In 2020, the country faced a serious reckoning in regards to race and economic disparity, and despite what the day’s trending topics may be, it’s not going away anytime soon. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to get back on track with expanding your knowledge and educating yourself if you’ve been distracted by the election, pandemics, and the white supremacist insurgency that proved yet again how urgent and dangerous racism is in the United States. Black history (which should be important to all races, FWIW) and the hunger to learn about it has never been more visible.
Thankfully, there is a huge selection of incredible documentaries that delve into Black history and tell necessary and too often overlooked stories. Whether you want to learn about the origins of the school-to-prison pipeline, the stories behind well-known Black athletes and artists, the community impact of colorism and racist legislation, or other topics that detail the experiences faced by modern Black society, there’s a documentary for you.
And the best part? Most of them are available on accessible streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube, so there’s no excuse for not watching them. Here’s a list of documentaries that can educate you on how we got here and help you take your allyship a step further.
The Loving Story (2011)
Until recently, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia who traveled to D.C. to get legally married only to face a massive legal battle and jail time when they returned home, was not common knowledge. The American Civil Liberties Union took on their case and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Their victory marked a turning point, and 16 states overturned bans on interracial marriage in response—all because of one sweet, unassuming couple. Or if you want a fictional take on this story instead, check out Loving (2016) starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
I Am Not Your Negro (2018)
It’s a bit of an obvious choice—interest in Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary that explores James Baldwin’s unfinished work spiked in June 2020. But that doesn’t make Baldwin’s words and how he remembers figures from the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers) any less important. The documentary underlines the connection between the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement, which unfortunately still needs to be reiterated over and over.
Ethnic Notions (1987)
You’ll need a library card to stream this documentary, but it’s absolutely worth it. Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions tracks the history of anti-Black stereotypes in popular culture, particularly cartoons, and how those harmful depictions have evolved from the antebellum period to the 1980s. We’ve all been coded with racist imagery since birth and we still see variations on the “mammy,” “magical negro,” and other tropes in films and television today. If you’ve ever been told that a popular film is racist and you didn’t think it was a big deal, this is the doc for you.
Freedom Riders (2010)
If you need proof that protests work and young people can make a difference, look no further than the story of the Freedom Riders, who pushed back against Jim Crow laws in the American South in 1961. This group of hundreds of activists included Representative John Lewis and brought an unprecedented amount of attention to segregation and troubles on the home front when national attention had turned overseas.
The 13th amendment officially ended slavery in the United States back in 1865, and Netflix’s 13th, named after that amendment, delves into why slavery never really ended and was basically just replaced with mass incarceration. Directed by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the film puts the country’s history of racial inequality on full display through the lens of the nation’s prisons, which are disproportionately filled with Black Americans.
Dark Girls (2011)
Dark Girls explores the deep-seated biases within Black culture against those of darker skin tones. This doc, which was nominated for a 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary, is filled with interviews from children, award-winning actresses, and Black female comedians who have experienced this bias. An equally powerful follow-up documentary, Dark Girls 2, goes even deeper on the prejudices that dark-skinned women face culturally and globally.
When They See Us (2019)
Okay, this technically falls more into the “biopic” category because it’s a fictionalization of real events, but we’re putting it here anyway. Another Ava DuVernay creation, this Netflix series illustrates the story of the Exonerated Five—formerly known as the Central Park Five—both artfully and powerfully. This four-part limited series tells the story of how the five men, four who are Black and one who is Latino, were falsely accused of and prosecuted for raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park. The series serves as a reminder of how badly the justice system has failed people of color (and continues to do so).
Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (2008)
Faubourg Tremé is one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in America, and it served as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and where jazz music really got its start. This documentary tells the story of that neighborhood through interviews that explore its legacy. People who want to learn about Black History, the roots of jazz, civil rights, and sociology need to add this to their watch list.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Directed by award-winning documentarian David France, this Netflix film investigates the 1992 death of transgender activist and trailblazer Marsha P. Johnson (pictured above), who was found floating in the Hudson River. Originally ruled a suicide, many believe she was murdered. If you thought the fight for LGBTQ+ rights was over, this documentary will remind you that we’re far from done.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Another movie that isn’t technically a documentary but is still based on true events, this Netflix film delves into the minds of four Black soldiers who fought in the Vietnam war during a time when their people were actively being oppressed back home. Weaving social commentary and hard-hitting emotions together, this Spike Lee movie will make you reexamine what you might have learned about Vietnam in your U.S. history class.
Heartfelt and moving, this documentary takes you through the senior year of an all-girls step team in inner-city Baltimore as they try to become first-generation college students. With obstacles and social unrest in their path, the girls attempt to succeed in dancing. Viewers will find themselves emotional and touched by this celebration of Black womanhood.
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014)
What would the story of Black history look like in America if we actually got to see photos that have been suppressed, lost, or forgotten? Through a Lens Darkly poses that question and, by using powerful pictures you’ve probably never seen before, explores photography’s role in shaping the identity and social emergence of Black people. While you watch, you’ll reflect on how important photography is in telling history but also how it’s tied to racism and what it would mean to capture Blackness in all its glory.
Teach Us All (2017)
This Netflix film is all about the current state of the U.S. education system and why schools still feel so segregated despite Brown v. Board of Education. Also acting as a social campaign, the film emphasizes the need for collective action to rectify the educational disparities between American children. It’ll make you think about how far we’ve actually come (or not) in the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education and where we go from here.
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