There are a number of great dramas out there that dive into Black history, telling necessary and sometimes overlooked stories (like
Hidden Figures or 12 Years a Slave, to name a couple). And there’s nothing like getting swept away by an actor’s breathtaking performance or a well-crafted script — but when you’re looking to really learn about history, it’s always best to watch a documentary.
There are more incredible documentaries about Black history than there are days in Black History Month, including those that dig deep into a particular time in history, like Spike Lee's HBO doc
4 Little Girls or the PBS series Eyes on the Prize, which detail the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Others trace how hundreds of years of history have shaped today’s world, like Ava DuVernay's , which pulls back the curtain on the racial injustice of the criminal justice system, and 13th Dark Girls, which takes a long, hard look at colorism. The documentaries here, though, largely take a different approach: focusing on a single icon (or group of people) who had an outsize impact on Black history. From Maya Angelou to James Baldwin to Nina Simone, these figures lived incredible lives — and made an impact that’ll last well into the future.
Read on for the best documentaries to stream
for Black History Month. 1 Paris Is Burning (1990)
Directed by Jennie Livingston, this doc follows the 1980s New York City ballroom scene populated by mostly Black and Latina gay and transgender performers. If you're a fan of
RuPaul's Drag Race or Pose, this is the real-life history you need to know. Streaming on HBO Max. 2 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
On just about every popular music album of the past 50 years, you can hear a Black woman singing in the background. This documentary, which won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, follows the lives of unsung backup singers who are always just 20 feet from the spotlight, including Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry, and many others.
Streaming on HBO Max. Available to rent on YouTube. 3 Quincy (2018)
This Netflix documentary about the life of musical legend Quincy Jones was co-directed by his daughter, Rashida Jones. As you can see from the trailer, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Will Smith to Snoop Dogg to Barack Obama has been influenced by Jones, who has led an absolutely incredible life.
Streaming on Netflix. 4 Venus and Serena (2012)
King Richard told the story of the Williams sisters — two of the greatest tennis players to ever live — Venus and Serena showcased their lives. This 2012 doc traces Venus and Serena Williams’ journey from the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles to the world's biggest tennis tournaments. Streaming on Pluto TV, Tubi, Vudu, Plex, Redbox, YouTube, and Crackle. Available to rent from AppleTV and Google. 5 Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016)
The life of the remarkable poet, writer, dancer, singer, and activist, who passed away in 2014, is captured in this documentary. Filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack trace Maya Angelou’s with incredible life through never-before-seen footage, interviews, and photographs, and tie the story together with her poetry, which serves as a kind of narration.
Streaming on Kanopy and Hoopla. Available to rent on Apple, Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube. 6 What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director Liz Garbus’ portrait of recording artist and activist Nina Simone follows her incredibly up and down life. Seeing how much she endured, it’s clear just how strong — and talented — she really was.
Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on Apple TV. 7 The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Marsha P. Johnson was as much of an LGBTQ hero as she was a Black history hero. This doc explores her life and death — the cause of which was first reported to be suicide, before the trans and activist communities began questioning that declaration.
Streaming on Netflix. 8 Hoop Dreams (1994)
This 1994 documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. It follows the daily lives of two boys from the South Side of Chicago who travel three hours every day to play for a basketball team in a white suburb.
Streaming on Peacock, HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, The Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Crackle, Freevee, and Plex. Available to rent on Apple TV, Prime Video, and Google Play. 9 American Promise (2013)
If you're a fan of the movie
Boyhood, American Promise is the real thing. It follows the lives of two African American boys over the course of 12 years, as they both start out at a prestigious private school, with one eventually heading off into public school. It’s an eye-opening to see how the boys’ lives are shaped by their educational experiences. Streaming on Vudu, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, YouTube, and Tubi. Available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google. 10 I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
In 1979, American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next book, a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The book was never finished. In this documentary, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the only 30 pages he wrote, painting a stunning portrait of Baldwin's life.
Streaming on Hulu. 11 The Gospel According to André (2018)
If you're a fan of Tyra Banks'
America's Next Top Model, you'll recognize the wonderful André Leon Talley. In The Gospel According to André, Director Kate Novack revisits his childhood, his rise on the runways of Paris, and current iconic status in the fashion world. Streaming on Hulu. Available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Redbox, and Vudu. 12 Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2019)
The art world was flipped on its head when street art became not only a dominating presence but also a legitimate and respected art form. Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of its pioneers, and despite only living to age 27, he’s cast a long shadow.
Streaming on Hulu, Tubi, and Vudu. Available to rent on Apple TV and Redbox. 13 The Loving Story (2011)
The 2016 film
Loving starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton told the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who defied Virginia's laws to remain married. But before that film was made, this HBO doc was released, which uses actual footage of the couple to explore the intricacies of the Supreme Court battle they fought to overcome racial discrimination. Streaming on HBO Maxt, Vudu, and Tubi. Available to rent on Apple TV and Redbox. 14 Good Trouble (2020)
Taking its name from the late, great Congressman John Lewis’s signature line,
Good Trouble chronicles the civil rights activist’s life. Lewis marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and was a beloved lawmaker until his death in 2020, and Good Trouble is a portrait of his 60-plus years dedicated to the fight. Streaming on HBO Max. Available to rent on Apple TV, YouTube, Redbox, Vudu, and Google Play.
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This article was originally published on
Feb. 25, 2020