9 captivating Black history documentaries to stream now
Your history class didn't teach you everything.
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Rosa Parks. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. You might know their names and stories, but Blackness isn't a monolith. There are so many stories that go untold and untaught, covering pioneers who have prevailed against racism and those who, despite their best efforts, did not.
It doesn’t have to be the month of February to learn more and enjoy these stories, so here are nine Black history documentaries to add to your streaming queue on Netflix, Hulu, and other platforms. These stories celebrate important triumphs and also highlight struggles that helped to shape Black lives and culture, and can help you gain important insights that your history classes might not have offered.
1. Dark Girls
“I don’t see skin color” is an incredibly harmful thing to say, and for anyone who doesn’t know why, Dark Girls is a documentary that can help reveal valuable insight. Colorism, one of the most universal legacies of colonialism, is so deeply rooted in how the world sees Black Women and how they see themselves and this film dives deep into the ways that European beauty standards impact “light skin” and “dark skin” Black women, often pitting them against each other.
This is a history lesson that is ongoing and although this documentary is 10 years old, many of the themes and stories explored here still resonate today, from the dolls that little Black girls play with to the global multi-billion dollar a year skin bleaching industry. It's definitely worth streaming now.
2. Paris is Burning
If you’ve ever commented on a friend’s Instagram post, “YAS QUEEN,” or told someone that they were “serving a lewk” or that they “betta werk," you have drag ballroom culture to thank! While RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose brought ballroom culture from the underground to the mainstream, those stories couldn’t be told if it wasn't for the rich drag culture depicted in Paris is Burning.
This documentary, which follows queer Black and brown youth in 1980s New York city, is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. The fashion is fun and the dancing is literally iconic, but there’s so much more to this story. There’s something special about watching people love life unapologetically, even when the world around them doesn’t want them too. This documentary tackles how these young people and their chosen families take on harsh realities like the HIV/AIDS crisis, housing insecurity, racism, and homophobia, while also building a legacy that left a bigger impact than they could have ever imagined.
3. 4 Little Girls
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were 14 and Carol Denise McNair was 11 when they were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. At most, a history book might mention the bomb planted by the Klu Klux Klan in the basement of a church that detonated during Sunday school, but very rarely does the paragraph extend beyond that.
These girls were people, with loving families and bright futures ahead of them in a community that mourned them, and the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls decides to tell that story. Directed by Spike Lee, this documentary shows interviews with the girls’ families and reminds viewers that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t that long ago, and although these stories are in history books, they can have a lifelong impact for those who lived them.
4. Good Hair
Black hair is a controversial topic. Personally, I don’t understand why the way that my hair grows out of my scalp is anyone’s business but my own, but that hasn’t stopped people from touching it or making assumptions about my professionalism and presentability. With so much being wrapped up in Black hair as the antithesis of European beauty standards, Good Hair aims to show how that came to be.
While some of the hair styles are a little dated, Chris Rock’s conversations with scientists about “creamy crack” relaxers and with stylists about weaves are still incredibly relevant. It’s educational and important to see the ways in which Black women have reclaimed their beauty, even when the rest of the world can’t always see it, and this documentary helps to shed a light on it.
5. The Central Park Five
If you felt upset the first time that you saw the now-viral video of Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park because he asked her to leash her dog, you need to check out Central Park Five. Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Central Park Five offers compelling accounts about the Central Park jogger case, covering the trials, convictions, and vacating of convictions of the five men who were involved with the case in 1989.
6. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
Hear me out with this one because you might be wondering, “Why would we ever have watched a documentary about horror films in school?” So, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror literally blew my mind! This film tracks the way that Black people were included and excluded from popular films in the horror genre and how that tracked with real-life race relations going back to 1915, with the release of Birth of A Nation.
During the 1930s when science-fiction horror films like Frankenstein debuted, there were no Black actors or characters because at that time, it was inconceivable that Black people would be in labs as scientists. The documentary continues this thread by talking about the first horror film to star a Black actor in 1968, the Blaxploitation era in the 1970s, and goes all way to Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 film, Get Out. Regardless of your preference for horror films, this is an incredibly important and unique documentary for framing race in America over the last 100 years.
After you finish Central Park Five, you should just swing over to Netflix to check out 13th. This gripping documentary traces the thread of slavery to the modern-day prison industrial complex and explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.
The thing that makes this documentary so poignant is the way that the story reaches up to the highest levels of government, all the way down to people arrested for petty drug crimes, while explaining how laws were created and enforced to strengthen systemic oppression. If you felt caught off guard by the civil unrest of 2020, this documentary is going to show you how far we have not come since the Jim Crow era.
8. The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion
Fashion is very cyclical. What’s cute now has been deemed cool and uncool before and one day...will be uncool again. As 1990s fashion is having a moment right now, it’s the opportune time to learn the origin of that style.
Misa Hylton and Dapper Dan are two of the pioneers behind 1990s rap fashion and somehow, someone was able to get these two legends together in the same documentary to tell their stories about the fashion trends that changed the world. Not only does The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion tell the stories behind some of the trends you can’t escape on runways, magazine covers and TikTok, but it also touches on the difference between “appropriation” and “appreciation," which is a debate that’s always relevant.
9. Coded Bias
Coded Bias will be released on April 5, but tackles such an important subject that it has to go on this list. We live in a world that becomes increasingly more dependent on technology and depending on who you ask, that can be a good or bad thing.
For Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at MIT, coming to the realization that the facial recognition software that is widely used for a multitude of purposes doesn’t recognize Black faces certainly wasn’t a good thing. In this documentary, she explores the ways in which real-life human bias has been coded into technology and isn't inclusive toward Black people, and what the implications of that mean.