10 Black History Month Movies Worth Watching Year-Round
There are plenty of documentaries and films based on real-life heroes to stream if you want to give yourself a crash course in Black history in February—and beyond.
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It’s a glaring omission from the American educational system: Black history has always been a minor part of education, as the standard curricula have barely changed in decades. Thankfully, Hollywood and independent filmmakers, along with the help of historians and African-American studies scholars, have found no shortage of eye-opening, educational Black history movies to bring to the big and small screen. With so many streaming services to choose from, it’s never been easier to fill in the massive learning gaps so many of us live with, no matter the color of our skin. Learn about 35 Black Americans you didn’t learn about in history class.
So whether it’s Black History Month or not, if you want to educate yourself about Black history, you’re only a remote control click away.
You’ll need extra popcorn for this one. In this three-hour-long Spike Lee classic, watch Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) from his early days as a hustler to his days as one of the leaders of the Nation of Islam. Particularly poignant is Malcolm’s storied visit to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which led him to rethink his early philosophies of racial separatism and break with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Historically, the flick is on point, and Washington gave what is arguably the best performance of his career.
Say Her Name: The Life And Death Of Sandra Bland
In 2015, a beautiful Black woman named Sandra Bland failed to signal during a lane change and was pulled over by an officer who threateningly told her, “I’m going to light you up.” It was a routine traffic stop gone horribly wrong. Three days later, the 28-year-old was found hanging in her jail cell. What happened in the moments leading up to her death remains rife with conspiracy theories and calls of foul play. While this Black history movie may leave more questions than answers, you won’t forget to #sayhername.
Three sistas. Three mathematicians. Three incredible pieces of NASA history. In this 2016 family-friendly hit, you’ll follow Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer’s real-life characters as they fight for equality amid crippling race and gender discrimination in 1960. Hint: the bathroom speech scene will straight-up give you goosebumps.
12 Years a Slave
In this film adaptation of the autobiographical tome of the same name by freed slave Solomon Northup, you’ll watch as Northup, a free Black man, was ripped from his life in New England and sent down South where he was sold as a slave to work on the plantations of Louisiana in pre-Civil War times. Be warned: some scenes are super hard to watch. There are rapes, whippings, and hangings along with stomach-churning displays of the cruel day-to-day experiences of slaves. The movie is real, raw, and true.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Learn one of the root causes of Black Americans’ deep distrust of the healthcare sector. In this docudrama that takes place in the early 1950s, you’ll follow Henrietta Lacks, who visits John Hopkins Hospital after experiencing excessive vaginal bleeding. Before her death at the age of 31, doctors extracted the cells from her cervix and, without her consent, used them for medical research and treatments. It boggles the mind, but even today, her cells are being used in scientific COVID studies.
When They See Us
In this hit by Ava DuVernay, Prepare to watch the criminal justice system vilify five innocent young Black men, The Central Park Five, who were accused of “wilding,” raping and beating a jogger who then fell into a 12-day coma. The boys were interrogated for seven hours without their parents, during which time, four made forced confessions that were videotaped. But the DNA-evidence found at the scene didn’t match any of the boys. Despite the boys walking back their “confessions” they were convicted and given 6 to 13-year sentences. The Central Park Five is one of the 12 documentaries about race everyone needs to see.
This 2016 documentary by Duvernay links slavery with the modern-day prison system, pegging the blame on a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It does so through an examination of stark facts: 25 percent of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the United States, though the U.S. has just 5 percent of the world’s population; and since 1970, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 200,000 prisoners to more than 2 million. DuVernay makes the case the war on drugs was the war on Blacks, who make up 40 percent of the prison population.
When late-politician John Lewis spoke of “good trouble,” he surely meant the real story behind this Black history movie. Watch Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and hundreds of peaceful protestors make the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 to protest for equal Black voter rights. Not even being beaten or gassed by state troopers could stop the weary but determined freedom fighters.
Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear at this biographical drama about Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old on his way to see fireworks on New Year’s Eve 2008. A simple night out takes a horrible turn at the Fruitvale metro station. When police respond to the scene, the deadly result of their decision sparks riots and protests.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story
When neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman gunned down a young teen named Trayvon Martin in 2012, it gave birth to the global Black Lives Matter movement. The docuseries, executive-produced by Jay-Z, retraces the unfortunate series of events from the confrontation between the two men to the trial and beyond.
Next, read on to find out 15 books about race relations that are essential reads.