It is not an understatement to say that Black History Month is hitting a little differently this year. A global pandemic has unearthed deep rooted issue surrounding race that some would have preferred to remain buried beneath the soil. While many are starting to look inward and do the work necessary to make effective change, not everyone knows where they should start. Thankfully, there are a slew of paid (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crave, Criterion Channel, etc) and free (e.g. NFB.ca, Kanopy, Hoopla, CBC Gem, etc) streaming services that have films that highlight various aspects of the Black experience.
While sifting through the tall grass of streaming content can be overwhelming, below is a list of films that you might consider streaming during Black History Month and beyond. Please note that not every film on this list has something profound to say about the Black experience. In fact, some of these films are not even about being Black. They are just entertaining works that happen to have Black characters in lead roles. They are included on this list to remind you that not every film featuring a Black individual revolves around trauma (e.g. slavery, police brutality, etc). It is just as important to see films where Black people are allowed to be heroic, vulnerable and complex…you know, regular people.
Day 1: One Night in Miami – Amazon Prime
Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X gather together for a night of partying and find themselves in deep conversations about race and life in Regina King’s directorial debut. Presenting this racial discourse in a digestible format, King shows that there is no one size fits all approach in the fight for equality.
Day 2: The Skin We’re In – CBC Gems
In this documentary, acclaimed journalist, author and activist Desmond Cole explores the difficulties that come with being Black in Canada. Raising questions about the over-policing of Black lives and the ways systemic racism is perpetuated in the media, there is much to unpack in this documentary’s brisk running time. Once you are done watching the film, I recommend giving Cole’s book of the same name a read to provide further context.
Day 3: Queen of Katwe – Disney+
Looking to get your chess fix in now that you have already binged The Queen’s Gambit? This Disney feel-good film, based on the true story of Ugandan female chess player Phiona Mutesi, should fill that void nicely. Playing like an underdog sports film at times, this underappreciate gem is well worth your time.
Day 4: All In: The Fight For Democracy – Amazon Prime
Stacey Abrams has received a lot of praise for her fight against voter suppression, but the battle is far from over. This documentary, which is a nice companion piece to her great book Our Time is Now, provides a detailed look at how Black communities are continually marginalized at the voting booth.
Day 5: The Forty-Year-Old Version – Netflix
Radha Blank’s debut film about a struggling playwright who decides to attempt her hand at a rap career is filled with honesty, humor and plenty of authentic heart. A favourite on this site and with critics’ groups, Blank’s tale of a Black woman of a certain age navigating career and love is a breath of fresh air. Capturing a side of New York rarely seen, there is much to enjoy in this indie gem.
Day 6: Supa Modo – Criterion
Likarion Wainaina’s debut feature focuses on a terminally ill girl who is obsessed with Jackie Chan and superhero films. While the premise may sound depressing, this Kenyan set film is ultimately a celebration of life, family and friendship that earns each emotional moment. It is a reminder of the power of art and fantasy to provide comfort in difficult times.
Day 7: Time – Amazon Prime
A thought-provoking meditation on the American penal system, the strength of Black mothers and the power of unwavering love, Time is a remarkable work. The film focuses on Fox Rich’s 20-year fight to get her husband out of prison. Garrett Bradley’s film will have you looking at the justice system in a whole new light.
Day 8: The Watermelon Woman – Kanopy
Cheryl Dunye’s landmark film is a smart and amusing work that connects on several levels. The film is both an engaging observation of a Black lesbian navigating race and relationships, and a stirring cultural critique of the “mammy” archetypes in cinema. Despite being a distinctly 90s film, Dunye’s character works in a video store, the film’s themes still feel extremely relevant today.
Day 9: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror – Shudder
Black audiences have always loved horror films, but horror films have not always loved them back. This documentary offers an in-depth exploration of how the horror genre has depicted Black people throughout the years. In focusing on history’s impact on the genre, and the modern artists who are changing the narratives, this entertaining and informative documentary is a must-see even if you are not a fan of scary movies.
Day 10: His House – Netflix
Speaking of chilling movies, Remi Weekes’ film gives the refugee experience a whole new sinister twist. The film revolves around a couple attempting to make a new life for themselves in England after escaping war-torn South Sudan. Providing an inventive approach to looking at the legacy of trauma, this is a house you will want to visit.
Day 11: Daughters of the Dust – Kanopy
An immersive and poetic work, Julie Dash weaves an ethereal beauty in her tale of legacy and reinvention. Focusing on the descendants of enslaved Africans on the cusp of great change, the film is a reminder of the importance of ensuring cultural traditions and histories are passed on to future generations. Still mesmerizing fans and newcomers decades later, it was the inspiration for the visual component of Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, there is always something new to discover with each viewing.
Day 12: Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé – Netflix
In 2018 Beyoncé became the first African American woman to headline Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in its nearly 20-year existence. Not only did she put on a masterclass concert, which had fans renaming the festival “Beychella”, but also used her performance to celebrate Historically Black college and universities (HBCU), strong Black women, the perseverance of Black culture and more. Providing an intricate look at the performance and the behind the scenes preparation, this concert film is a must-see.
Day 13: School Daze – CTV.ca
Spike Lee has a slew of films streaming that are worth your time – take Da 5 Bloods (Netflix), David Byrne’s American Utopia (Crave), Do the Right Thing (Crave) – but if you are looking for a comedy set in an HBCU then School Daze is the film for you. The film uses fraternity and sorority culture as an entry point into a deeper conversation about colourism and gender. While this early work from Lee has some messy moments, especially in relation to its sexual politics, there is plenty in the film that still resonates today.
Day 14: Lover’s Rock – Amazon Prime
Taking viewers into a West Indian community of London in the 1980s, Lovers Rock is a deeply romantic film that excels in utilising mood and movement over words. The plot is rather simple, a young woman sneaks out one night to attend a reggae house party, but director Steve McQueen puts his own unique spin on the tale by making every shot and gesture meaningful. The second film of McQueen’s brilliant Small Axe anthology, there are some moments that will stick with you long after the film ends.
Day 15: Tongues Untied – Kanopy / Criterion
All of Marlon Rigg’s films should be considered required viewing, but this experimental film stands above the rest. A bold, poetic, humorous and thought-provoking look at the joys and struggles that come with being a gay Black man.
Day 16: Atlantics – Netflix
Mati Diop’s hauntingly hypnotic and richly constructed love story lingers in one’s mind. Destined for an arranged married to a wealthy man, Ada still longs for true love Souleiman, who disappeared at sea while seeking better employment opportunities in Europe. However, when strange things begin to occur on her wedding night, she begins to question if the rumours of Souleiman’s returns are true. To say anymore would ruin the joys that come with unraveling this unique mystery.
Day 17: Attack the Block – CTV.ca
Before he was fighting the Empire in Star Wars, John Boyega was saving the block from aliens. While one can easily watch the film as simply an entertaining science fiction adventure, the commentary on race, class and policing in the UK makes this one standout.
Day 18: The Lost Okoroshi – Netflix
The streaming age has allowed Nollywood films to be more accessible to North American audiences. While there are plenty of entertaining comedies and dramas to check out, those looking for something off the beaten path should give The Lost Okoroshi a spin. Telling the story of a man who wakes up to find he has been turned into a colorful dancing ancestral spirit, the film is a commentary on how modern Nigerians have become obsessed with western culture overshadowing their connections to their ancestral roots.
Day 19: If Beale Street Could Talk – Amazon Prime
Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight is another masterful piece of cinema. Adapting James Baldwin’s novel about a young couple whose only crime was being born into a system rigged against them. Featuring stellar performances and richly textured visuals, this is both a deeply romantic film and a cry for systemic change.
Day 20: Rocks – Netflix
When her mother abruptly abandons Rocks’ and her younger brother, it is up to the teenager to find a way to take care of her sibling without child services finding out about their predicament. Effectively capturing modern teenage life, and the way friends rally to support each other in times of need, even if it means keeping adults at bay for as long as possible, makes the film feel truly authentic. Rocks is an exceptional film that is equally beautiful and heart-wrenching without ever feeling manipulative. Available February 1st on Netflix.
Day 21: Ninth Floor – NFB.ca
Mina Shum paints a harrowing and horrifying portrait of systemic racism within Canada. Exploring the racism that Caribbean students endured and the protest it sparked, which ultimately led to the 1969 occupation of Sir George Williams University’s computer lab by 400 students, the film weaves a powerful tale of intolerance and persistence. For other films that shine a light on the Caribbean centric experience be sure to read Shane’s recommendations.
Day 22: Sorry to Bother You – Netflix
A satirical look at capitalism, greed and racism in the corporate world, Boots Riley’s dark comedy focuses on a Black man who literally uses a white voice to move up the corporate ladder. However, just because you are let into a once elusive space it does not mean you are considered an equal. Easily the most divisive work on this list, the wild turn that the film takes in the latter half is bound to turn off some viewers.
Day 23: Step – Disney+
Focusing on a group of high school seniors in a Baltimore step program, as they prepare for a competition where they have never placed before, the film is ultimately a tale of mothers and daughters. As the young women balance training with the pressures to get into college, the film weaves empowering tale of sisterhood and perseverance. Step is an uplifting crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word.
Day 24: Ganja & Hess – Kanopy
Bill Gunn’s cult classic revolves around a doctor who gains a lust for blood after being stabbed by an ancient knife. While this experimental fever dream of a film touches on vampire tropes, it is also a film about race, religion, the passing of history and so much more. An art house horror that is strange, disturbing, and wonderful at the same time, this 1973 film is an experience.
Day 25: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Netflix
The best Spider-Man film to date, Into the Spider-Verse is immensely rewatchable. While only time will tell if Miles Morales will get a live action Marvel film, this hilarious and inventive animated film more than quenches the thirst for superhero entertainment.
Day 26: 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets – Kanopy
The name Jordan Davis may not instantly ring a bell like Michael Brown or George Floyd, but he was one of the many unarmed Black teenagers whose life was taken too soon. His murderer was a middle age white man, Michael Dunn, who claimed, under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, that he shot the teen in self defense. The documentary explores the legal and political aftermath of the shooting, while exposing how a law that is supposed to apply to all, is only benefiting some.
Day 27: The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Crave
A funny and poignant tale of friendship, this film explores the impact of gentrification on a San Francisco community. Tackling themes of change and Black masculinity, the film is as much about the choices we make as it is about not letting the past stifle the future.
Day 28: Last Holiday – Netflix / Amazon Prime
There is always a certain level of trauma that comes with spending an entire month unpacking both the historical and modern realities of the Black experience. So why not close off the month with a fun romantic comedy about a woman living life to the fullest. While not a deep film by any means, Queen Latifah is delightful in one of the rare comedies where a Black woman, who is considered plus size by Hollywood’s skewed standards, gets to be the lead in a film that would normally go to the Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl’s of the world.
Have any other must-watch movies or recommendations for Black History Month? Sound off in the comments.