Black History Year-Round: Film and TV to Watch for a History Lesson
Just like Moses reruns that auto-loop their way through Easter weekend, Roots plays on repeat on just about every television at some point during Black History Month. Then, it vanishes from TV until next year. But with the country up in protest over the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we need to get back to our roots.
But, maybe not with Roots.
Yes, Black history is slavery, and stories about the Middle Passage and such. And, yes, Roots depicts the era better than any other film could. It’s just not the only film about Black history that’s been made in the modern age. Sitcoms like “Blackish” have created shows with historical points as themes. There have been several films that depict people and events that are pivotal to the liberation of Black people as well as cinematic documentation of how a people demanded and received equal rights as white Americans enjoy.
Here’s a list that will take you from slavery to modernity in Black history. You can find them on Amazon Video, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, and YouTube.
This is the era of streaming several episodes in one sitting, also known as bingeing a show. Fortunately, there’s some exciting content that you can stream right now. “Underground” is a show that ended abruptly in 2017 but is a thrilling look at the life of slaves and the Underground Railroad. Enjoy 20-hourlong episodes that are based on historical events and include a historic character that will keep you glued to the screen.
Go back further in Black history with “The Book of Negroes”, a Canadian show based on a real journal of Black slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolution and were rewarded land in Nova Scotia for their loyalty. The miniseries follows a slave show was taken from her village as a young girl and follows her as she becomes the voice for the loyalists and their interests. Binge the six episodes over a weekend or space them out throughout the month.
Movies About Famous Black People
From the women who formulated the first trip to the moon to the men who courageously flew bombers in World War II, Black people have made their invisible marks in history. Through the magic of modern cinema, those invisible deeds are exposed in movies that are dramatic, thrilling, and just as entertaining as they are educational.
The most recent of this list is Harriet, Selma, Hidden Figures about the Black female mathematicians whose work was vital to the program in the early days. Red Tails follows a group of Black pilots during World War II as they bravely fought for a country that was drowning under Jim Crow governance at the time. The Butler is a look inside the White House during the vital Civil Rights era. The point of view, however, is through the eyes of the Black man who served the Presidency and knew all its secrets. Glory goes a bit further back to capture—a young Denzel—the torment and the bravery of Union soldiers in the Civil War. Southside with You is a light-hearted look at the epic first date of the most beloved Black couple today—the Obamas.
Civil Rights Movies
The Civil Rights movement has been depicted in several movies over the years. There are some films, however, that were unafraid to depict the brutal reality of the era, along with the gracious deeds and the flaws of all involved. Two of the most famous films about the era are often confused for one another. Mississippi Burning is about the FBI investigation of Civil Rights Workers who were killed for the cause. Ghost of Mississippi is also about a man killed for the movement—a Black man activist named Medgar Evers. Both films give a raw and honest look at the real dangers marcher and activists faced as they fought for civil rights. Selma is the most recent depiction of the most famous march of the movement from the crime that launched to the danger the marchers faced throughout their struggle. All three movies are thrilling and educational but may be too violent for children.
Films Inspired by Black History
You can toss in some movies that are not historically accurate but do reflect the lives of the Black people and community. The comedy Harlem Nights depicts the roaring 20s and how the black community adapted to prohibition and the infiltration of organized crime into the American landscape. The movie also showcases some of the best black comics in film history with Richard Pryor, Della Reese, Red Fox, a very young Eddie Murphy, and many more. A Time to Kill is a more somber film that uses a child rape and torture case to unveil how the racist south operated three decades after the Civil Rights movement swept through. The Color Purple is a legendary film about Black women in the south. It also explores the bonds of womanhood in the face of male oppression, all while Black people were trying to survive the Jim Crow south. Loving similarly explores interracial love during the Civil Rights Era, from the couple’s courtship to the groundbreaking Supreme Court case that won them the right to be married.
Black History in Musicals
Music is an integral part of Black culture, so a Black History Month film list would be lacking without some musicals to enjoy. You can learn a bit about the struggle for equality in the music industry by watching Dream Girls, Cadillac Records, and Ray are biopics about famous singers and groups that blazed trails in the business at a time when black people weren’t allowed to enter most venues. Hairspray and Idlewild are whimsical looks at race relations in America. Idlewild centers a 1930s-nightclub for Black patrons, while Hairspray comments on the Civil Rights struggle in Baltimore. If you want a musical look further back in history, check out the “Blackish” Juneteenth episode (season 4 episode 1), which takes a modern look at a long-forgotten moment in Black History.
So, when looking for a history lesson, give Roots a rest (unless you are watching the 2017 miniseries) and explore black history through films that capture more than just the moment in history. They each make their own commentary on race relations in America while giving you a lesson that is hard to forget.
Did I forget one? Tell me what movies you think I should add to the list.
Reprint. Originally published on Wear Your Voice February 1, 2018.