Documentaries have the ability to educate, inspire, and open windows to our past. Through the lens of talented filmmakers, we can be transported to places we never thought possible, or relive moments in history we would never otherwise see. Black documentaries offer rich insight into our society and culture, connect us to some of our proudest and most shameful moments in American history, and remind us of just how far we’ve come.
The following are 12 Black documentaries that are a must to add to your watch list. They range in subject from places to travel to celebrating Black women, and so much more.
International travel and diversity consultant Martinique Lewis takes us on a journey to visit historically listed Green Book locations and modern Black travel destinations. The Negro Motorist Green Book was published annually from 1936 to 1966 and served as a must-have guidebook used by Black families and business people, listing hotels, rooming houses, and restaurants where Black travelers would be welcomed and safe. The stops are more than just hotels and restaurants, though. Lewis delves into the history of the locations and talks with people who remember how Black people used the Green Book.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut as a filmmaker is so, so good. This documentary is part music film, part culture and fashion, and part historical record surrounding the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in 1969, just 100 miles from Woodstock. Summer of Soul focuses on the importance of history to our well-being and the healing power it has during times of unrest. There are performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and many more.
Black Is King is a musical film co-written, executive produced, and directed by none other than our favorite queen, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It is a visual companion to the 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, curated by Beyoncé for the film The Lion King. It tells the story of a young African king who is cast out into the world as a baby — and grows up to return home to reclaim his throne. It’s so visually stunning that you’ll find yourself watching it again and again.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America
If you’re anything like me, you love all types of food. So, I was excited about this one! But it’s so much more than food. It’s reframing our history through the lens of Black people’s food. It’s history lessons and incredible food rolled into one. Food writer Stephen Satterfield hosts this series, and the best part is that the second season is coming on Netflix.
Michelle Obama will always be our forever First Lady. If you’ve read her book, then you will love this documentary. It takes an intimate look at her life and connection with various people during her 2019 book tour for Becoming. Obama speaks openly about the balance of maintaining her sense of self, along with the endless scrutiny every First Lady finds herself facing once she becomes the most recognized woman in the world.
In 1972 in Los Angeles, director Mel Stuart captured all the performances of the Watts Summer Festival, organized by Stax Records. It was a gathering of musicians and entertainers from the Black community, brought together to remember the Watts Riots from seven years prior. Performances include those of comedian Richard Pryor and singers Isaac Hayes and Luther Ingram. Stuart also presents shots of the Watts streets and community along with the festival footage.
This is a biographical film about Nina Simone, one of the greatest artists of our time. She lived such a fascinating, brutally honest life and was a classically trained pianist and Black power icon. This documentary features never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage.
In 1993, one of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her novel, Beloved, represented the first time a Black author dared to speak about the horrible foundation of American society: slavery. The documentary explores the significance of Morrison’s work in an America still struggling with racist violence.
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing what his next project, Remember This House, would be. The book was to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck took those pages and envisioned the book Baldwin never finished. The result is this open and honest documentary.
After reading The 1619 Project, I felt like I had been on the most emotional roller coaster ride I’ve ever had reading a book. The 1619 Project film, created and spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, continues this journey of crucial information regarding the history of Black people in America. It’s the history we never knew but have so desperately needed.
This documentary is a PBS Original three-part series that gives a unique perspective into how Rhode Island’s Black community draws upon joy as a source of strength. Through food, the arts, and mental health, each episode explores the rich history, tradition, and legacy of joy and its essential role in persevering through hard times.
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer
Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown investigates the Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Elaine, Arkansas, massacres. This documentary is a worthy introduction to a horrific but fundamentally important part of American history that is conveniently ignored in the history books. The camera follows Brown as she speaks with community activists and massacre descendants both in Tulsa and Elaine, where what was likely the deadliest massacre of the Red Summer took place. In Tulsa, Brown watches archaeologists in the distance at work in the Oaklawn Cemetery, where a mass grave is eventually discovered in late 2020. In Elaine, she discovers that somewhere out there is a mass grave from the massacre; it is thought that hundreds of Black lives were lost in just one September night in 1919 at the hands of white supremacist rioters, although massive efforts to cover up and deny that the massacre even happened mean the true numbers will never be known.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.