En español | Black filmmakers are mining American history like never before, in movies that fulfill Frederick Douglass’ injunction, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” During Black History Month 2021 and beyond, you can stream new films that herald a resurgence of Black storytelling talent and a fresh reckoning with our shared past.
One Night in Miami
Regina King must have been one of those kids who didn't utter a word until she could reel off a paragraph, because her directing debut is more than auspicious, announcing a new talent who trusts writers and honors acting — unsurprising, since she won a best supporting actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk. Her movie takes us inside a Miami motel the night that Cassius Clay hammered Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight champ of the world. In screenwriter Kemp Powers’ speculative spin on what transpired that February night in 1964, Clay, Malcolm X, athlete Jim Brown and crooner Sam Cooke talk into the wee hours about protest music, Hollywood, the Nation of Islam (from which Malcolm X was about to part ways) and ice cream. Soon after, Clay would join the Nation and take the name Muhammad Ali. “I wanted the world to see Black men the way I see them,” King said, “as complex, as vulnerable, as strong ... as human beings that feel.”
Watch it here: One Night in Miami, on Amazon Prime
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Color-saturated and sensual, this drama lays down generations of legendary figures. There's the blues singer of the title: Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, whose intentionally raw and indelibly rare talent changed music in the 1920s. There's the late August Wilson, who looms large over American theater — and, increasingly, film — and whose Pulitzer-winning 10-play cycle on the 20th-century Black American experience begins with this tale of artistic triumph and theft. And finally, there's Viola Davis as the brave, brash Ma and the late Chadwick Boseman in his last role, as Levee Green, a prickly trumpeter with his own ambitions.
Watch it here: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, on Netflix
The reclaiming of historical figures and return to past events that resonate today isn't just an American pastime. Brit artist-director Steve McQueen — the masterful maker of 12 Years a Slave and Shame — received much love from the critics for this five-part anthology of Black British tales. Set in 1971, Mangrove, the knockout first installment, recounts the police harassment (sorely, it's a resonant theme) of Frank Crichlow, owner of the titular Caribbean eatery in London's Notting Hill district, and the subsequent trial of Black activists, dubbed the Mangrove Nine, on charges of inciting a riot.
Watch it here: Small Axe, on Amazon Prime
Judas and the Black Messiah
Director Shaka King struggled to find the right words to introduce the Sundance premiere of his film about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's 1969 killing — the customary “I hope you like the movie” just didn't feel right. After Hampton's bodyguard William O'Neal told Chicago police where his bed was, they fired about 90 bullets into his home in a predawn raid. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who feared that the handsome, magnetic Hampton might become a Black “messiah,” paid O'Neal — who, like Judas, later committed suicide — a $300 bonus. (His white FBI boss got $400.) Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya (Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (O'Neal) reunite in a different kind of horror film.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Singer Andra Day channels Holiday's haunting voice and haunted soul in Lee Daniels’ film about the jazz genius and Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger's relentless quest to destroy her. Why the obsession? Not merely because the singer had a drug addiction. Holiday's indelible version of Abel Meeropol's anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” threatened to become the mournful anthem of a movement. “She kicked off the civil rights movement by defying the government to sing a song about Black people being lynched,” says Daniels, the first Black Oscar nominee for both best picture and director (for Precious). “She had a tragic past — she grew up in a brothel and was always with the wrong man. They used a Black agent to take her down, and planted drugs on her when she was trying to get off them. Heroes can be messy, messy, messy.” Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks adapted the screenplay from a surprising source: Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream, about the tangled roots of the “war on drugs.” The movie makes clear that Holiday was a casualty of both that war and the one waged on Black equality.
Watch it here: The United States vs. Billie Holiday, coming Feb. 26 on Hulu
Lisa Kennedy is a contributing film critic for AARP.