Black History Month is a time for reflection, learning and celebration. Unfortunately, it is tough to feel jubilant when, across the border, states are making it harder for people of colour to vote, Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s novels are a hot button issue on the campaign trail 35 years after its release, and a university level law course on Critical Race Theory has become a misused catchphrase for anything that represents the teaching of basic Black history. Things are not much better on the Canadian side either. In the last few weeks alone local governments have thrown more money into policing without addressing the systemic issues at the core, a former CBC journalist garnered international fame by publicly resigning from her job due to Diversity and Inclusion practices without providing concrete examples of how such initiatives made her job harder, and swastikas and confederate flags were on prominent display at a trucker convoy against… *checks notes* …vaccine mandates.
While others are actively trying to pull the covers over history in hopes that we all go back to sleep, now is not the time to hit the snooze button. Instead, use this month to learn one or two things about the various aspects of the Black experience that you may not have known before. While there is a slew of books you can read, there is also a plethora of streaming services, paid (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crave, Disney+, Criterion Channel) and free (e.g. NFB.ca, Kanopy, Hoopla, CBC Gem, Tubi, etc.), that you can dive into as well.
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.
MLK/FBI – Netflix
Sam Pollard’s captivating documentary uses newly declassified files to explore how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI used unethical and ruthless surveillance tactics to try and silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While revisionist history would have you believe that Dr. King was always a beloved figure, Pollard reminds us that majority of white Americans viewed King as a dangerous threat during the Civil Rights Movement.
Mangrove – Amazon Prime
Every film in Steve McQueen’s brilliant Small Axe anthology is worth watching as they highlight different aspects of the Caribbean experience in the UK during the 1970s. Mangrove tells the true story of how a Caribbean restaurant in London both became the hub for community bonding and the target of racial hatred.
Most know about the iconic Woodstock concert that took place in 1969, but few have heard of the equally epic Harlem Cultural Festival that happened that same summer. Featuring Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knights and the Pips, and countless others, the footage went unseen for 50 years. Ahmir “Questlove” Thomson’s joyous film not only takes viewers back to that concert, but also questions whose stories often get left out of history.
21 Black Futures – CBC Gem
The contributions by Black individuals in the world of theatre often go unnoticed. 21 Black Futures aims to elevate Black voices in arts by presenting monodramas commissioned from 21 Black playwrights, directed by 21 Black directors, and performed by 21 Black actors. Each work offers a fascinating and unique vision of what the future of Blackness will look like.
The Harder They Fall – Netflix
A stylish and entertaining work with a killer hip hop/reggae soundtrack, The Harder They Fall brings a fresh take to the Western genre. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Idris Elba, Regina King, Jonathan Majors, and LaKeith Stanfield to name a few, this tale of duelling outlaws is filled with plenty of action and comedy that will delight even those who usually avoid spurs and saddle stories.
John Ware Reclaimed – NFB.ca
Speaking of spurs and saddles, John Ware was a famous Black cowboy that few outside of Alberta had ever heard of. In Cheryl Foggo’s documentary, Ware’s life and legacy is revisited. It explores the life of one of Canada’s famed Black cowboys and the impression his legacy left on generation of Black Canadians.
Night Comes On – Amazon Prime/Kanopy
Actress Dominique Fishback received a lot of acclaim for her work in Judas and the Black Messiah, but she has been giving stellar performances in films and television series for a few years now. Fishback is sensational in Night Comes On, a film that follows a teen, recently released from juvenile detention, who attempts to reconnect with her 10-year-old sister while navigating her own unresolved issue stemming from past traumas.
One of Ours – CBC Gem
Yasmine Mathurin’s film skilfully contemplates identity, family, healing, and legacy through the eyes of Josiah Wilson. Adopted from Haiti as a baby and raised by a blended Indigenous family in the Heiltsuk Nation in Calgary, Wilson’s heritage comes into question when the All-Native Basketball Tournament in British Columbia, which he had participated in for several years, decides to ban him by evoking the same blood quantum rule that governments used to marginalize indigenous communities for generations.
When They See Us – Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s four-part mini-series about the Central Park Five is a sweeping look at how the legal system can fail those it is supposed to protect. Spanning 25 years, the series is a heartbreaking retelling of how the lives of five young Black teens from Harlem were forever changed when they were accused of a crime they did not commit.
Color Adjustment – Criterion Channel
Marlon Riggs’ 1992 documentary examines how television has play an instrumental role in shaping the negative stereotypes unfairly attached to the Black experience. Many of the unflattering portrayals have had damaging societal impacts that still reverberate to this day.
Bessie – Crave
Bessie may follow a rather traditional biopic template, but Queen Latifah delivers a brilliant performance as legendary blues performer Bessie Smith. A trailblazer in the world of music, the film captures the highs and lows of Smith’s life as she fought against industry gatekeepers, dealt with her inner demons, and navigated complicated romantic relationships.
Set It Off – Netflix
Those who want to see another side of Queen Latifah should give this 1996 hit heist film a watch. The film follows four close friends who embark on a series of bank robberies, each needing the money for a different reason, only to wrestle with the growing suspicion and paranoia they have toward each other.
Attica – Crave
Stanely Nelson’s powerful documentary is a timely reminder of what happens when basic human rights are trampled on in the name of law and order. Unpacking the racially charged events that led to the largest prison riots in U.S. history, and the horrific aftermath, the film is equally riveting and chilling.
The Girl with All the Gifts – Netflix
Bringing an engaging and innovative approach to the zombie genre, this film is a treat to watch. Set in a dystopian future, the film tells story of a special girl who may hold the cure to the virus that has turned the bulk of mankind into flesh eating monsters.
The Road Taken – NFB.ca
Selwyn Jacob’s documentary offers a beautiful and powerful portrait of the Black sleeping car porters who worked the Canadian Railways. The film shows how the porters had to maintain a level of professionalism and dignity in the face of racism.
The Porter – CBC Gem
Speaking of railway porters, this hotly anticipated series does not drop until February 21. However, what we do know is that it will depict the history of Black Canadian porters and how their experiences led to the creation of the 1925 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black-led labour union.
Coded Bias – Netflix
Inspired by the work of Joy Buolamwini, an MIT PhD candidate, Shalini Kantayya’s film exposes the built-in racial bias that is found in the technology that consume our daily lives. The film examines the dangers of tech that uses white men as the default data reference points for A.I. to learn from.
Killer of Sheep – Kanopy
One of the first films to be inducted into the Library of Congress list of American films worthy of preservation, Killer of Sheep effectively reminds audiences that the American dream does not apply to everyone. Set in Los Angeles during the 1970s, the film centres around a man whose job at a slaughterhouse is slowly taking its toll at home.
Lilies of the Field – Tubi
The world may have lost Sidney Poitier in January, but his legacy will live on in his activism work and the many films he left behind. While there are plenty of works to choose from, Lilies captures the effortless charisma that he exuded which made him such an iconic figure.
The Gospel According to André – CBC Gem
Speaking of icons, the passing of André Leon Tally was devastating for those within and outside of the world of fashion. This documentary explores Tally’s roots and his journey to becoming one of the most influential tastemakers and fashion curators in the industry.
Passing – Netflix
Featuring two of the finest performances from last year, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga shine as former childhood friends Irene and Clare who reunite unexpectedly years later. What makes this reunion complicated is the fact that Clare is now passing as white. This sets in motion a captivating tale of identify and repressed desire.