. Aldis Hodge, Underground

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“Black Wall Street. I think it's very important for black culture in America that black Americans to understand that not only is there intelligence and affluence in our culture's roots, but also financial responsibility, financial security, and financial establishment. And even though it was torn and taken away from us, at a point we still built it up in some ways. I’m not saying that there aren't any rich black people in this country, but the idea of being rich and successful tied to being black has not yet come together as a normal thing. And it needs to continually be reiterated throughout our culture, because black kids grow up understanding and feeling like, ‘There's a higher bar set for me, regardless of where I start this is where I'm supposed to be at because this is where my culture lives.’ The idea of our culture being successful isn't natural, and that's what younger black kids need to know.

“That's what a great film like Hidden Figures establishes. You know, intelligence — you don't have to be exorbitantly intelligent or privileged to create great things. Intelligence starts from having a passion and following through and putting in the work. Putting in the work is intelligence. They think you have to be born brilliant. No, you are brilliant, you just need to do the work to figure it out. But we need more examples of that, and you know, when it comes to Underground, there's strength in what we accomplish. There's strength in our pain, there's strength in the things that we go through, but the only way that we can honor that strength is to get through it and do better, so yeah, Black Wall Street, for sure.”

2. Misha Green, Showrunner for Underground

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“You know, to be honest, I would really like to explore the Jim Crow era, because I think that a lot of people are like, 'Oh, it's the Jim Crow South,' and you're like 'No, it wasn't just the Jim Crow South,' so I think there's a lot of that that's shrouded in mystery too.”

3. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Underground

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“Oh my gosh, I mean, we have such a rich history. I think Ida B. Wells' story — she was such an incredible woman, such a soldier for truth and justice. Someone like her, and you think of other men and women who put their lives at risk...and that's one thing I love so much about Underground is the stakes are so high, and it's not because it's TV and writing dramatic stakes, it's because truth is stranger than fiction, unfortunately. These people put their lives at risk for us, and it's mind-boggling. We owe them so much, because you have to ask the question 'Would we have the courage to do that?' I mean, it takes a lot for us to just get up and be very active in our community, and we've moved so far, but life was so different back then, and it humbles me.”

4. Pat Cleveland, Model

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“My mother [Ladybird Cleveland]'s story, because she's a painter and she paints black American history and her art is going into the Smithsonian Museum. I'm writing the script now.”

5. Veronica Webb, Model

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“I would love to see my mother's story. I just went to Hawaii for my sister's 60th birthday, and my whole family went. My mother was stationed there during World War II, and she was a nurse at the Tripler Army hospital. Her first week of active duty was during Pearl Harbor. She was in the Black Nurses Corps. My aunt Hazel was the first black female professor at Columbia University. She taught nursing for women who were going into the Army. My mother then stayed in Hawaii for about seven years afterwards and took care of Japanese prisoners of war and the segregated hospital wards, and then she went on to Walter Reed Hospital.”

6. David Harbour, Stranger Things

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“I do think we have to address what was happening with the Klan in this country and people who don't have big names or weren’t big political figures who were killed by the Klan. So I would like to see more stories about the philosophy of genocide that the Klan was in this country. Even that movie Birth of a Nation, the original Birth of a Nation was a real story about the Klan, so I feel like we have to start to right that wrong in the Hollywood culture. … To me that's cultural power that we have to take responsibility for, that the burning cross came from that movie and they adopted it. So I think we have a responsibility to create our version of, whatever the good version of these images are for people, so that they can claim and use that.”

7. Amber Ruffin, Writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers

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“Um, no. I really wouldn't [want to see a piece of black history onscreen], and here's why. People love to celebrate black people suffering, which I think is kind of gross, and I think if we look around, so many people are doing great things now. Like yeah, you love the lady from Hidden Figures, but she had this tortured life, and I just don't think we should have to do that. I think that we should get to have someone to idolize who is happy and healthy and lives in a world that loves them, even if we don't really.”

8. Alex Gibney, Documentarian

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“I guess I'm so stunned still by the extraordinary work that Raoul Peck did with I Am Not Your Negro that I would just encourage everybody to see that. It's such a powerful, humane, trenchant, and tough-minded critique, but such a work of art, so that's what I would say. For Black History Month, take a look at I Am Not Your Negro.”

9. Lewis Black, Comedian

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“I'd like to see, I mean, just from my own edification again is the biography…a film biography of Thurgood Marshall, which I don't think is paid enough attention. And I watched 13th, which is really not Black History Month, but it is, and that was a slog. I had friends who had to watch it piecemeal. I mean, I had to stop it and get up and pace, but it was really extraordinary...it was unbelievable. All the facts are right there, and it's more than you can bear.”

10. Jill Kargman, Odd Mom Out

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“I really love Civil War stories. Being on the right side of history. Yeah, I would like to see the North because I have such a rabid hatred for the Confederacy, you always see Nazi slaughter. Even though it was technically our countrymen, I think of the Confederacy as the enemy. I would want to see a little more of how black New Yorkers were doing, like through that perspective, fighting them.”

11. Seth Meyers, Late Night With Seth Meyers

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“You know, I'm fascinated, just because of what I do for a living, but the history of black comedians, and especially when it shifted to, you know, being some of the first people who could talk about the sort of social issues that affected black Americans, and do it in a comic way that was then, I think, easier for people to digest. I'd always be interested more of that.”

12. Kenneth Lonergan, Writer of Manchester By The Sea

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“Well, they're making the Harriet Tubman story now. That's something I've always thought would make a great story. I don't know how it'll come out. I hope it comes out really well. … I'm amazed there aren't as many of those [Underground Railroad stories] as there are Westerns. Just such an intrinsically dramatic subject, plus it's got everything. … I actually think that there's so much material that's been unexplored and unexploited in the African-American experience that I'm amazed there's just not more of it everywhere, but I'm hoping there will be.”

13. Jelani Cobb, Staff Writer at The New Yorker

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“I'm a big fan of A. Philip Randolph, so I think any more narratives of his life would be interesting, because there's been some, but I think he's a really fascinating person to me, and so yeah, that might be a person.”

14. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, Showrunners for The Americans

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Joel Fields: “We could start with all of it and then whittle down from there in subsequent years...[Walks away and then walks back] I'll add to that, I'll actually add to that. You know what black history I would like to see on television? I'd like to see slave narratives, I really would. I think in all of the contemporary stuff it's a big part of the history and story that I think is sometimes overlooked... And so much started there, and there are actual narratives that could be shared, and I think for me personally, in fact now I'm going to have to go look some up now that you've asked me this question.”

Joe Weisberg: “No, but that's a great point, and there is one by a female that maybe you...I can't remember the name of it, so I'm being very useless here, but there is, and it's incredible. It's actually novelized. She turned it into fiction, but it's all based on her life.” [Editor's note: The book is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.]

15. Allen Maldonado, Black-ish

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"Aw man, Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke's story. I think he's an incredible artist. I think people need to know more about what he's done as an artist. I was educated on Cooke later on in life as an adult. I learned about him coming up in in the ’60s and ’70s, and a lot of the messages behind his music speaks volumes. I think it'd be a lot of education that a lot of these younger kids could learn from."

16. Anika Noni Rose, The Quad

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"You know what, any piece of black history onscreen done in a way that is positive, and not positive to the point where we don't pay attention to the whole story, or we're cutting off pieces to be like, 'This is a superhero,' but you know, stories we don't get to see. I'm interested in and working on the Shirley Chisholm story, but there's so many stories that are available, that aren't even always necessarily American stories...but there are plenty here that we have to work with."

17. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Queen Sugar

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"To be honest with you, I feel like we're making history right now. I think the amount of TV and film that are featuring black storytelling is making history right now, and I'm so thrilled that that's actually what is onscreen. That's what I want to celebrate — the moment that we're in. I think that we can access resources that document the moments that we've been through, and those are absolutely important and necessary to anchor ourselves in, but this moment is such a huge moment. It's such a huge turning point, and I can't say enough how important the ABFF Honors and other kinds of award shows are in celebrating and acknowledging that, so this, to me, is black history."

18. Elijah Kelley and Luke James, The New Edition Story

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Elijah Kelley: "All of it!"

Luke James: "Love, just a whole bit of love, so I think that should just always be nothing but lovefulness on TV always."

19. Keith Powers, The New Edition Story

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"The Huey P. Newton story. I would love to see that onscreen. I would love to see that — and it's so many stories. I just want to see all these stories be told, because it's all a history lesson, and I feel like you don't get these in a history book, so it'd be amazing to see this on a big screen in entertainment, because people latch on to that, and it touches their soul."

20. F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton

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"I'd love to see some of the origins in Northern Africa, Egypt. I went to Egypt, to Aswan, Luxor, Cairo, and I got a chance to go into a lot of the tombs and things like that, and so there's a lot of black history there that you don't see often, and I'd love to see a lot of that on the screen."

21. Isaiah Washington, The 100

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"I would like to see more pharaohs, stories told of our time before slavery. That would be nice in my lifetime. But I'm working on some things that hopefully will push that kind of storytelling along, but yeah, I think where we are, we're better than we were 20 years ago.”

22. Jay Ellis, Insecure

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"There's an an amazing story about a man named Bass Reeves who's believed to be the inspiration of the Lone Ranger, and I'm slowly working on that story with someone who owns his life rights, so hopefully we can make it happen."

23. Issa Rae, Insecure

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"I love the black arts movement. It's something that I studied in college, and I just feel like people using art for social change and to make a message feels very timely and very useful, and there were so many great figures and influences that came out of that era, so that's what I want to see. Amiri Baraka is the first one that comes to mind, even though he's kind of problematic, or he was problematic. But I just feel like he was such the face of it, and such a strong aggressive voice, so he's who comes to mind."

24. Prentice Penny, Showrunner for Insecure

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"I mean, honestly, I think movies like Moonlight. I feel like sometimes our movies have to be the most epic, the most amazing black person ever, overcoming the most amazing odds, and I think a lot of my life has nothing to do with that. A lot of my life is like what it's like for me on a Tuesday in the world, and I think just seeing us as fully realized people and not just like archetypes of people who fight social injustice. It's like we're also just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, and we're also just people who are trying to keep our kids fed, you know what I mean? It has nothing to do with the other stuff, so I think seeing more movies where we're actually full 3D are the best ways to celebrate those kinds of stories, as opposed to necessarily having to tell again the epic tales. Those are important too, but I think we're just more complex than that."

25. Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar

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Actor Kofi Siriboe attends BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors.

"I just want to see more of us onscreen, because Black History Month is a month, but black people are forever, and they've always been forever, so I just want to see more of us, more representation, more imagery, more creativity, more innovation. Just more of us doing what we do well, which is create, entertain, show out."

26. Leonard Roberts, Drumline

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"I want to see the type of inclusion where our stories are not just about firsts. We can deal with the good, the bad, because that's what life is, and that way I think it's a more complete representation. It doesn't have to be all good or all bad, just so we can see us onscreen... we have to encompass the whole of what our experience is, and that's the good, bad, and the ugly. That's what makes impactful art to me.”

27. Saniyya Sidney, Fences

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"To tell the truth about how it was back then, so people can know that it was kind of tragic, but it's a lot to learn from."

Quotes from the amFAR New York Gala, the Writers Guild Awards, and the American Black Film Festival Honors.

Ariane Lange contributed reporting to this post.



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