19 critically acclaimed documentaries and biopics to celebrate Black History Month

19 critically acclaimed documentaries and biopics to celebrate Black History Month

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  • Black History Month is a great chance to explore the lives of people living across the African Diaspora.
  • Our selection of Black History Month movies only features films based on real people and events.
  • You can rent or buy all of our picks digitally, and some are available through subscription streaming services.
  • See also: The best streaming devices and sticks in 2021

Black History Month has arrived once again, encouraging us to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of African Americans, as well as the millions of Black people representing the African diaspora in different parts of the world.

With America less than a year removed from nationwide protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, recalling Black history can help us understand the country’s long and troubled relationship with systemic racism.

Freed slaves and civil rights pioneers have inspired some of America’s proudest stories, with films like “12 Years A Slave” and “Green Book” earning Academy Awards. The struggles of Black athletes and artists, like Jackie Robinson and Ray Charles, teach us how talent and excellence can overcome prejudice and inspire change.

Beyond the pain of racism, examining Black history shows us how people can retain hope and joy under the weight of oppression, how an underground culture can become a movement, and how individuals can defy their circumstances to become icons.

There are no shortage of movies and shows documenting the Black experience, but we’ve chosen to stick with films based on true events and historical figures for our Black History Month selection. We’ve also chosen to elevate the work of Black directors and producers, with a few exceptions.

Below you’ll find our full selection of Black History Month movies, and where to stream them:

'Paris is Burning' (1990)

Streaming On: Kanopy (free with library card), Criterion Channel

“Paris Is Burning” is a documentary following the ballroom drag community that came to prominence in New York City during the 1980s. Led by Black and Latino LGBT people, that culture has gradually become a part of the American mainstream, as seen in modern programs like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Pose.”

This film offers an inside look at how the community created its ballroom competitions, and the racism and homophobia that the contestants encounter outside of their growing community.

Watch the trailer

'Malcolm X' (1992)

Streaming On: HBO Max

Denzel Washington takes on the larger than life role of Malcolm X in this Spike Lee production that dramatizes the life and work of the civil rights leader. “Malcolm X” provides a window into the African American experience; showcasing his migration from rural Michigan to New York City, his imprisonment, his conversion to Islam, and his controversial opinions on the role of white people in American racism.

Malcolm X’s beliefs made him one of the most complex and polarizing figures in America, and his evolution as a thinker continues to inspire black leaders today.  The film features cameo appearances from prominent black figures like Al Sharpton and Nelson Mandela as it explores pro-black ideology on a global scale.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Showtime, FuboTV

Muhammad Ali is known as the greatest boxer of all time, not only for his championship pedigree inside the ring, but for his defiant and influential politics during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

This biographical film captures the peaks of Ali’s career, starting with his first championship fight against Sonny Liston in 1964, exploring his conversion to Islam and objection to the Vietnam War, and ending with Ali’s legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” match against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Will Smith earned an Academy Award nomination for his starring role as Ali.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: HBO Max

Ray Charles was one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century, pioneering the sound of R&B and soul music in the 1950s and 60s. Charles learned to play piano after losing his sight to glaucoma at seven-years-old and went onto write dozens of hit records during a career of more than 50 years.

The film is an earnest journey through Charles’ tragic childhood and struggles with drug abuse and his rise as one of the nation’s most beloved artists. Jaime Foxx won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing Charles; the role required him to wear glasses that blinded him for hours on set, and Foxx played the piano in the film’s many musical scenes.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Kanopy (free with library card), AMC+, IFC Films Unlimited

The civil rights movement is credited as one of the most transformative periods in Black history, but the Black Power Movement that followed helped define the politics and scholarly foundation that continue to inspire Black Lives Matter movement and other types of racial activism today.

This documentary collects footage from a group of Swedish journalists who covered the leading figures of the Black Power Movement from 1967 to 1975. That includes interviews from that  period with Black leaders like Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton, as well as modern commentary from prominent Black voices Bobby Seale, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, and Erykah Badu.

Watch the trailer

'42' (2012)

Rent on: Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, FandangoNow

“42”  follows baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s journey as the first Black player in Major League Baseball, and the pioneer for integration in professional sports. Played by Chadwick Boseman, Robinson maintains a humble dignity when confronted with the unabashed racism of white players, managers, and fans, knowing that his example could carve a path for future Black athletes.

Watch the trailer

'12 Years A Slave' (2013)

Streaming on: Hulu

Solomon Northup, a Black man born free in New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841. Northup documented his experience after regaining his freedom, detailing the violent methods slave owners used to strip Black people of their rights and humanity.

The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress, earned by Lupita Nyong’o. Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and director Steve McQueen also earned nominations for their work on the film.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Netflix

This breakthrough film from “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan focuses on the death of Oscar Grant, who was shot by a BART police officer while handcuffed on New Year’s Day 2009.

The movie uses Grant’s close relationships with his daughter, mother, and girlfriend to highlight the human costs associated with police killings, and includes real video from the shooting at the Fruitvale BART Station.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: FX Now (via cable provider)

“Selma” recalls the story of the voting rights marches staged between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement in 1965. The marches proved to be one of the movement’s most poignant moments, with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis leading thousands of protesters on a 54-mile journey from Selma to Alabama’s capital. 

The march was broadcast on TV, and millions of Americans watched as police attacked the nonviolent protest en-masse, leaving 17 hospitalized. The national response eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement.

Watch the trailer

'Get On Up' (2014)

Rent on: Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, FandangoNow

This James Brown biopic stars Chadwick Boseman and tracks the musician’s life from his childhood in Augusta, Georgia, to his ascendance as the legendary Godfather of Soul. Boseman recreates Brown’s powerful shouting presence on stage, with supporting performances from Academy Award Winners Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

Watch the trailer

'Straight Outta Compton' (2015)

Streaming on: FX Now (via cable provider)

Gangster rap has become synonymous with hip hop music, thanks in large part to legendary artists like N.W.A. The Los Angeles-based rap group took the world by storm in the early ’90s with unapologetic lyrics and unmatched aggression that exemplified the anger of millions of Black Americans.

While the film takes some dramatic liberty with the group’s origin story, it’s a fun window into the environment and attitude that created one of the most influential rap groups of all time.

Watch the trailer

'I am Not Your Negro' (2016)

Streaming on: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video

James Baldwin is one of America’s most celebrated black thinkers, well recognized for his writings on race, sexuality, and class in America during the 1950s and 60s. “I Am Not Your Negro” is inspired by a manuscript Baldwin left unfinished, with Samuel L. Jackson providing the voice for Baldwin’s musings on American racism and how the idea of the “negro” was crafted to create a second class of citizen.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Disney Plus, FuboTV

A group of Black women helped cement the United States as a technological superpower during the space race between America and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were all members of a segregated NASA research team, labeled as Colored Computers for the expert calculations they executed by hand.

“Hidden Figures” celebrates the contributions these Black women made to the space program, even as they faced discrimination from white coworkers and doubts about their abilities. The team’s work eventually helped astronaut John Glenn become the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, and Langley Research Center eventually named its computational building after Johnson.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Netflix

Marsha P. Johnson was an LGBT activist best known for their participation in New York City’s Stonewall uprising in 1969, and later founding a gay liberation organization called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Johnson performed sex work to help support a shelter for gay and trans children living in Manhattan and helped shepherd a revolutionary period for gay rights and sexual liberation in the 1970s.

Johnson died under suspicious circumstances in 1992, and it wasn’t until decades later that the full scope of their legacy came into the public view. This Netflix documentary offers a look at the follows another activist who investigates whether Johnson died by suicide as ruled by police; the case remains open.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Netflix

The case of the Central Park Five seized national headlines in 1989 as New York City prosecutors sought the conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers for a violent sexual assault on a white woman. Though a lone attacker would eventually confess to the crime in 2002, the Central Park Five were incarcerated for more than six years each.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, this series explores how racial bias casts Black people as criminals in the American imagination, and how white supremacy can overcome justice in the legal system.

The Central Park Five case has garnered fresh attention in recent years following the presidential term of Donald Trump — Trump took out multiple full page ads calling for the death penalty to be implemented after the initial arrests, and refused to apologize after the convictions were vacated.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Hulu

Toni Morrison became the first Black woman to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and her 1987 novel “Beloved” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. 

Morrison died in 2019 but “The Pieces I Am” explores her career, and the recurring themes that fueled her novels, essays, and scholarship.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu

This legal drama tells the true story of Walter McMillian, an Alabama man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent six years on death row before having his conviction overturned in 1993. Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, the young Black lawyer who takes on McMillian’s appeal, while Academy Award-winner Jaime Foxx plays McMillian.

The film reflects the ways that systemic racism continues to impact the criminal justice system years after the end of the civil rights movement.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

“Small Axe” is a series of five films based on the lives of real West Indian immigrants living in London between the 1960s and 1980s. The series was created by Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years A Slave,” and features Letitia Wright and John Boyega in starring roles.

Watch the trailer

Streaming on: HBO Max starting February 12

Fred Hampton was the chairman of Chicago’s Black Panther Party when he was shot and killed as he slept during a joint police and FBI raid in 1969. It was later revealed that the FBI had planted an informant within the Black Panther Party to report on Hampton’s actions, and the bureau intentionally spread misinformation about Hampton to other Black activist groups.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of Hampton’s efforts to organize Chicago’s activist community at the height of the Black Power Movement, and the FBI’s campaign to undermine him.

Watch the trailer

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