It is not the job of black people to teach you history because history does not just belong to one demographic group. We share a history as inhabitants of the planet. As we all grow and learn, we can also achieve more. And that allows us all to have conversations about where we come from, and where we aspire to go. Not a reader? No problem. You know there’s a documentary for that. Here are my top 10 films for learning more about Black history.
In no particular order, here are my current faves.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America
In this mini-series showcase on Netflix we take a cultural journey of the African diaspora through the lens of food. Stephen Satterfield, culinary anthropologist and activist, takes us on a tour of African American food. He starts in a West African open-air market with author Jessica B Harris who wrote the text the series is based on. This is a stirring historical journey that takes us through the origins of many of the common foods we see today in “American Cuisine.” Your mouth will water, and so will your eyes, as you explore the origins of American soul food, Caribbean delicacies, and the plates of the African continent.
Streaming now on Netflix
Amend: The Fight for America
I was hesitant to take a look at this one. I’ll say I was afraid that this documentary was going to be more pretentious than educational. I was wrong. Much like 13th this film takes us through some of the Black history context of legal barriers to equity that have been baked into the US Constitution. The cast includes Will Smith and other heavy-hitting actors, activists and researchers. They explore the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind many of the constitutional amendments critical to civil rights in the United States. Yes, this film is a masterclass in understanding access according to race, but that’s not all. It also explores the women’s rights movement, and developments for protection for members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community as well. It’s a great way to explore the rights of citizenship, who they pertain to, and how they have applied across America’s history.
Six episodes of an hour each. Streaming on Netflix.
The Black Candle: A Kwanzaa Celebration
This one is great for viewing around the Winter holidays especially, but also a fantastic introduction if you are exploring civil rights and the Black Power Movement with young people. I recently watched this with my kids as part of our homeschooling curriculum and it was a great way to start conversation about the idea of self-determination, one of the Nguzo Saba principles. Bonus, this gem is narrated by none other than Maya Angelou who recently was honored for being the first Black woman to appear on an American quarter.
Available on YouTube
If you haven’t seen it by now, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the 13th amendment and its impact on Black history is a must-watch. This is an excellent follow-up if you happen to be a mixed-media learner and read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. In DuVernay’s film she walks us through an exploration of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States. You get a taste of some of these themes in watching Amend (see above). If you’re looking to explore concepts like the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex, disenfranchisement, convict leasing and Jim Crow, or even the rise of the derogatory term “super predator”, this is your flick. This is 90 minutes well spent. The film is written and directed by Ava DuVernay.
Distributed by Netflix
This one I found entirely by accident, but it was truly a happy accident. Giving Voice introduces us to the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Named after the Nobel prize-winning playwright, the competition exposes us to young Black thespians across the country who compete each year for a chance to perform one of August Wilson’s monologues on a Broadway stage. The documentary exposes us to several teens living in different urban centers across the US as they prepare to perform a speech from one of Wilson’s plays about the African experience in the US.
Definitely a kid-friendly watch that you can share with the whole family and a great way to explore and introduce yourself and others to powerful Black artists in the drama and theater space. The documentary showcases the young people preparing for the competition. It also highlights many of the actors who performed Wilson’s work on stage and film as they speak about how August Wilson shifted and created new opportunities for Black actors and performers. Cameos from the likes of Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, and Stephen McKinley Henderson bring the impact and legacy of August Wilson to life.
Available on Netflix
This is an older watch for some, but the documentary based on former First Lady Michelle Obama’s tour during the release of her book of the same name is stirring. We follow Michelle and learn about both the physical and emotional preparation she underwent and still undergoes as a Black woman in the spotlight. We hear from those who are close to Michelle including her husband, her stylist, and her hairdresser. But we also get to see her in action as she engages with young Black girls across the country. This is a look at searching to find your way to be seen and heard — the process of becoming.
Distributed by Netflix. Bring tissues.
The Black Godfather
A good friend put me on to this gem. The Black Godfather is a documentary film released in 2019 that tells the story of music executive Clarence Avant. If you’re not familiar with Clarence, you’re about to get real familiar. The documentary showcases him and some of his close family members telling stories of his rise to fame as a man behind the scenes of many notable Black super talents in Hollywood (music and film). Told largely from the perspective of Clarence himself, we also get up close and personal with his larger-than-life personality. He is a straight shooter and colorful language is sprinkled throughout. This is definitely one for after the kids go to bed. Watching Clarence Avant is a masterclass in understanding power and influence. Be prepared.
The film was distributed by Netflix and took home NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Documentary in 2020, as well as the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Music.
Distributed by Netflix
I Am Not Your Negro
James Baldwin. I highly recommend reading James Baldwin if you have not had the pleasure. Baldwin’s work stands the test of time and informs much of our current dialogue around race relations in the US. The Fire Next Time and If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into film) are beautiful introductions to Baldwin’s expert commentary on the experience of the Negro in America. For those still craving that audiovisual hit this film does a decent job. The documentary brings to life 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript Baldwin was working on sharing his personal accounts of the assassinations of three close friends: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers.
For those struggling to understand why diversity dialogues focus on the black-white dichotomy in the US., Baldwin has an answer, and it is evident throughout this film through beautifully curated interviews with him speaking about notable events in Black history including school integration, the Civil Rights Movement and the resistance to it, as well as conversations with white Americans who are seeking to maintain the status quo of white supremacy across decades in the US. Powerful. Heavy.
Available on Netflix
20 Feet from Stardom
So real talk… as of this writing I have not yet seen this film. It still makes the list because this movie came out in 2013 and won an Academy Award for best documentary. Also, it won a Grammy for Best Music film, an Independent Spirit Award for best documentary and a Critics Choice movie award for best documentary. This movie is doing things. The premise of the film is shining the spotlight on longtime backup singers Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. The film showcases a side of entertainment that often gets left literally in the background. It unveils for us the everyday life and work of backup singers, most often Black women, who flood our radio-waves. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 99%. It stays in my queue.
Available on HBOmax
Another great film for homeschooling parents looking to explore conversations about Black history with young people. We watched this as part of our Martin Luther King Jr. weekend family time. While not truly a documentary, the film does reenact for us the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. It introduces us to a somewhat scared Martin Luther King Jr. being faced with some of the challenges of being a leader at that time. We watch as Martin engages with Malcolm X, John Lewis, and other contemporaries of the Movement. And we are introduced to what it was like to truly participate in nonviolence as a protest and activist strategy.
An excellent film for those struggling to explore concepts of nonviolent protest, activism, and organizing with young people. Especially those who are interested in these themes. And bonus, you get to see the work of longtime state representative John Lewis for whom the Edmund Pettus Bridge was recently renamed.
Available via Amazon Prime
So that’s my list. 10 films for you to explore a myriad of aspects of the Black experience. Whether it’s looking at food, colorful traditions in celebration, the arts, or exploring legal and systemic barriers to access, these films should provide some perspective on our collective history, not just Black history. And as with all great films, these provide excellent fodder to create conversations at home or at work. I would recommend any of these as the premise for upcoming viewings or conversation groups. They can help open up dialogue about the rich history of the United States. What new conversations will you be having about our shared historical experience?