Sun. May 22nd, 2022
For Black History Month, stream these impactful, uplifting movies and TV shows

Black History Month, which comes around every February in the US, is a time to celebrate the stories and achievements of Black Americans, reflect on the past and work toward a future free of oppression and systemic racism

To mark Black History Month 2022, the CNET team has come up with a list of movies and TV shows that explore the triumphs and challenges of the Black experience. This is, of course, just a sampling of the vast range of content available on Black life and history. 

Entertain your brain with the coolest news from streaming to superheroes, memes to video games.

Where applicable, the shows and movies below are listed at subscription services where they’re available to stream at no extra charge. Otherwise, we’ve linked to Amazon, where they can be rented or purchased, but those picks should also be available at vendors like Vudu, iTunes and the like.

Got your own picks? Please share them in the comments. Ready? Here we go.

DOCUMENTARY

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Fox Searchlight

In the summer of 1969, a music festival in New York featuring legendary artists attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Nope, not Woodstock. I’m talking about the Harlem Cultural Festival, held that same summer over six weekends. It was a joyous celebration of Black culture. Around 40 hours of footage were captured, but those recordings — largely unseen — sat in a basement for nearly 50 years. Thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, that footage became the heart of the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul. 

Among the glorious performances are those by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. In his directorial debut, Thompson weaves together the live performances with moving interviews of musicians and concertgoers reflecting on that pivotal summer, amid the rise of Black consciousness and the Black Power movement, and only a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

News footage also helps put into perspective other historical events, including the moon landing, centering what it meant to be a Black American in 1969. How lucky we are this piece of history is no longer buried. Fans clamoring for a soundtrack have finally gotten their wish: It arrives Jan. 28.

–Anne Dujmovic

Netflix

Not many shows spotlight Black Americans’ contributions to the culinary world, but Netflix docuseries High on the Hog does an exceptional job, taking you backward and forward in time through food — and culture. Through four episodes, host Stephen Satterfield travels to Benin and around the United States, connecting with, savoring and learning about Black chefs from the past and present. Check it out and be wowed by Gullah traditions, a Wall Street oyster empire in the 1800s, and the 200-year-old origins of mac and cheese in the US.

–Kourtnee Jackson

Disney

Nearly single-handedly leading the rise of the “visual album” (The Beatles started it all way back in the ’60s), Beyoncé and her Black Is King meld together stunning visuals and music from the tie-in album she curated for The Lion King. A “love letter to Africa,” the film’s story is told with the help of some of today’s outstanding black artists, including Beyoncé, who directs as well. 

With unbelievable cinematography, a score featuring traditional African music, instantly iconic costume design and powerful cultural themes, every second of this personal work of art needs to be glued to your eyeballs.

–Jennifer Bisset

Sundance Institute

Miss Simone, goddamn. If you’ve never heard of one of the 20th century’s most incredible recording artists, this 2015 documentary offers an intimate window into Nina Simone, from her childhood as a classical piano prodigy in the Jim Crow South to a legendary blues singer/musician electrifying the civil rights movement and Black power movement. The documentary bursts with rare archival footage and recordings, giving Simone’s political worldview, musical genius and personal battles an unrivaled authenticity. An artist is never born in a vacuum, and this film proves that society is the generator of both creativity and torment. 

–Laura Michelle Davis

Netflix

Anyone who’s a fan of Michelle Obama should have already read her memoir and watched the companion documentary of the same name. In case you haven’t seen it, though, I can tell you it’s everything you would want it to be and more. It’s a love letter to and from the former first lady. 

Becoming follows the sold-out national book tour for her 2018 memoir, as she interacts with adoring fans, with young women aspiring to follow in her footsteps and with family members who let loose around her. You visit her childhood home and see how she overcame obstacles, met a young man named Barack and grew into the amazing woman she is. 

I’ve (obviously) revered Michelle Obama ever since she stepped onto the national scene. But the documentary gave me a chance to get to know her as a person and to enjoy her personality, style and determination anew. 

–Natalie Weinstein

Amazon Studios

This 2016 documentary about author James Baldwin is phenomenal. It’s simply one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Baldwin was a deep thinker and a powerful speaker who fearlessly exposed racism. His insights into his lived experience as a Black man in America floor me. His devastating observations at the start of the civil rights movement in the 1950s until his death in the 1980s still ring absolutely true today. This is utterly depressing, but it also shows that Baldwin was extraordinarily prescient.

The documentary features archival footage, including the birth of the Black Lives Matter protest movement after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But if you didn’t know better, you’d swear the footage came from the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

That may be why Baldwin’s decades-old insights still feel so current.

–Natalie Weinstein

BIOPIC/TRUE STORY

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Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Four months before Black Panther came out, Chadwick Boseman starred in this quiet movie that delved into the early life of a real-life hero: civil rights crusader Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice in the United States. 

Set in April 1941, Marshall introduces us to the then-32-year-old head lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who travels around the country defending Black people who have been accused of crimes because of their race. Played by a self-assured Boseman, Marshall is sent to Connecticut to defend Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who’s been wrongly accused of the rape of his employers’s wife, a white socialite played by Kate Hudson. Marshall needs a co-counselor who’s based in the state and knows local laws. He turns to a reluctant and unconvinced white insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (an earnest Josh Gad), to be his lead counsel and argue it wasn’t rape but consensual sex. 

As you watch the story unfold, you realize just how much of an uphill battle Marshall and Friedman faced in convincing an all-white jury that a Black man accused by a white woman was innocent — even though the socialite’s story is filled with inconsistencies and the police know it.   

The real-life case provided a rare a powerful moment, a victory for racial justice in the US. But as we think about Black Lives Matter and the events of 2020, the movie is also a reminder of how much things haven’t changed. Even so, this early case for Marshall laid the groundwork for his many other legal victories, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court — winning 29 of them — before being appointed to the court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

–Connie Guglielmo

Astute Films

More than a decade after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling outlawed school segregation, integrated classrooms had yet to be implemented in much of the American South. The Best of Enemies, which stars Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, is one of the only movies to showcase the attempts to carry out desegregation in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971. 

You might find the evolving friendship of a KKK leader and a civil rights activist grotesquely quixotic — I did, too, until I realized it was based on the true story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater. While I don’t believe history is changed by a single individual, this gripping film shows how individuals can change over the course of history. 

–Laura Michelle Davis

Netflix

Eddie Murphy returned from his acting break with a glorious performance as Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian who played a character called Dolemite in stand-up routines and blaxploitation films from the ’70s. Dolemite Is My Name, from 2019, follows Moore from his job at a record store to the big screen. Tracking Moore’s rise to fame and its bizarre and enthralling turns, Dolemite Is My Name does justice to both Moore’s and Murphy’s talents.

–Jennifer Bisset

Warner Bros.

If you’re looking for a movie that shows just how extreme and cunning the US government can be when carrying out acts of racial injustice, this one will make you look that harsh reality in its face. Judas and the Black Messiah follows William O’Neal after he’s offered a plea deal by the FBI to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and gather intelligence on Fred Hampton, its chairman. 

Actors Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta) bring to life Hampton and O’Neal, respectively, and make you sympathize with both sides as a teenage O’Neal is manipulated to turn against a man he doesn’t know yet. Upon getting to know Hampton, O’Neal sees his humanity and learns of his goal to empower all communities, not just his own, so they can be self-sufficient and defend themselves from injustices perpetrated by the government. All for Hampton to be marked as one of the greatest threats to the internal security of the country at the young age of 21. This retelling of what happened to Hampton is hard to watch, but even harder to look away from once you start watching.

–Theodore Liggians 

Video screenshot by CNET

Few Americans learn about the Great Migration, when 6 million Black Americans relocated from the rural South to the North in the decades following World War I. Even fewer Americans learn about the working-class struggles that helped shape the formation of multiracial labor unions in the 1930s. The Killing Floor, a 1984 made-for-TV film based on true events and real characters, tells the story of both. Two Black sharecroppers find work in a Chicago meatpacking factory, where they face racist violence and tensions over union organizing during the height of political and social change. The experience of Black labor leaders in US slaughterhouses is a story that needs to be told just as much as Upton Sinclair painted the conditions of immigrants in The Jungle. 

–Laura Michelle Davis 

COMEDY

Guy D’Alema/FX

This Emmy award-winning series is one of the most innovative, smart and funny shows FX has aired in a long time. We watch as creator-star Donald Glover tries to manage his cousin, who’s a rapper, but the show also asks what it means to be Black in 21st century America. One early episode takes place in jail and touches on police brutality, discrimination, sexuality and mental illness. 

A later episode follows the main characters into a college fraternity house where they sit under a Confederate flag and smoke weed with a white frat member. The situations are wild and at times the show feels like an anthology series as some episodes feel only vaguely tied to the main storyline, but overall it’s a thought- provoking series.

–Zach McAuliffe

HBO Max

Is there any other sketch show on TV with fresher ideas? Actor, comedian and writer Robin Thede’s killer Emmy-nominated series is thoughtful, hilarious as hell and positively stacked with some of the funniest women on the planet. Thede’s sketch series is a raucous party celebrating Black women that anyone can enjoy. If you haven’t seen it yet, catch up before season 3 hits HBO Max. You can thank me later. 

–Ashley Esqueda

Merie W. Wallace/HBO

I adored every minute of Insecure, HBO’s hilarious, heartfelt and insightful comedy-drama exploring the contemporary Black experience through a group of female friends living in LA. Based on Issa Rae’s Web series Awkward Black Girl, the show stars Rae as free-spirited Issa Dee, who’s navigating friendship, romance, career and community alongside her best buddy, Molly (Yvonne Orji), and a group of their pals. The main characters are smart, witty, exuberant, flawed, and well, insecure. They’re also perfectly relatable. 

The show — which ended for good in December with a pitch-perfect finale — manages to be one of the funniest out there without ever veering into the overwritten-sitcom trap. And through all their ups and downs, elation and embarrassment, the characters always come across as authentic, the kind of people you want to hang out with, and grow with, in real life.  

–Leslie Katz 

LEGENDARY DEBATE

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