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TV Takes On a Celebration of Black Culture Skip to content

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TV Takes On a Celebration of Black Culture

From top sitcoms to hit movies to new documentaries, tune in to Black History Month 

Sammy Davis Jr

Courtesy of The Estate of Altovise Davis

Singer and Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. is among those profiled on PBS' American Masters series during Black History Month.

Black History Month is taking over TV, and here are some of the best shows and movies, free and pay TV, new and classic, coming up this week on broadcast and streaming channels.

PBS

PBS is a rich trove of black biographical programming, often premiering or re-aired in February, but each station does its own slate, so check local listings for black history telecasts, and check out the PBS Black Culture Connection page online for updates.

What most people will be watching this week are two shows in the superb American Masters series: Sammy Davis Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (Feb. 19, 9 p.m. ET on most stations) and Charley Pride: I’m Just Me (Feb. 22, 9 p.m. ET). Director Sam Pollard dramatically captures Davis’ rise from 3-year-old vaudevillian to 7-year-old movie scene stealer to the breakthrough star who, as the youngster Michael Jackson says in the film, kicked open “the door we all walk through.” Pollard calls Davis the Michael Jackson of his time, or the Bruno Mars — a singing, dancing, telegenic genius. Davis was the first black artist to do (excellent) impressions of whites — Humphrey Bogart loved Davis’ take on him — the first to kiss white costars on both Broadway (Paula Wayne) and TV (Carroll O’Connor on All in the Family), and the first to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. He got pilloried for hugging Richard Nixon in a notorious news photo, but as the film shows, Davis was a chronic, impulsive hugger of everyone, and he hoped to influence Nixon’s policies. Davis kept a chipper spirit despite horrific discrimination, as when Hollywood studio boss (and Mafia boss friend) Harry “King” Cohn threatened to have Davis killed unless he stopped seeing his white friend Kim Novak, who eloquently appears in the documentary (as do Quincy Jones, Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis and Whoopi Goldberg).

I’ve Gotta Be Me, newly available on DVD and streaming Feb. 20 to March 19, is a brisk, thoughtful, heartfelt must-see, and so is Barbara J. Hall’s Charley Pride: I’m Just Me (streaming Feb. 23 to March 22). One of 11 kids of a dirt-poor sharecropper in Sledge, Miss., Pride, 80, was inspired by Jackie Robinson to escape the cotton fields for a baseball career. Pride played OK, but he was better on his $14 Sears guitar. Merle Haggard hired him as an opening act, and soon Pride was making $20 a day playing music in Montana. 

Producer Cowboy Jack Clement and record exec Chet Atkins thought Pride might be the next Elvis, making a fortune singing the other race’s music, and indeed he sold more records for RCA than anyone but Elvis, and an analogous crossover phenomenon. 1971’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” made him the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year. “Once I come out and start singing, it doesn’t matter if I was pink,” says Pride. Willie Nelson, who once kissed him on the lips onstage to show fans they should accept him, gets kissed back in the film, as Willie and Charley compare notes about their tiny hometowns. Willie notes that his has only 300 residents, “and the population never changes, ’cause every time a baby is born a man leaves town.” You can see Pride in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, coming in September, but don’t miss this tribute now.

You can also stream recent hits (Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots: Freedom Tales through March 5; Austin City Limits: Buddy Guy/August Greene through March 2; the scary documentary Black Memorabilia through March 6; and Breaking Big: Danai Gurira, about the Black Panther and Walking Dead star, through 2019). And don’t miss PBS’ first online series on black American culture, the new Say It Loud, on YouTube and Facebook Watch.

ABC

The family sitcom Black-ish is a historic achievement in black entertainment, so hot that Golden Globe-winning star Tracee Ellis Ross (daughter of Diana Ross) inspired a spinoff prequel show about her character, Grown-ish. On Feb. 26, Octavia Spencer guest stars as herself in an episode called “Black History Month,” in which Anthony Anderson (as Ross’ husband Dre), peeved that kids learn so little black history, gives a lecture at a school assembly.

CBS Sports Network

You’ve heard of Arthur Ashe, but how about Althea Gibson, the 11-time Grand Slam winner who switched from tennis to golf? In the documentary Althea & Arthur (Feb. 18, 9 p.m. ET), narrator Phylicia Rashad and interviewees Venus Williams and Billie Jean King celebrate the African American athletes who integrated tennis and fought for civil rights.

Kanopy

The free streaming service for library card holders has 162 percent more users than it did in October, because it’s a screaming good deal on great movies, and its top 10 most popular titles include the triple Oscar winner Moonlight and Oscar-nominated James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro — both prominent on the Kanopy Black History Month page.

Netflix

The streaming service has scads of black history gems — try Maya Angelou: And Still I RiseQuincy (about Quincy Jones), the thriller miniseries Black Earth Rising, and Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated prison documentary 13th. But the most relevant show may be Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History, in which he reads to his daughter a la The PrincesBride, only the stories concern people like Robert Smalls, who persuaded Lincoln to let blacks enlist, Mae Jemison, the first black astronaut, and Henry Brown, the slave who mailed himself to freedom in a box (really, he did) and then became a magician. Tiffany Haddish and Weird Al Yankovic help enact events, like a sober Drunk History suitable to watch with kids.

Amazon

Amazon’s Celebrate Black Culture page offers more hits than misses on demand, including August Wilson’s masterpiece Fences with Denzel Washington, 54, and Viola Davis, 53, in peak form, and The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a six-hour PBS series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Showtime

The black history landmark this month on Showtime is the new talk show Desus & Mero, whose first guest is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Feb. 21, 11 p.m. ET). Then come Pusha T, Vince Staples, Ben Stiller, John Legend and Issa Rae.

Hulu

The Celebrating Black Stories on Hulu page online offers a free-trial viewing of its original documentary series Around the Way, featuring eminent guests in three cities: Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. The featured guest is Georgia’s rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams. Watch the trailer below.

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