We've compiled a list of much-watch movies, shows and documentaries for Black History Month. These films celebrate and examine race, particularly through the eyes of Black Americans. Some of them are based on true stories, some are fictional, but they will all leave you with a deeper connection to and a better understanding of the Black experience in America.
'13th,' a film by Ava DuVernay, is a documentary about how racism has driven mass incarceration in the United States of America. Owen Gleiberman of Variety describes '13th' as,
More than just another documentary, it’s a crucial and stirring document — of racism and injustice, of politics and the big-picture design of America — that, I think, will be watched and referenced for years to come.
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The film “Black Panther” follows T’Challa, who returns home to become the King of Wakanda, an isolated and technologically-advanced African nation. He faces off against old enemies - from both inside and outside of the kingdom. With the tragic, untimely passing of the movie's star, Chadwick Boseman, any "Black Panther" installments in the future will never be the same. Even though it is fictional, this movie gave many Blacks the heroic representation they so craved to see on the big screen.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote that "Black Panther is more than just another Marvel film, rather, it's,
an epic that doesn't walk, talk or kick ass like any other Marvel movie — an exhilarating triumph on every level from writing, directing, acting, production design, costumes, music, special effects to you name it. For children (and adults) of color who have longed forever to see a superhero who looks like them, Marvel's first black-superhero film is an answered prayer, a landmark adventure and a new film classic.
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Do the Right Thing was released in 1989. It was written, produced, directed by and stars Spike Lee. The film follows the racial tensions in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The events that unfold during the day result in tragedy, according to IMDb,
On the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, everyone's hate and bigotry smolders and builds until it explodes into violence.
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The Jesse Owens Story was produced as a television mini-series in 1984. It follows famed track & field star Jesse Owens from college to his record-setting participation at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he proved Hitler wrong on a world stage.
John Goldhammer, an executive with Paramount Television, which produced the docu-series, told the New York Times that it revealed more about Owens than just his Olympic wins,
We wanted to focus on the man behind the myth. Most biographies rehash what people already know. Jesse's well-known accomplishments at the Olympics constitute only about 10 percent of the show. The other 90 percent is unfamiliar.
There was also a 2016 Jesse Owens movie titled Race. You can view the trailer on Youtube.
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With an all-star cast, including Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson, "Just Mercy" exposes the biases and racism in the justice system in America. It is based on a true story,
A powerful and thought-provoking true story, “Just Mercy” follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his history-making battle for justice. Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings, as well as overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them. ~ Warner Bros. Pictures
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Moonlight is a LGBTQ coming-of-age drama that follows a young Black man, who grows up poor and gay in a rough Miami neighborhood. Mark Kermode of The Guardian, who gave the movie a 5-star review, wrote,
Lending heartfelt voice to characters who have previously been silenced or sidelined, Moonlight is an astonishingly accomplished work – rich, sensuous and tactile, by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.
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Starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station is a true story, based on the last hours of Oscar Grant's life. Grant was shot and killed by BART police in San Francisco transit on New Year's Day in 2009.
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Released in 2020, Soul is the first Pixar movie to star a Black lead character. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey lend their voices to the animated film. Dan Kois of Slate wrote,
It’s in the movie’s most personal and specific storytelling beats — its interaction with Black culture — that ‘Soul’ delivers more potent storytelling.
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Strong Island is a film based on a true story. Directed by Yance Ford, the film is about the tragic loss of Ford's brother William, who was killed by a white mechanic in 1992.
Strong Island chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy - from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. It is the story of the Ford family: Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children and how their lives were shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America. ~ Strong Island Film
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Trial 4 is an 8-part true-crime docu-series. It tells the story of Sean K. Ellis and his fight to prove his innocence and gain his freedom. In 1993, when he was a teenager, Ellis was charged in the shooting death of a Boston police officer. The documentary exposes the corruption and racism in the justice system, particularly among the ranks of the police. Adrian Horton of The Guardian wrote,
The common refrain, when watching each series in isolation, is that the American justice system is “broken” and in need of repair. But taken together, as crime series which refigure the dysfunction of American justice as the central mystery, the US criminal justice seems less broken than inequitable and interminable by design: streamlined convictions of black and brown citizens, incentivized competition and convictions over fairness, and odds stacked against defendants.
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Netflix produced Last Chance U, which is a coming-of-age docu-series about the players in the football program at East Mississippi Community College. It follows the lives of several of the athletes, who have previously struggled and faced trouble. Stuart Heritage of The Guardian wrote,
You do not need a working knowledge of American football to enjoy this. It’s handled so expertly that even a non-fan like me can understand the stakes. Each win is giddying. Each loss hurts. The end of the series is nothing less than Shakespearean. This is a show about obsession, and it is very, very easy to get swept up in.
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Becoming is a documentary that follows America's first Black FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, as she tours the country with her memoir of the same title. The documentary reflects on her life and legacy, as well as her connections to the people she meets during her 2019 book tour. Vogue wrote,
The tour, the setting of Netflix's new Becoming documentary, has the glitter and glamour of a Beyoncé show, complete with Obama's memorable thigh-high, gold Balenciaga boots. But it also feel like an emotional, intimate portrait of a woman who feels at once like an icon and a best friend.
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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a documentary that was written and directed by MacArthur Fellow, Stanley Nelson Jr. in 2015. The film takes an in-depth look at the Black Panther Party.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the first feature-length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails. Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure trove of rare archival footage with the diverse group of voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. ~ PBS
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Released in 2003, The Murder of Emmett Till is a documentary about the life and the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till. In 1955, while visiting family in Mississippi, Till was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. This lead to his brutal murder at the hands of two white men, who were acquitted after a short trial. When Till's mother decided to have an open-casket funeral, allowing his horrendous injuries to be exposed, his tragic death helped propel the national civil rights movement in America.
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