Movies and TV shows to watch during Black History Month
With February's arrival comes Black History Month, providing a time to reflect upon the accomplishments of Black Americans. One way to mark the occasion is to watch shows and movies that celebrate Black history.
Donald Harrell, an adjunct professor who teaches Africana Studies at the University of Central Florida, believes Black stories have grown in popularity.
“There’s far more interest now in these types of movies and TV shows than there has been in the past, which is a testament to our society,” he said. “Even though we look at it and everybody is feeling kind of taken aback by recent goings-on, at the same time, there’s been a level of awareness that’s increased in leaps and bounds because of all of this.”
The movie industry, he said, has played a big role in “making the world a better place to live.”
“This is a nice medium to affect change in society,” he said. “You can create a movie or a TV show … and it can be viewed by thousands and even millions of people. And there are many, many of these new and old producers and filmmakers who understand that power, and they’ve gone to great lengths to uncover hidden truths. And you can find it by just sitting down, getting yourself some popcorn, get your favorite beverage and cross your feet and grow accordingly.”
Harrell noted that these works aren’t just about consuming for entertainment. For the most impactful experience, viewers must be open-minded.
“If your mind is open and you really want to get to an understanding of what Black life is and why Black life is what it is with a mind to try to help to create a better life for all of us, then these types of movies are definitely worth watching,” he said.
In honor of Black History Month, Harrell shared his list of must-watch movies and shows.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
FBI informant William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton. “It’s about Fred Hampton, who was this incredible potential leader … almost like a Malcolm X-type figure because he was so young and so eloquent and so smart,” Harrell said. “He was working with the Black Panther Party, but he died in a gun battle with the authorities.” Catch it in theaters and on HBO Max starting Feb. 12.
‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross’
This six-part PBS series six episodes explores the history of African Americans. Watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
‘One Night in Miami’
Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown discuss their roles in the civil rights movement of the 1960s in this fictional film. Watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
Based on Alex Haley’s novel, this eight-part miniseries follows a family struggling to survive slavery and regain freedom over many generations. Watch it on FuboTV or HBO Max.
Chiron, a young Black man growing up in Miami, struggles with his identity through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Watch the Academy Award-winning film on Netflix.
FBI agents investigate after a group of civil rights workers goes missing. Watch it on Cinemax Go.
‘12 Years a Slave’
Prior to the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — a free Black man from upstate New York — is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Watch the Academy Award-winning film on Hulu.
This tribute film follows the life of Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X. Watch it on HBO Max.
‘The Hate You Give’
Based on Angie Thomas’ book, “The Hate U Give” follows Starr Thomas, a teen caught between two worlds — the poor, mostly Black neighborhood in which she lives and the wealthy, mostly white school she attends — who witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend. Watch it on FuboTV.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book, this documentary looks at Black history from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Lives Matter movement. Watch it on Netflix or Tubi.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her horn player and the recording studio’s white management in 1927 Chicago. Watch it on Netflix.
“It’s about Thurgood Marshall, the African American lawyer who became the first Black Supreme Court Justice,” Harrell said. “It kind of gives an account of his life before that momentous Supreme Court decision that effectively abolished segregation.” Watch it starting at $3.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play or YouTube.
‘Akeelah and the Bee’
An 11-year-old with a talent for spelling hopes to compete in the National Spelling Bee. Watch it on HBO Max.
‘Imitation of Life’
There are two versions of this movie (1934 and 1959) based on Fannie Hurst’s novel, which “was one of the very early books that kind of dealt with the problem of being Black and the problem of race in America,” Harrell said. Watch the 1959 version starting at $3.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes or YouTube.
Based on real events, an African American detective from Colorado Springs infiltrates the local Ku Klux Klan branch with help from his white colleague. Watch it on Hulu Live TV or Sling TV.
‘John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk’
Author and historian John Henrik Clarke describes his personal history and his views on the history of Africa and of Pan-Africanism. Watch it on YouTube.
This documentary gives an in-depth look at the U.S. prison system and racial inequality. Watch it on Netflix.
‘Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives’
Well-known Black actors voice the stories of former slaves interviewed during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Watch it on YouTube.
This docuseries traces the evolution of hip-hop. Watch it on Netflix.
“The (shows and movies) I mentioned are representations of important things to know and understand in and of themselves, but they’re not the sum total of what is needed to be known and understood,” Harrell said. “What these things can do is to help folks develop a thirst for even more understanding of what our society is, what it has been, what it could be, what it should be.”