Film & Television

A Streaming Guide to Black History Month

Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States for more than 50 years. It was first proposed at Kent State University by the school’s Black United Students in 1969, and celebrated there a year later. By 1976, Gerald Ford had officially recognized it as part of the U.S. Bicentennial. “Seize the opportunity,” he encouraged Americans, “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Five decades on, Black history is still “too-often neglected,” and currently a subject of contention as politicians and school districts debate whether to include 1619 Project material in public school curricula. And, as pointed out here on many occasions, Black filmmakers (and others of color) have not been accorded the opportunity of their white peers by the entertainment industry. 

Nevertheless, in recent years there have been powerful movies and television series depicting the Black American experience. Many of these are available to stream on subscription networks. With so many of us still staying close to home because of the pandemic, what better way to celebrate the history and heroes of Black America?

Here is a baker’s dozen of options well worth watching:

 

Amazing Grace (Hulu)

A religious experience unto itself, Amazing Grace is a 2018 concert film directed by Alan Elliott and the late Sydney Pollack. The inimitable power of Aretha Franklin is brought to life through archival footage of two incredible days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where she recorded what became a best-selling gospel album. But even as Franklin’s astonishing voice soars, the film remains surprisingly subdued. The significance and sobriety of the modest church setting isn’t lost on the choir, the congregation, or its guests (including an awe-struck Mick Jagger). 

 

Becoming (Netflix)

Directed by accomplished cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, Becoming is an insightful documentary based on Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir. As the film follows the former First Lady on her 2019 book tour, we’re given an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into her life, hopes, goals, and profound connection with others. Uplifting and inspirational, Obama shows us again and again why she is so beloved and has become such a wonderful role model for so many in this country and  beyond.

 

Black is King (Disney+)

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “visual album” is at once a hero’s journey, a celebration of African redemption, and a spectacular ninety-minute music video. Released in 2020, Black is King is a glorious affirmation served up in a time of violence, hate, and social unrest. Beyoncé served as writer (along with three others, according to the film’s credits, including poet Warsan Shire), director (along with several co-directors), producer (again, along with others), singer, songwriter, dancer, and — as always — radiant pop icon. Black is king, but she is undeniably the queen.

 

Harriet (Amazon Rental)

Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo is stunning as Araminta “Minty” Ross, the slave who became Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor of the Underground Railroad. After escaping with her husband in 1849, Tubman made 13 separate trips, bringing 70 slaves to freedom. She famously “never lost a passenger.” Injured by a cruel master, she suffered pain, dizziness, and hypersomnia throughout her life. However, she also had vivid, often prophetic, visions, and was convinced that God communicated directly with her. It was a belief many shared. 

 

Hidden Figures (Disney+)

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures dramatizes the contributions — and challenges — of three “colored computers,” underpaid and underappreciated Black mathematicians at NASA in the early 1960s. The tremendous cast includes Oscar- and Emmy-Nominee Taraji P. Henson, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, and Grammy-Nominee Janelle Monáe, along with Kirsten Dunst and Kevin Costner. Hidden Figures is an engaging film (and great for families) with an empowering message for any little girl who dreams of a career in science, technology, engineering or math.

 

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (Netflix)

From okra and yams to barbecued brisket and macaroni and cheese, chef Stephen Satterfield traces signature American cooking from its roots in Africa to its current incarnations as the “soul food” of the American South. “The truth is,” he explains, “A lot of American food has its roots in African-American food, traditions, and ingenuity.” Warning: the four-part series (which has been renewed for a second season) will leave you hungry for more.

 

Insecure (HBO Max)

Created and starring Emmy-nominee Issa Rae, Insecure follows the trials and tribulations (and more than occasional awkwardness) of the modern African-American woman. Front and center are solid friendships that help Issa deal with ups, downs, and everyday discomfort. Her self-talk is endlessly relatable: “I just want to fast-forward to the part of my life when everything’s ok.” Insecure, which grew out of Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl, is available to stream through five critically-acclaimed seasons.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Oscar-, Emmy-, and Tony-winner Viola Davis is outstanding as Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues,” fully inhabiting Ma’s signature personality, performance, and presence. Set in a single afternoon in 1927 Chicago, the film of August Wilson’s 1982 play is impeccably directed by George C. Wolfe, co-produced by Denzel Washington, and adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Sadly, it also marks the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman. There is so much tension wedged into the 90-minute screen adaptation that when tragedy strikes in the final act, it feels not just predictable but inevitable.

 

The Photograph (HBO Max)

The Photograph tells the story of two women: Christina, a celebrated photographer, and Mae, her grown daughter, a curator at the Queens Museum. As Mae deals with her mother’s death, she meets 

Michael, a New York reporter, who holds the key to Christina’s elusive history. Stars Issa Rae (see Insecure above) and Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield have passionate onscreen chemistry — from their awkward first encounters to something deeper drawing them together. “What was it like?” Mae’s friend (Hamiltons Jasmine Cephas Jones) asks. Mae admits, “It felt like we’d kissed before.”  

 

Queen & Slim (Amazon Rental)

It would be easy to joke that Queen & Slim is the ultimate Tinder date gone wrong, but the story is so beautiful and ultimately so tragic that it deserves better. Melina Matsoukas’s heartbreaking film, based on a screenplay by Lena Waithe, has been called, “the Black Bonnie and Clyde,” but its heroes (portrayed by Jodie Turner-Smith and Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya) are accidental outlaws, virtual strangers whose lives become inextricably intertwined during an unavoidable five-minute altercation that ends in violence.

 

Queen of Katwe (Disney+)

In the tradition of Akeelah and the Bee, Little Man Tate, and many others, a gifted prodigy must choose between the mother and village she loves and the potential of becoming an international champion, of chess in this case. Although the set-up is familiar, the performances of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Madina Nalwanga keep the story fresh. An uplifting family feature, Queen of Katweh also stars Emmy-nominee David Oyelowo.

 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix)

Classically trained pianist, dive-bar chanteuse, black power icon, and legendary recording artist Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius, and tortured melancholy. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a compelling overview of her singular artistic legacy and fascinating life. Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, it was directed by Liz Garbus and features candid, often disturbing, interviews with the singer and activist’s daughter Lisa. 

 

Women of the Movement (Hulu)

This disturbing but important anthology series chronicles the women behind America’s civil rights movement. The first season focuses on Mamie Till Mobley, mother of brutally murdered Emmett Till. Women of the Movement brings Emmett’s tragedy and his mother’s subsequent quest for justice to life through the courageous performance of Adrienne Warren. The show is at times just as difficult to watch as it should be, truthfully and compassionately revealing the horrors of our nation’s racist history through the love and loss of one mother and son.

 

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