February is Black History Month and regardless of your background, we can all benefit from further educating ourselves on the subject.
Particularly with the racial reckoning happening today in the United States, there has never been a better time to turn our attention to a diverse collection of films that shine a light on Black stories, triumphs, struggles, talents, and trailblazing figures. These film may not only entertain, educate, and inspire, but even light a spark in getting some involved with activism.
From historical events to cultural explorations, check out seven powerful Black documentaries to stream this month.
To put into context just how timely 13th is, the film experienced a surge in viewership by 4,665 percent in June 2020 during the George Floyd protests. In Ava DuVernay’s thought-provoking documentary, scholars, activists and politicians analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.
Titled after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, it abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime. DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing; suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, lynchings, and Jim Crow; politicians declaring a war on drugs that weighs more heavily on minority communities and, by the late 20th century, mass incarceration affecting communities of color, especially American descendants of slavery, in the United States. She examines the prison-industrial complex and the emerging detention-industrial complex, discussing how much money is being made by corporations from such incarcerations.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary.
Watch now on Netflix
Trust us, Good Hair is not your normal Chris Rock movie. The documentary, directed by Jeff Stilson and produced by Chris Rock Productions and HBO Films, focuses on the issue of how Black women have historically perceived their hair. According to Rock, he was inspired to make the movie after his then three-year-old daughter Lola asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” He realized she had already absorbed the perception among some black people that curly hair was not “good.”
Good Hair, which received the Special Jury Prize Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, explores the $9 billion hair styling industry for Black women, what is considered acceptable and desirable for Black women’s hair in the U.S., and their relation to Black culture. He visits such places as beauty salons, barbershops and hair conventions to explore popular approaches to styling, as well as scientific laboratories to learn the science behind chemical relaxers that straighten hair. Rock intended to explore the topic seriously, but with his signature humor.
The film also includes interviews with hair care industry business people, stylists and their customers, and celebrities such as Ice-T, Nia Long, Paul Mooney, T-Pain, Raven-Symoné, Maya Angelou, KRS-One, Salt-n-Pepa, Kerry Washington, Eve, Reverend Al Sharpton, and Meagan Good. who discuss their experiences with their own hair, and the issue of how different types and characteristics of Black hair are perceived in the Black community.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975
The documentary features the found footage shot by a group of Swedish journalists (discovered some 30 years later in the cellar of Swedish Television) overlaid with commentaries and interviews from leading contemporary African-American artists, activists, musicians and scholars. Divided into nine sections based chronologically on each successive year between 1967 and 1975, the film focuses on several topics and subjects relevant to the Black Power Movement, including Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War, the Black Panther Party, COINTELPRO, and the War on Drugs. The film documents these events with footage of individuals who were highly important to the movement including, but not limited to, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton.
David Fear of Time Out New York referred to the film as “a time capsule of a turbulent era, essential viewing for anyone concerned with our nation’s history—and its present.” Political activist, academic scholar, and author, Angela Davis, is featured in the film through both footage and contemporary voice commentary. The footage includes appearances by Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Louis Farrakhan, Emile de Antonio, Richard Nixon, Ingrid Dahlberg, and Angela Davis, who also provides contemporary voice commentary. Additional contemporary voice commentaries are provided by Erykah Badu, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, who is also credited with scoring the music for the film along with Om’Mas Keith, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, John Forté, Sonia Sanchez, Bobby Seale, Robin Kelley, Abiodun Oyewole and Melvin Van Peebles. Mark Jenkins of NPR has commented that the prominence of music artists rather than political activists, who provide commentary throughout the film ,is “a sign of how African-American culture has shifted.”
John Lewis: Good Trouble
The country lost a true hero last summer The CNN Film John Lewis: Good Trouble, directed by Dawn Porter, covers the inspiring story of the life of civil rights movement activist and United States congressman, John Lewis. A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before his service, Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups, including Martin Luther King Jr., who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many key roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and police attacked the marchers, including Lewis.
The film premiered at the Circle Cinema theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19, 2020. The date and place were chosen to commemorate Juneteenth, the celebration of the emancipation of slaves in the United States, and to protest a Donald Trump presidential re-election campaign rally planned in Tulsa for the same day; the rally was rescheduled for the following day after widespread criticism. Lewis passed away a month later.
A Ballerina’s Tale
A Ballerina’s Tale shines a light on the fascinating career of twirling trailblazer, Misty Copeland, the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre ‘s 75-year history. She also serves as the narrator. The 2015 documentary follows the daily life of Copeland with emphasis on her role as one of the first African-American female soloists to present what Mekado Murphy of The New York Times describes as the process of the dancer. The film begins with archival footage of a young Copeland at a small ballet studio and focuses on her cultural impact and professional ascension, despite injuries and other challenges, without delving into her personal history.
The project started with a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign by director Nelson George. The campaign raised $54,251 with 657 backers. Prince contributed a “substantial sum” to the campaign.
Tell Them We Are Rising
The rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the end of slavery, flourished in the 20th century, and profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years — yet remains largely unknown. With Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities by Stanley Nelson (Black Panthers, Freedom Riders) and Marco Williams, the powerful story of the rise, influence, and evolution of HBCUs comes to life. African Americans who would not be denied a higher education played an enormous part in propelling the epic journey toward liberation for Black people in the United States. Through this rich tapestry of archival photos, letters, diaries, home movies, a variety of never before seen or heard media, and memorable testimonials with key students, staff, faculty, and alumni, Nelson brings into sharp focus the pivotal role the 150-year history that HBCUs have played in American history, culture, and national identity.
Watch now on PBS
I am not your Negro
Get ready to be moved to your core, I Am Not Your Negro is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and was inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, a collection of notes and letters written by Baldwin in the mid-1970s. The memoir recounts the lives of his close friends and civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. On Rotten Tomatoes, the powerful 93-minute documentary has a whopping approval rating of 99% and “offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s crucial observations on American race relations—and a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.” I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for numerous international awards including an Oscar and won over a dozen, including the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and Special Mention at the Black Film Critics Circle.