clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Angela Davis in an orange turtleneck looking down from the film Black Power Mixtape Photo: IFC Films

Filed under:

6 Black history documentaries that speak to Black present

These films honor Black power, Black lives, and Black legacies

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Black History Month is a fiercely contested observance in 2021, as it was nearly a century ago when it was first celebrated. The annual observance, originally conceived as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by the Black historian Carter G. Woodson before later being expanded through the entire month of February in 1976, was created with the intent of encouraging the study of the history of the African-American diaspora in public schools at a time when the subject was all but entirely neglected by academia. However, in the four-and-a-half decades since, Black History Month has been maligned by both those who accuse the observance of inadvertently framing its subject as an area of study separate and apart from that of American history as whole, and those who would prefer if Black history and similar forms of “critical race theory” studies were either opt-in or dismissed from U.S. curriculum entirely.

The former makes a fair point, if only because it’s a cogent argument. As a Black man in my early 30s, I cannot recall a single formal instance of learning about historical figures like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, or Bayard Rustin when I was in high school in suburban Illinois, and what little I did learn was haphazardly sought out through my own volition. As far as the relationship between Black history and the medium of cinema, there’s an enormous body of films whose combined scope, depth, and beauty defies platitudes and easy categorization, as cinephile Adam Davie so emphatically proved last year with his curated list of 21 essential films on Black life, itself only a microcosm of his over 1,700 list of film recommendations on Letterboxd.

As justified as some criticisms of Black History Month may be, the consistent maligning and bad-faith contextualization of the observance vindicates why, in the absence of a more concerted embracement of Black history in most curriculums, Black History Month serves a vital purpose. Today, the celebration affords stories of marginalized figures and movements throughout Black history the opportunity to be introduced into the mainstream — if only for a month.

With that in mind, this list was created with the intent of curating a small-yet-substantial collection of documentaries whose focus moves beyond the superficiality of annual lip-service and instead drills into the complexity and dimensions of its subjects. Black history is not a monolith; it is a multifarious chorus of many ideologies, personalities, and methodologies competing and complimenting each other in the interest of understanding the past and shaping the possibility of a more equitable future through the potential of present. In short, a collection of experiences as intrinsically human and essential as any history, one without whom America we know it today would not exist.


Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, Apple TV, Youtube

Martin Luther King Jr. in MLK/FBI Photo: IFC Films

There is no civil rights leader in American history more posthumously lionized and thoroughly misquoted than that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The history of the King’s method of nonviolent protest and the accomplishments of the civil rights movement under his leadership in the form of the success of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964 are inextricably ingrained into every high school curriculum concerning Black History.

Comparatively, King’s anti-war activism in the years following the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, as well as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s decade-spanning campaign to undermine and vilify the civil rights icon through a surreptitious campaign of surveillance and blackmail, goes mostly untaught. Renowned editor and documentarian Sam Pollard’s new film MLK/FBI, based on recently declassified files, explores the harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the hands of the US government and in the process paints a sober and necessary portrait of the uncomfortable foibles and the humanity of the man himself.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon

Muhammad Ali walks through the streets of New York City with members of the Black Panther Party in September 1970. Photo: David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Before there was Colin Kaepernick, there was Muhammad Ali. The story of Ali, the Olympic athlete-turned-heavyweight champion-turned-Nation of Islam convert has long been popularized and recounted through films such as Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic Ali and more recently in Regina King’s fictionalized historical drama One Night in Miami (now streaming on Amazon). Bill Siegel’s 2013 documentary charts 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 revocation of this title and the assorted fallout of his career in the wake of his conscientious objection to serving in the Vietnam War, and perhaps most intriguingly, an overview of the little-discussed history and influence of the Five Percent Nation, the group which so radically shaped the course of Ali’s life.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali tells the story of those moments of Ali’s life that don’t easily fit into the mold of highlight reel and form an essential depiction of a cultural icon and the historical moment for which he both shaped and was molded by.

I Am Not Your Negro

Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix, Amazon

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro Photo: © Dan Budnik

To describe James Baldwin, the queer African-American author of such books as Giovanni’s Room, The Devil Finds Work, and The Fire Next Time, as one of the most preeminent writers on the nature of race and racism in America feels like an understatement. Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro takes an unconventional approach in exploring the life and mind of an equally unconventional writer. Drawing inspiration from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, the film is a collection of archival footage of various television interviews Baldwin performed throughout his life juxtaposed with contemporary scenes of police brutality and civil unrest, narrated by dialogue from Baldwin’s aforementioned manuscript read by Samuel L. Jackson.

The result is revelatory and bracing experience, it’s heart-aching timeliness even more powerful five years after its release. If the playwright Lorraine Hansberry final words to Robert F. Kennedy during the scene recounting Baldwin’s famous 1963 White House meeting does not give you pause or send a chill up your spine upon reflection of the death of George Floyd last summer, I don’t know what will.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix

Production photo of Marsha P. Johnson Photo: Netflix

Marsha P. Johnson, Black trans icon and LGBT rights activist renowned for her role in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, was found dead in Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Despite suspicious circumstances as to her whereabouts and condition leading up to her passing, Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide by the NYPD. David France’s 2017 documentary follows fellow activist and domestic violence counselor Victoria Cruz’s investigation to uncover the full story behind Johnson’s untimely demise, all while celebrating her life and legacy.

While trans activist Reina Gossett claimed that France’s film exploited and profited from Gossett’s research and work for her short film Happy Birthday, Marsha! (which can be viewed on Amazon Prime), Johnson’s story nonetheless remains one that desperately must be known and told. The Human Rights Campaign has reported that over 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people, most of whom either Black or Latinx transgender women, were fatally shot or killed by other violent means in 2020 alone. If Black lives truly matter (they do), if black history truly matters (it does), then Black gay and trans lives must matter, and so must their stories.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, Apple

Angela Davis in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 Photo: IFC Films

Akin to the spirit of this very list, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 in no way asserts itself to be either a comprehensive or definitive history of the Black Power movement. But true to its name, the film is an impressionistic documentarian record of the movement throughout its many generations and forms and of American history viewed from the salient vantage point of an outside perspective.

Director Goran Hugo Olsson compiles footage shot by a group of Swedish journalists and rediscovered nearly three decades after the fact to create a chronological tableau of the late civil rights movement and the dawn of the War on Drugs, spanning subjects as diverse and interrelated as of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and more, with off-screen commentary provided by the likes of Abiodun Oyewole, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, and Davis herself. Come from the invaluable archival footage and awesome score courtesy of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson & Om’Mas Keith, stay for the joy of watching filmmaker Emilo de Antonio verbally rip TV Guide to pieces.

LA 92

Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon

A man pushes a shopping cart in front of a burning building. Credit: National Geographic

“I don’t think it’ll ever stop, really,” an unidentified Black man says to an interviewer in one of the opening scenes of Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s documentary LA 92. The scene itself is not pulled from the 1992 Los Angeles riots that wracked the city for six days, which claimed the lives of 64 people and injuring over 2,383 more in the wake of the acquittal of the officers at the center of the Rodney King trial, but a product of the 1965 Watts riots. “I mean, it may not be like this, but it’ll never stop,” the man tells the interviewer as he stares at something off-screen, as if searching for the right words to lend shape to the terrible and ineffable certainty that weights on his heart.

If Lindsay and Martin’s thesis could be summed up in one sentence, it is in the film’s tagline: “The past is prologue.” The story of LA 92 is of what happens when people lose all faith in any semblance of shared community or equal protection under the law; a society that, when faced with unabating horror of its own institutional hypocrisy, breaks down and spills outward in a cacophonous wave of destruction. Are we doomed to perpetuate theses cycle of barbaric injustice and wanton discrimination ad infinitum? LA 92 doesn’t offer easy answers. Rather, the film demonstrates through example that what has happened before has the potential to happen again, albeit in a form respective of its time, and that ultimately whatever answer to that question lies not within a film, but as always, within ourselves.

What to Watch

The best movies leaving Netflix, Hulu, Prime, and HBO Max at the end of November 2022

What to Watch

The best movies on Netflix right now

What to Watch

Movies actually improved by watching while full of Thanksgiving turkey and wine

View all stories in What to Watch

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon