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Recommended DVDs for Black History Month

Bruce Dancis

A few years ago, I wrote a newspaper story for Black History Month about Hollywood films and their historical portrayals of African Americans. I received several hostile phone calls anonymous, of course challenging the idea of having a month devoted to the study of black history. The callers wanted to know when I would be writing about "White History Month."

Had they left phone numbers, I would have explained that for too long, the history of African Americans, as well as the history of other minority groups and women, had been neglected or distorted. Furthermore, the history of African Americans should be viewed as an essential part of the study of American history , because our lives have been intertwined since the earliest days of the colonization of North America. With this in mind, here are some recommendations of DVDs for this year's Black History Month:

"Neshoba: The Price of Freedom" (First Run Features, $27.95, not rated): In 1964, a coalition of civil rights organizations sponsored the Mississippi Summer Project, in which college students from the north spent the summer in Mississippi helping to organize voter registration drives and take part in efforts against segregation. The goal was to bring more national attention — and pressure — on both Mississippi and the federal government.

On June 21, three men working on the project — James Chaney, 18, a black Mississippian, with Mickey Schwerner, 25, and Andrew Goodman, 20, both white Jewish New Yorkers — disappeared after being released from police custody in Neshoba County, where they had been arrested on a bogus traffic charge. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered buried in an earthen dam; Chaney's body showed the effects of beatings and torture . Eventually, the FBI arrested 21 people, many of them affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. But after Mississippi refused to prosecute, the federal government brought charges against the men for civil rights violations (there was no federal murder statute at the time). Seven men were convicted and spent two to six years in prison. The man suspected of being the ringleader, a KKK leader named Edgar Ray Killen, was acquitted by a hung jury.

Had filmmakers Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano simply made a documentary about the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman case, it would have contributed to our understanding of one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice during the long battle for civil rights in America. But "Neshoba: The Price of Freedom" also moves the story ahead 40 years, when an interracial group of Neshoba County residents, supported by the surviving relatives of the three murdered men, successfully prodded Mississippi to reopen the case and bring new charges against Killen.

Artfully blending archival footage of the 1964 events with scores of new interviews (including several with Killen, who appears to relish the opportunity to spout his racist and anti-Semitic bigotry, as well as with Chaney's mother and siblings, Schwerner's wife and Goodman's mother and brothers), the filmmakers offer an incisive look into the state of race relations in Mississippi then and now. It's a film of terrible memories and newfound hopes, a reminder that there should be no statute of limitations in the pursuit of justice.

"Night Catches Us" (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $26.98/$29.98 Blu-ray, rated R, to be released Feb. 1): This debut from writer-director Tanya Hamilton explores what happens to black revolutionaries after the revolution has failed. Hamilton presents images of Black Panthers in action in the late '60s as the backdrop for a drama set in Philadelphia in 1976 about former Panthers.

The death of his father has brought onetime Panther Marcus Washington (an outstanding Anthony Mackie) back to his old neighborhood after being gone for over four years. He encounters hostility from his brother (Tariq Trotter, of the R&B band the Roots), who has converted to Islam, and a former comrade (Jamie Hector, from "The Wire"), now a mobster, who thinks Marcus was the snitch responsible for the murder, years earlier, of the Panthers' leader at the hands of the Philadelphia police. But two people don't believe Marcus was an informer: a police detective (Wendell Pierce, of "The Wire" and "Treme"), and, more significantly, Patricia Wilson (Kerri Washington), the widow of the late Panthers leader who is now a defense attorney and the mother of a precocious 10-year-old daughter (Jamara Griffin).

"Night Catches Us" shows the human side of the Panthers as former members grapple with their legacy, the relationship between the black community and the Philadelphia police, and their future.

For kids: Scholastic Storybook Treasures is a series of read-along DVDs. "Duke Ellington and more stories to celebrate great figures in African American History" (New Video, $14.95, recommended for ages 4-9, to be released Feb. 1) includes stories about jazz composer/orchestra leader Ellington, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and the legend of John Henry. Forest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson narrate. Also new is "Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship and More Stories to Celebrate U.S. history" (New Video, $14.95, recommended for ages 4-9, to be released Feb. 1), which includes a story about the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and former slave/emancipation leader Frederick Douglass .

Blu-ray upgrades: "The Great Debaters" (The Weinstein Co., $19.97, rated PG-13): Denzel Washington directed and starred in this powerful 2007 film about the debating team at Wiley College, an African American college in East Texas, during the mid-1930s.

"The Color Purple" (Warner Home Video, $34.99, rated PG-13): Steven Spielberg's 1985 dramatization of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Whoopi Goldberg as the oppressed wife of a sharecropper (Danny Glover) in the segregated South.