For Black History Month or Anytime, 21 Black Documentaries That Educate, Entertain and Inspire

These movies and series cover influential Black leaders, entertainers and more.

It can be frustrating to explain the Black experience in the United States, in part because Black history in America is comprised of so many different experiences. Some are well-known, like slavery, while others are less-known, such as the story of free Black people in New Orleans during the antebellum period. That’s why Black documentaries can be so exciting; there are so many things to learn about.

Hearing about personal experiences straight from the source can provide a deeper understanding of how those lives were lived, which is why the following documentaries—by providing insight into different aspects of the Black experience—can help create a fuller, more complete understanding of the people around you. And isn’t that what we should all want, no matter who we are?

Keep reading for our recommendations of 21 Black documentaries that educate, entertain and inspire.

Related: From Becoming to Homecoming, These Are the Best Black Movies on Netflix 

Black documentaries

Hip-Hop Evolution

Hip-hop’s come a long way, baby. From the 1970s until today, this style of music emerged from Black, inner-city neighborhoods to become a mega-popular genre among white suburban and upper-class neighborhoods, too. This documentary series follows the humble beginnings of hip-hop and follows the music all the way to the sounds and celebs of today. This is a great one to binge; there are 4 seasons worth of hip-hop to learn about.

Where to watch: Netflix

Summer of Soul

The winner of two Sundance Festival awards (and nominated for an Oscar!), The Roots’ Questlove makes his directorial debut with this exploration of the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival. The festival is an oasis compared to the civil unrest that the country had been in. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension and others entertain and talk about their work here, but as it turns out, because another festival was happening that summer in Woodstock, NY, people lost interest in this footage for a while. Questlove and collaborators snapped it up when they found it. “The fact that 40 hours of this footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists," says Questlove. "I want to make sure Black erasure doesn't happen during my lifetime... and the film was an opportunity to work towards that cause." One poignant moment: Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and Jesse Jackson explaining how Martin Luther King Jr. had that song on his mind before he died; King was assassinated just one year beforehand.

Where to watch: Hulu and Disney+

Related: The Significance of Black History Month and Why It Is Celebrated in February

Eyes on the Prize

If you’re a Gen X’er, your parents probably had you watching this one as a kid. This documentary series covers the big moments in the civil rights movement from 1954 to the mid-1980s. The march to Edmund Pettus bridge, Rosa Parks staying seated, lunch counter demonstrations, Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King—it’s all here. This series is an excellent primer, and if you don’t know SNCC from SCLC, this series is for you.

Where to watch: HBO Max


Selma director Ava DuVernay takes on the prison system in this striking documentary, which won a BAFTA and a Peabody Award. The title references the 13th amendment, which abolishes slavery or involuntary servitude in the United States—“except as a punishment of a crime.” The mass incarceration problem in this country is largely based around that, the documentary suggests. You'll have to watch to see if you agree or not.

Where to watch: Netflix and YouTube here.

Slavery By Another Name

This PBS documentary series asks whether the Emancipation Proclamation really freed black people in the United States. Personal narratives and documents are used to show how black people were put in positions that were close to slavery even after the Civil War, primarily through forced labor. This film could be a good companion piece to 13th.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

4 Little Girls

Spike Lee directed this documentary about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that killed four Black girls. Unlike many documentaries that cover this event, this one dives deep into each of the four girls and their personalities to emphasize that they were real people. And somehow, Lee got former Governor George Wallace to be interviewed for the film.

Where to watch it: HBO Max and Hulu


Another concert doc (this one was made in 1972), Wattstax boasts a slew of performances from the likes of Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, The Emotions, The Bar Kays, The Staples Singers–even Richard Pryor makes an appearance. The all-day Wattstax event, held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum seven years after the Watts Riots, was staged as a benefit concert by Stax Records. If you want some nostalgia and feel like grooving to artists you may not be familiar with, this could be a good choice.

Rent on: Amazon Prime Video

Related: Black Booksellers Recommend 25 Books to Read During Black History Month and Beyond 

When We Were Kings

This documentary–which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1996–covers the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” Zaire boxing between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. All aspects of the fight from planning and the fight itself are discussed, as are the other issues at play. For instance, Ali has an easier time bonding with Africans than Foreman did; there’s a dictator in Zaire who is very interested in the fight. Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and others are interviewed as well.

Where to watch: HBO Max

Many Rivers to Cross

This PBS documentary series features Professor Henry Louis Gates, who travels to Africa and throughout the United States to provide a complete picture of the Black experience in this country. He finds out about the Africans involved in the slave trade, visits plantations and explores specific personalities along the way.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Related: 30 Black Americans to Celebrate During Black History Month 

Freedom Riders

“I saw the segregation, the racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white waiting, colored waiting; white men, colored men... and I wanted to do something about it. And the Freedom Rides was my opportunity to do something about it,” the late, great Congressman John Lewis said about his time as a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders were young people, both Nlack and white, who traveled together on buses to challenge Jim Crow laws in the deep South. The film, based on the book Freedom Riders: 1961, chronicles these young people and and explores how the movement started and the ramifications of what they did.

Where to watch: PBS

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nina Simone, a criminally underappreciated musician who is perhaps best known these days for the song “Feelin’ Good” is the subject of this film, which opened the Sundance Festival in 2015. The documentary provides a look at her entire life, from the time when she hoped to be the first black American classical pianist; finding her way after those dreams were dashed; and her role as an artist during the Civil Rights Era. Simone’s personal struggles are also discussed, from her husband’s abuse to her bipolar diagnosis, which she didn’t receive until the 1980s. Her daughter, who co-produced and also appears onscreen, thinks the film gets her mom right, and we believe her.

Where to watch it: Netflix or Amazon Prime

I am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and nominated for an Oscar, this documentary explores author James Baldwin through his own words and interviews, with a lens on his unfinished book Remember This House. The book was supposed to be centered around Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers–but he gave it up. Overall, the film focuses on how frustrated Baldwin is with the inability of America to solve its race problems. “This film is like a warning, a last chance,” Peck has said. “It's Baldwin saying, ‘As long as we don't touch these core problems around the so-called American Dream, we can't have a common future.’" Baldwin is magnetic in this film; if you’ve not heard the way he speaks or aren’t familiar with the ferocity of his intelligence and wit, you’ll find it hard not to explore all his work after the film.

Where to watch it: Hulu

Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

This film, directed by Göran Olsson, explores the Black Power Movement from a non-American perspective. Lost footage captured by Swedish filmmakers at the height of the movement is revealed here. There are interviews with activist Stokely Carmichael, his mother in an impromptu interview, activist Angela Davis and more of those involved in the Black Power Movement, and those are interspersed with contemporary interviews with people like Erykah Badu, the Last Poets' Abiodun Oyewole and rapper Talib Kweli. It’s a look at black culture during one of the most volatile times in U.S. history.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video or, you can watch it in full on YouTube here.

Related: Black History Month Through the Years: Every Black History Month Theme Since 1928

High on the Hog: How African-American Cuisine Transformed America 

Eating is a necessity, of course, but “soul food” is made to be savored and enjoyed. This documentary tracks how soul food came to be, starting in Africa, running through slavery and all the changes that have happened since. You may be surprised by the culinary history of many American dishes as you watch this film.

Where to watch it: Netflix

They’ve Gotta Have Us

The evolution of Black Hollywood has a fascinating story; Black people weren’t cast for films at all, but today some “black” films make millions of dollars. This film uses interviews with celebs like Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Debbie Allen, John Boyega and more to talk about the onscreen, offscreen and mean green of what it means to be Black in Hollywood.

Where to watch it: Netflix

Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans

Free Black people and neighborhoods of free Black persons existed even before the Civil War. And New Orleans had, arguably, the largest group of them. However, this documentary starts with first-time director Lolis Eric Elie, who just wants to repair his Sixth Ward New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina. He soon discovers more about his neighborhood and the deep history of the area throughout American history.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Related: 120 Inspiring Quotes for Black History Month: ‘Freedom Is Never Given’ 

Good Hair 

Comedian Chris Rock was inspired to make this film when his daughter asked why she didn’t have “good hair.” In this generally well-received documentary (except for some Black women, who side-eye Rock for making it), Rock explores Black hair and the “hair weave” business, going to India to find out where the hair comes from and how it’s sold to American buyers. Throughout, people like Kerry Washington and Maya Angelou talk about their own experiences with their hair. The film doesn’t give one definitive answer for why Black women get relaxers and wear weaves (it also ignores the fact that some white women get perms and wear extensions)--but it does shed light on a topic that many non-Black people don’t know anything about. And because Rock, the directors and the writers of this film aren’t women, it’s a good reminder that representation is always important.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Related: Try Not To Laugh Along With the 41 Best Black Comedy Movies of All Time 

America to Me

It’s easy to think that race problems are just over and done with. RubyBridges desegrated schools in 1960, right? America to Me covers one year at the Chicago area Oak Park and River Forest High School. As the year unfolds, racial disparities become more apparent. “Everything’s made for white kids because this school was made for white kids because this country was made for white kids,” says one exasperated student. This documentary series shows that race is still an issue for the teenagers of today, despite progress.

Where to watch it: Hulu

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson, an activist and drag queen, is the subject of this documentary, directed by David France. Widely regarded to have been the first person to throw a brick at the Stonewall Riots–even though she says she didn’t appear until later–Johnson was one of the principal figures in the “vanguard” holding off police. The police ruled Johnson’s death a suicide, but friends were so adamant that she’d never do that that in 2018, the case was re-opened. This documentary celebrates Johnson while also trying to figure out who could be responsible for her untimely demise.

Where to watch it: Netflix

Related: February Is Black History Month! What Are the Black History Month Colors and What Do They Mean?

Dark Girls 

Colorism is often talked about in the Black community and it’s a topic that white people haven’t thought about very much. This documentary explores how brown women navigate a society that ignores or demeans them. Dark Girls even spawned a sequel; Dark Girls 2 can be seen on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

King in the Wilderness 

Everyone’s learned so much about Martin Luther King Jr. It’s easy to think that you know everything there is to know. However, in this Emmy-nominated documentary, which covers the last two years of the civil rights icon’s life, you learn that he was also interested in protesting the Vietnam War, the Memphis sanitation strike and the Poor People’s Campaign. Friends and colleagues are on hand to discuss King’s state of mind near the end of his life, and it may not be what you think.

Where to watch it: Hulu

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