Black history should be learned by those of every race. Since February is Black History Month, now is the perfect time to do just that. There are a number of great narrative films out there that dive into black history, and tell both necessary and sometimes overlooked stories. Like
Hidden Figures or 12 Years a Slave, just to name a few. While these films are a triumph, by watching a documentary, you're likely to get even more in-depth information. But what are the best documentaries to watch for black history month?
There are more incredible documentaries than there are days in the month. Including excellent ones like Spike Lee's HBO doc
4 Little Girls, or the PBS series Eyes on the Prize detail the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Ava DuVernay's 13th and the colorism doc Dark Girls explore issues that modern black people experience. But the following 14 documentaries focus on the black artists, poets, athletes, musicians, and writers that deserve to be celebrated all year long. From Quincy Jones to Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone, these works explore these figures storied lives, and their legacy in the black community. Read on for the best of documentaries streaming now.
'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
Ru Paul's Drag Race, this is the history you need to know. Streaming on Netflix.
'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 doc, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, follows the lives of some unsung backup singers, who are always just 20 feet from being the star. The film focuses on the behind-the-scenes experiences of backup singers like Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry, and many others.
Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes.
This Netflix doc exploring 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.
'Venus and Serena' (2012)
Two of the greatest tennis players to ever live are sisters who were born 15 months apart. This 2012 doc follows Venus and Serena Williams, whose journey from the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles to the world's tennis courts is as compelling as it is exciting.
Available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
'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 that uses her poetry as a form of narration. Filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack trace her life with incredible never-before-seen footage, interviews, and photographs and use her own words to guide her path.
Streaming on Netflix.
'What Happened, Miss Simone?' (2015)
Director Liz Garbus’ portrait of recording artist and activist Nina Simone follows her incredibly up and down life. Simone's struggles with mental health while simultaneously living through abuse and the Civil Rights era reveal just how strong she really was. Not to mention damn talented.
Streaming on Netflix.
'The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson' (2017)
Marsha P. Johnson was as much of an LGBT hero as she was a black history hero. This doc explores her life and death, which was first ruled a suicide, before the transgender and activist communities began questioning that declaration.
Streaming on Netflix.
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. The riveting doc shows just how much the sport of basketball has interlaced itself within African American communities.
Streaming on HBO and Hulu. Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.
'American Promise' (2013)
If you're a fan of the movie
Boyhood, American Promise is the real thing, with an emphasis on the U.S. education system. It follows the lives of two African American boys over the course of 12 years, as both start out at a prestigious private school, with one eventually heading off into public school. Watching how their lives unfold and are influenced by their educational experiences is an eye opener. Streaming on Vudu and Tubi. Available to rent on Amazon, and iTunes.
'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. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the only 30 pages in a stunning portrait of Baldwin's life.
Streaming on Amazon. Available to rent on iTunes and Vudu.
'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. 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 and Vudu.
'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 the pioneers of the form. He only lived to be 27, so his life was compact and yet impactful.
Streaming on Hulu. Available to rent on Vudu and iTunes.
'The Loving Story' (2011)
The 2016 film
Loving starred Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton and 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 goes even deeper, using actual footage of the couple and detailing the intricacies of the Supreme Court battle they fought to overcome racial discrimination. Streaming on HBO and Hulu. available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.