Black History Month is a highly competitive observation in 2021, as it was nearly a century ago when it was first celebrated. The annual observation, originally conceived as “Negro History Week” by the black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926, before being later extended to the entire month of February 1976, was created with the aim of promoting the study of the history of the African – American diaspora in public schools at a time when the subject was all but neglected by science. However, in the four and a half decades since then, Black History Month has been maligned by both accuse the observation of inadvertently defining one’s subject as a separate field of study from all of American history, and those who would prefer to study black history and similar forms of “critical racial theory” Opt-in or dismissed entirely from the US curriculum.
The former makes a fair point, if only because it is a coherent argument. As a black man in his early 30s, I can’t remember a single formal case where I met historical figures like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, or Bayard Rustin when I was in suburban Illinois high school, and how little me did Learning was arbitrarily sought after by me. As for the relationship between black history and the medium of cinema, there is a tremendous number of films whose combined scope, depth and beauty defies platitudes and simple categorization, like the cinephile Adam Davie with his curated list of last year Films about black life have so emphatically proven 21 essential points, even only a microcosm of it over 1,700 list of movie recommendations on letterboxd.
As justified as some criticisms of Black History Month may be, the consistent defamation and malicious contextualization of compliance confirms why Black History Month serves a vital purpose in the absence of a more concerted consideration of Black History in most curricula. Today the celebration offers stories of marginalized characters and movements throughout black history an opportunity – if only for a month – to be introduced into the mainstream.
With that in mind, this list has been created with the intent of curating a small but extensive collection of documentaries, whose focus goes beyond the superficiality of annual lip service and instead explores the complexities and dimensions of their subjects. Black history is not a monolith; It is a diverse chorus of many ideologies, personalities, and methodologies that compete and complement each other to understand the past and create the possibility of a more just future through the potential of the present. In short, a collection of experiences as human and essential as any story, without which the America we know today would not exist.
MLK / FBI
There is no civil rights leader in American history who is posthumously lionized and thoroughly misquoted than that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The story of the King’s method of nonviolent protest and the achievements of the civil rights movement under his leadership in the form of The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycotts Success, the March 1963 Washington for Labor and Freedom Act, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act 1964 are inseparable from any high school curriculum relating to black history.
In comparison, King’s antiwar activism has largely gone uninformed in the years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, as well as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s decades-long campaign to undermine and vilify the civil rights icon through a stealth campaign of surveillance and blackmail. The new film by the renowned editor and documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard MLK / FBI, based on recently released files, investigates the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by the US government, painting a sober and necessary portrait of the uncomfortable weaknesses and humanity of the man himself.
The tries by Muhammad Ali
Where to see it: Stream on Amazon
Before there was Colin Kaepernick, there was Muhammad Ali. The story of Ali, the Olympic athlete who became a heavyweight champion and became a Nation of Islam convert, has long been popularized and told in films such as Michael Mann’s 2001 biography But and more recently in Regina King’s fictionalized historical drama One night in Miami (stream on Amazon now). The 2013 Bill Siegel documentary reveals the humble origins of Ali’s career outside the ring, his relationship with the eleven businessmen from his hometown known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the withdrawal of that title, and the various career consequences resulting from it Conscientious Objection to Serving in the Vietnam War, and perhaps most fascinatingly, an overview of the little-discussed history and influence of the five percent nation, the group that so radically shaped the course of Ali’s life.
The trials of Muhammad Ali tells the story of those moments in Ali’s life that do not easily fit into the shape of the highlight role and form an essential representation of a cultural icon and the historical moment for which he was both sculpted and sculpted.
I am not your negro
To describe James Baldwin, the strange African American author of books like Giovanni’s room, The devil finds work, and The fire next timeAs one of the preeminent writers on the nature of race and racism in America, that feels like an understatement. Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I am not your negro takes an unconventional approach to exploring the life and mind of an equally unconventional writer. Inspiration from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Do you remember this houseThe film is a collection of archival material from various television interviews that Baldwin conducted throughout his life, along with contemporary scenes of police brutality and rioting, narrated through the dialogue from Baldwin’s aforementioned manuscript, which was read by Samuel L. Jackson.
The result is an insightful and invigorating experience. The heartbreaking timeliness is even stronger five years after its release. If playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s last words to Robert F. Kennedy during the scene recounting Baldwin’s famous 1963 White House meeting didn’t give you a hiatus or chill after George Floyd’s death last summer, I don’t know what becomes.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix
Marsha P. Johnson, black trans icon and LGBT activist best known for her role in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, was found dead on July 6, 1992 in the Hudson River. Despite suspicious circumstances about her whereabouts and condition that led to her death, Johnson’s death has been classified as a suicide by the NYPD. David France’s 2017 documentary follows an investigation by domestic violence activist and counselor Victoria Cruz to uncover the full story behind Johnson’s untimely death while celebrating her life and legacy.
During the trans activist Reina Gossett asserts that French film exploited and benefited from Gossett’s research and work for its short film Happy birthday, Marsha! (which can be displayed on Amazon Prime), Johnson’s story remains one that absolutely needs to be known and told. The human rights campaign reported that in 2020 alone, more than 44 transgender or gender malefactors, most of whom were either black or Latin American transgender women, were fatally shot or killed in other violent ways. When black lives really Matter (they do) when black history really counts (it does) then lives black gay and trans Got to Matter, and so must their stories.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Where to see it: Rent on Amazon, Apple
Similar to the spirit of this list, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 in no way claims to be a comprehensive or definitive history of the Black Power movement. True to its name, the film is an impressionistic documentary record of the movement across its many generations and forms, and of American history from an outside perspective.
Director Goran Hugo Olsson has put together footage captured by a group of Swedish journalists and rediscovered nearly three decades later to create a chronological tableau of the late civil rights movement and the beginning of the war on drugs, encompassing subjects that are so diverse and interrelated related to such as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and others with off-screen commentary by Abiodun Oyewole, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, and Davis. Come out of the invaluable archive material and great score courtesy of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson & Om’Mas Keith. Stay for the joy of watching filmmaker Emilo de Antonio verbally tear TV Guide to pieces.
Where to see it: Stream on Amazon
“I don’t think it will ever really stop,” an unidentified black man told an interviewer in one of the opening scenes of Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin’s documentary THE 92. The scene itself was not shaped by the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, which rocked the city for six days, killing 64 people and injuring more than 2,383 others after officers at the center of the Rodney King trial were acquitted. but a product of the 1965 watt riots. “I mean it may not be like that, but it will never stop,” the man tells the interviewer as he stares at something off-screen as if looking for the right words to give shape to the terrible and indescribable certainty of weights on his heart.
If Lindsay’s and Martin’s thesis could be summed up in one sentence, it is in the film’s slogan: “The past is prologue.” The story of THE 92 is what happens when people lose all belief in some semblance of communion or protection under the law; A society that collapses in the face of the undiminished horror of its own institutional hypocrisy and is buried outside in a cacophonic wave of destruction. Are we doomed to continue this cycle of barbaric injustice and willful discrimination ad infinitum? THE 92 does not offer easy answers. Rather, the film uses an example to show that what has happened before has the potential to happen again, albeit in a form appropriate to its time, and that ultimately every answer to this question is not in a film but, as always, in ourselves.