Film & Television

Women Who Used Their Voices for Change

Three weeks ago, we started Black History Month with a tribute to the powerful and inspiring Cicely Tyson, who left us in January at the age of 96. In addition to her talent and beauty and grace, Tyson made an indelible impact on a generation of movie and television viewers with some of the first honest and unflinching depictions of slavery and Black families in the Jim Crow era. Sounder, Roots, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman are well worth watching again and sharing with children and grandchildren. Her later-in-life roles in The Help, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Trip to Bountiful are just as wondrous.

We followed up with reviews of two acclaimed films about the Black American experience: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring the magnificent Viola Davis (Tyson’s onscreen daughter from How to Get Away with Murder), and One Night in Miami, the feature film directorial debut of celebrated actor Regina King.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the ability to stream such high-quality entertainment right from home. (Just think how limited our viewing would have been if COVID had hit back in the pre-cable-television days.) In addition to new releases that would otherwise debut in theaters, today’s streaming services offer hundreds of lesser-known but valuable content, especially in the genre of documentaries.

To close out Black History Month, we’ve gathered some of the best titles about trailblazing Black women available on the most popular streaming services.

With Amazon Prime, you can stream:

Harriet Tubman — They Called Her Moses

If you enjoyed Harriet with its Oscar-nominated performance by Cynthia Erivo, you’ll appreciate learning about the real woman in this fascinating documentary. The 45-minute film features interviews with expert historians, Carl Westmoreland of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Dr. Eric Lewis Williams of the Smithsonian Institution. Heartfelt narration is by actress Alfrelynn Roberts, set to early twentieth century recordings of former slaves singing African-American spirituals.


Betty Davis — They Say I’m Different

Betty Mabry Davis was a pioneering funk musician in a time when women were kept on the sidelines of the music business. In fact, her husband, the late Miles Davis, called her “Madonna before Madonna.” She was the first Black woman to write her own songs, perform her own music, and manage her own career. This innovative one-hour film includes animation, historic footage, and Davis herself explaining why, after her unlikely success and influence, she disappeared for 40 years. 


All In: The Fight for Democracy

Although not a biography per se, All In: The Fight for Democracy does paint an admirable portrait of former gubernatorial candidate and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. In this award-winning documentary, both the history of American voter suppression and current efforts to fight it are covered in rich detail. It’s particularly rewarding to watch this thoughtful (and at times sobering) film after the unprecedented results of the recent Georgia Senate runoff. 


With Amazon Prime, you can also pay a nominal fee to rent: 

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun  

Originally produced as an episode of the American Masters series, this documentary/biopic was written and produced by Emmy-winner Kristy Andersen, and tells the life story of Hurston, anthropologist and author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Born in the South in 1891, Hurston studied at Howard University, Barnard, and Columbia University before becoming a part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Sadly, although her work is lauded now, she died in poverty at age 69.


With Netflix, you can stream:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, this biographical film was directed by Liz Garbus. It integrates archival footage, rare recordings, some of Simone’s best-known songs, and candid, often disturbing, interviews with the singer and activist’s daughter Lisa. Tragically, the passion and rage Simone demonstrated so powerfully in her art carried over into her family life. “My mother was angry with the world,” Lisa, now in her 50s, remembers, “and often the only person around to blame was me.”



From initial concept to lionized performance at Coachella 2018, Homecoming provides an intense and intimate look at Beyoncé’s creative journey. Developed for Netflix, it was promoted heavily via social media, and co-released with the bestselling Homecoming: The Live Album. Homecoming earned a Grammy for Best Music Film and an IDA Documentary Award. Universally acclaimed, the film (written, produced, and co-directed by the singer) was hailed by multiple critics as “one of the greatest concert films of all time.”



Filmmaker Nadia Hallgren traveled with Michelle Obama on the 34-city book tour for the former first lady’s 2018 memoir Becoming. The resulting documentary is the perfect companion piece to that bestselling title, adding compelling footage of Obama’s readers to her own story. The film deftly addresses both the personal and the public. And the warm and very real connection Obama has — especially to women and young girls — demonstrates how inspiring and uplifting her life has been.


With Hulu, you can stream:

The Rape of Recy Jones

In 1944, Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old Black sharecropper, wife, and mother was viciously gang raped by six white men. In a time when most Black women wouldn’t have raised their voice for fear of violent retribution, Taylor chose to name and accuse her attackers. She worked closely with the NAACP and Rosa Parks to demand justice, and although the men were never convicted, her courage laid the foundation for civil and victims’ movements throughout the twentieth century.


Amazing Grace — Aretha Franklin

A religious experience in both senses of the phrase. Amazing Grace, directed by Alan Elliott and the late Sydney Pollack, brings the inimitable power of Aretha Franklin 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. The film delivers front-row seats for a historic moment in music. As Franklin’s astonishing voice soars, watch the congregation for an awe-struck Mick Jagger. 


Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

American novelist and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison shares personal observations and insights into her life and her work. Using her own literature as a structure, she comments on the nation’s attitudes toward race and what it has meant to our shared history as well as her journey from an ignored “little Black girl” to a literary legend. Adoring commentary by President Barack Obama, who presented her with the Medal of Freedom in 2012, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, and others is also included.


Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Sophie Fiennes (sister of actors Ralph and Joseph) directed this multifaceted portrait of Jamaican singer, songwriter, actor, and producer Grace Jones. Combining Jones’s electrifying stage performances with intimate scenes among family and friends, the film strips away the style and theatricality Jones is known for, and provides a glimpse of the feeling and fearless woman within. The title draws from the combination of professional (the bloodlight is the sound studio’s red recording light) and personal (bami means bread).

From performers to politicians, activists to authors, you’ll find stories about these extraordinary Black women, and many others, curated for Black History Month, on demand.


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