While the country is in a moment of serious reckoning in regards to race and economic disparity, Black history (which should be important to all races, FWIW) and the hunger to learn about it has never been more visible. Thankfully, if you’re looking to expand your knowledge, there is a huge selection of incredible documentaries that delve into Black history and tell necessary, 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 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 country’s history of racial inequality is on full display here 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 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 anyways. 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 African-American men were falsely accused of, and prosecuted for, raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park. The series serves serves as a reminder of the how badly the justice system has failed people of color (and continues to do so).
Faubourg Treme’: 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 we’re far from done.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Another movie that isn’t technically a documentary but is still based true events, this Netflix film delves into the minds of four Black soldiers who fought in the Vietnam war during a time where their people were actively being oppressed back home. Weaving social commentary and hard-hitting emotions together, this Spike Lee movie will make you re-examine what you might have learned about Vietnam in your U.S. history class.
Heartfelt and moving, this documentary takes 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 how it’s also 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 vs. Board of Education, and where we go from here.
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