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15 Impactful Documentaries To Stream During Black History Month & Beyond

It's not just Black history, it's American history.

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There are plenty of entertaining and informative ways to celebrate Black history right from your home, whether you watch a movie as a family or dive into a whole new educational platform. Another way to immerse yourself and your family is by streaming some of the best documentaries about Black history that help tell the story of a nation.

African American history isn't just a section that's reserved for a specific group of people; it's American history. However, despite the past and current accomplishments of African Americans in this country, issues continue on how that education is conceived and taught. "The first time many schoolchildren learn about Black people is through enslavement and other oppression-centered narratives," the University of Missouri professor LaGarrett J. King wrote in an op-ed titled Black History Is About More Than Oppression for EdWeek.

"Black people are taught as passive people and disconnected from their liberation," King continued. "The prevailing narrative emphasizes white saviors and the federal government as Black people’s primary liberators. When Black liberation is taught, 'liberation' is limited to 'nonviolence,' and historical narratives that state otherwise are vilified and compared to white supremacy."

In other words, it's our job, Black and white, parents and individuals to change the narrative and celebrate Black history, not just during the month of February or a 28-day public recognition from the federal government, but as an entwined and sacred part of this nation.

While some of the titles on this list may be violent, tragic, and disturbing (and should be watched with parental discretion), others are uplifting and encouraging. But hey, that's history, isn't it? There’s also the beauty, excellence, and creativity to celebrate from civil rights to the music. Four words: Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. The iconic representative who sparked the anthem of good trouble and the importance to stay in it. Pioneers in sports, who despite the discrimination and personal tribulations against them, rose to become the greatest athletes of all time.

So, sit back and turn on one of the many insightful documentaries below. And once you're done with one, turn on another because all of them will hopefully inspire more open-mindedness and less ignorance. Watching these documentaries will hopefully make you appreciate the progress we’ve made and the progress we still have to overcome.

Becoming (2020)

From holding back tears after President Donald Trump’s inauguration to a discouraging story from a high school counselor who told her she was “reaching too high”, this intimate documentary follows the trials, tribulations, hopes, and connections with the first African American woman to become First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. The documentary follows the former first lady on her 2019 book tour for her New York Times Bestseller, Becoming. It also takes us inside her life as a wife, mother, and global role model. The memoir could be purchased from Crown Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Watch Becoming, rated PG, on Netflix.

Homecoming (2019)

Netflix

Written, directed, and executive-produced by Beyoncé, this Netflix concert film celebrates Blackness, that’s it, that’s all (insert applause emoji here). When Mrs. Carter performed at the 2018 Coachella, now forever known as Beychella, she became the first Black female performer to headline the concert. The film features behind-the-scenes footage as she preps for her epic performance. The performance paid homage to historically Black colleges and universities. Beychella featured a marching band, step-team, and Greek-life choreography. The majority of her dancers were HBCU graduates. Beyoncé’s HBCU-themed performance was so influential, it launched a line of BEY-inspired Greek apparel. She also gets real about the struggles of her pregnancy with Sir and Rumi and getting her post-pregnancy body back in shape for the performance.

Watch Homecoming, rated NR, on Netflix.

4 Little Girls (1997)

There won't be a dry eye after watching 4 Little Girls. Directed by Spike Lee, this documentary is about the racist bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, that claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. The bombing was caused by four members of the Ku Klux Klan and altered the cause of the civil rights movement. Given the nature of this documentary, which contains graphic images and racist language, parents may want to screen it ahead of time.

Watch 4 Little Girls, rated TV-14, on Amazon, Hulu, HBO Max, and YouTube.

King In The Wilderness (2018)

King In The Wilderness documents the last 18 months of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to his assassination in 1968. The film also reveals the anxiety and personal conflicts Dr. King faced, plus the immense racism faced by African Americans, told from the perspective of those who knew him best. Rare footage in the 2018 documentary directed by Peter Kunhardt, shows the late civil rights leader’s most intimate and vulnerable sides that many of us may not be used to seeing, including his frustration and fear of his fate. Parents, please note that this documentary also contains strong racist language and graphic images.

Watch King In The Wilderness, rated TV-14, on HBO Max.

13th (2016)

Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th dives into the racial inequality of America's prison system and the mass incarceration of African Americans. According to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans. The film also explores the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States. But DuVernay and others argue that it only led to another form of modern-day slavery for Blacks, prison. “We’re in the midst of a Black Lives Matter moment and it asks us to interrogate more deeply,” DuVernay told NBC. “And part of that was connecting the idea of prison for profit, to the historical legacy of that, and you know what the future will be for that.” This documentary also features commentary from politicians, activists, and scholars. Parental discretion is advised.

Watch 13th, rated TV-MA, on Netflix.

The Black Power Mixtape (2011)

If you ever wanted to get real insight on the Black Panthers, this is the film for you. Directed by Göran Olsson, the documentary examines the evolution of the Black Power movement from 1967 to 1975, viewed through the lens of Swedish journalists and filmmakers who were there at the time. They were and are more than the militant, Black extremist group that the FBI once coined as “an advocate for violence and guerilla to overthrow the U.S. government.” The documentary also shines light on their community outreach initiatives such as their Free Breakfast for Children and food programs, health clinics to low-income communities. Parents, do note that it contains racist language and graphic images. Parental discretion is advised.

Watch The Black Power Mixtape, rated NR, on Amazon Prime.

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (2016)

Did you know Jesse Owens was not the only Black athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin? Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a raw documentary film that sheds light on the 17 other American Black athletes who competed alongside Owens. Despite their achievements including Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field, in Hitler’s Aryan world, the men faced racism from the American coaching staff and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's reportedly refused to shake their hands in fear of angering Southern voters. As African Americans continue to face inequality in the sports world from banning swimming caps to incidents as recent as the discrimination lawsuit against the Iowa State football team, this documentary reveals insight into the current racism that persists in American society today. Features include interviews with surviving family members as well as archival news and interview footage. Do note that this documentary contains racist language. Parental discretion is advised.

Watch Olympic Pride, rated PG, on Amazon Prime, Peacock TV, and YouTube.

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (2020)

Produced by Shondaland, this is an inspiring, feel-good film that follows dance legend Debbie Allen and her group of students as they prepare for their annual "Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" performance. The production features more than 200 children and is the Debbie Allen Dance Academy’s (DADA) largest fundraiser. But the documentary also serves a larger purpose and explores the need for more Black representation in the dance community. Allen actually opened DADA in 2001 after her 13-year-old daughter told her that she didn’t feel welcomed at the white-majority, The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. “It’s wonderful for audiences to see the Fairy Queen as a beautiful Black ballerina that flies onto the stage, which is something that young people will never forget,” Allen told IndieWire in a 2020 article. “Especially young people who have never seen themselves in this particular world.”

Watch Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, rated G, on Netflix.

A Ballerina's Tale (2015)

Another dance-related film, this documentary revolves around the career of Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. The film also dives into the history of racism and body image in ballet. The documentary shows Copeland’s triumphs as well as her struggles, including a 2012 injury that threatened her career and body insecurities that led to a Krispy Kreme addiction. Copeland, who is also the author of Black Ballerinas: My Journey To Our Legacy, spoke about her contribution to Vanity Fair in a 2021 interview. “Though I’m alone at ABT (American Ballet Theatre), I’m not alone in this, and there have been people doing the work that have gotten me here,” Copeland said. “More so than being a dancer and being on the stage, I feel like I’m a vessel to be able to share these dancers’ stories, and give them that acknowledgment and recognition that they never received.”

Watch A Ballerina's Tale, rated G, on Amazon Prime and Sling TV.

Versailles '73 American Runway Revolution (2016)

This one is for the fashionistas! Versailles '73 American Runway Revolution is a documentary that recalls the once-in-a-lifetime fashion show in 1973, the Battle of Versailles. The fashion show featured five French and five American designers and sparked the rise of Black women in the modeling industry. French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emmanuel Ungaro competed against American designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston. Runway pioneers included Stephen Burrows, Bethann Hardison, Marisa Berenson, Grace Mirabella, Harold Koda, Dennis Christopher, Mikki Taylor, and one of the first Black supermodels, Pat Cleveland.

Watch Versailles '73 American Runway Revolution, rated NR, on Amazon Prime.

Dark Girls (2011) and Dark Girls 2 (2020)

"You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." It's a phrase that's all too familiar for African American women and steeped in generations of history. Dark Girls explores the racial beauty bias within Black culture against dark-skinned Black women. Dark Girls 2 continues the narrative of beauty prejudices that Black women face around the world. The series covered include beauty brands and their capitalization on colorism, personal accounts from Black women who experienced bullying because of their darker skin and the stigma of mental health and therapy in the Black community.

Watch Dark Girls on Amazon Prime and the sequel, rated NR, on Fubo TV and OWN.

Making Of Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

A behind-the-scenes of the greatest music video ever made by the greatest artist the world has ever known (kids, we love Bey, but don’t argue with us about this. This is who she got it from!). Narrated partially by the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson talks about his inspiration for the monster music video. Archival footage includes makeup prep, choreography practice, and director John Landis picking up a young Jackson over his shoulder every chance he got. Thriller went on record for being one of the most expensive music videos ever made, racking in a half-million dollars. This video and song are so influential that people are still jamming to it today. In 2009, over 13,000 people in Mexico City participated in the zombie-dance routine, which made the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest gathering of people to do the Thriller dance. Although the King of Pop has left us, his legacy and contributions live on forever.

Watch Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, rated PG, on YouTube.

Good Hair (2009)

In this 2009 film, comedian and actor Chris Rock is on a journey to figure out ‘what is good hair,’ when it comes to the Black community. It all started when his daughter, Lola, came up to him crying and asked, “Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?” The question sparked a quest that takes him to beauty salons and stylists across the country and even an Indian temple. The film delves into the significance of hair in the African American community and its impact on the culture. It also touches on the Eurocentric view of beauty and hair and its relevance today.

Watch Good Hair, rated PG-13, on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)

This intimate documentary chronicles the astonishing life and legacy of the late and great U.S. Representative John Lewis. Rare archival footage and interviews documents over 60 years of Rep. Lewis’s social activism and legislative action including his work on civil rights, voting rights, gun violence, healthcare, and immigration. Lewis was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Among his accomplishments, he organized the iconic March on Washington and led demonstrators in the 1965 ‘Bloody Sunday march. He died in July 2020 at the age of 80. He is a man who dedicated his life to human rights and racial justice. It’s a life that must be watched to be appreciated. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is currently in the Senate, with hopes of being passed into law.

Watch John Lewis: Good Trouble, rated PG, on Amazon Prime and HBO Max

Being Serena (2020)

After watching King Richard, check out the intimate documentary about the tennis icon Serena Williams. The 2018 docuseries touches on pivotal moments in the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s professional and personal life, including her tumultuous pregnancy and delivery of Olympia Ohanian. Williams was among many Black women who experienced life-threatening complications during childbirth. The documentary also touches on Williams’ other ventures such as her clothing line, S By Serena, and philanthropic causes like the launch of the Yetunde Price Resource Center. The center was named after their older sister who was killed “in an act of senseless violence in 2003.”

Watch Being Serena, rated NR, on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and Hulu.

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