Black History Month is upon us, along with an abundance of well-told stories grounded in history: a bounty of feature documentaries, many directed by ascendant Black filmmakers, centered on entertainers, political figures and activists. Here are 14 works worth diving into that tell gripping stories and illuminate their historical context.
Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (2022)
In addition to writing a winning memoir about growing up in New Orleans, trumpeter Louis Armstrong was a copious keeper of his thoughts. The shelves in the Queens home he shared with his wife of nearly 30 years, Lucille, were lined with audiotapes he made of those ruminations and conversations. With those tapes, along with a treasure trove of archival images, director Sacha Jenkins creates a fabulous portrait of an artist in his own voice, on his own terms.
Margaret Brown’s intricately woven film follows the story of the salvaging of the last known slave ship to carry African captives into American waters, the Clotilda, paying special heed to the descendants of that ship: the people of Africatown, AL, a small community north of Mobile. Like many of the stories involving the enslaved, Descendant engages the past and follows a river of ongoing outrages and lies to the present. But the film also holds exquisite space for the progeny of the captives — including Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis — to seek and speak their truths. Literary trailblazer Zora Neale Hurston interviewed and later wrote about the Clotilda’s last living captive (Lewis died in 1935) in her posthumously published work Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Watch it: Descendant on Netflix
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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
It’s not entirely clear when the James Baldwin renaissance began, though Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book Between the World and Me certainly nudged it. Director Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary grapples with the unfinished book Baldwin hoped to write about three of his friends assassinated for their activism and vision: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to using excerpts from the manuscript, Peck weaves his own thoughts about cinema’s history of representation of Black people to elegiac and damning effect.
Between the World and Me (2020)
Producer Roger Ross Williams and director Kamilah Forbes document the 2020 gathering at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater for a reading of Coates’ book. Readers are a who’s who of intellectual, artistic and activist heft. Some of the notables reading excerpts: Angela Davis, Janet Mock, Angela Bassett, Mahershala Ali, Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce and Coates himself.
Sometimes you just don’t paint the lily. Case in point: Reginald Hudlin’s illuminating doc about Sidney Poitier. Hudlin doesn’t resort to filmmaking flourishes but instead trusts an insightful roster of talking heads to pay homage to and offer insights about this man of impressive humility, resounding talent and a string of firsts: first Black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar (Lilies of the Field, 1963) and first Black director to have a film exceed $100 million at the box office (Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder). Hudlin also leans into compelling interviews between Poitier and Oprah Winfrey (the doc’s producer) to tell the story of the legendary actor and great American.
Watch it: Sidney on Apple TV+
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)
This Oscar winner is a shimmering example of what the archives can yield if you’re sincere about looking. The footage of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival sat in boxes for decades with few execs interested in the trove, because for so long Woodstock was treated as the only significant pop music gathering of its kind. While amazing things were indeed taking place on Yasgur’s Farm, Black and brown people crowded Mount Morris Park for six weekends that same summer. The terrific editing of that performance footage — with the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Mahalia Jackson — would have been enough to gladden the heart and drop the jaw, but director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson does so much more. He speaks with some of the performers who took the stage during the fest, but more vividly interviews people who attended the happening when they were kids or teens. The impressions left on them were indelible; the memories they share touching and invaluable.
Sing Your Song (2011)
This documentary about the ascendancy and purpose-led life of Harry Belafonte, directed by Susanne Rostock, makes clear that the singer-entertainer was one of the first celebrities to leverage his astounding popularity in the services of his deeply held values during the television age.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show (2020)
It was 1968 and Harry Belafonte was thriving. At utter ease, the star took Johnny Carson’s seat for a week in February. During his stint, guests included Lena Horne, poet Marianne Moore and singer Eartha Kitt (who’d been virtually blacklisted because of antiwar comments she’d made to Lady Bird Johnson the month prior). But the “get” of all gets might have been guests Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, who would announce his presidential run the following month. It was the last sit-down TV interview for either man.
Mr. Soul! (2018)
Melissa Haizlip presents a documentary on her uncle Ellis Haizlip, whose 1968-’73 series Soul! was TV’s only national variety show by, for and about Black people. Mr. Soul! won a Peabody Award, Critics Choice Documentary Award and Best Music Doc from the International Documentary Association. With its archival parade of guests — Amiri Baraka, the Lost Poets, actor Novella Nelson and Stevie Wonder — the film offers a thrilling, Soul Train-like line of Black Arts Movement luminaries.
My Name Is Pauli Murray (2021)
Consider this documentary a biography of one of the most vital human rights mavericks you may never have heard of. RBG directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen were introduced to the significance of Murray by the Supreme herself: Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Murray’s use of the 14th amendment to advocate for women’s rights for her own work on gender discrimination. Murray, who questioned her sexuality at an early age, has become a beacon of LGBTQ+ rights, too.
Watch it: My Name Is Pauli Murray on Prime Video
Black History Month invites us to reckon with the nation’s outrages and failings, the better to keep working for “a more perfect union.” Sam Pollard’s well-crafted documentary serves as a chilling reminder of how the government can be hijacked and wielded to thwart American possibility. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI surveilled Martin Luther King Jr., and worse, as this film reveals.
Watch it: MLK/FBI on Hulu
4 Little Girls (1997)
Spike Lee’s documentary about the domestic terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, and the killings of youngsters Addie May Collins (14), Carol “Denise” McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14) on September 15, 1963, remains a rending must-watch.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)
Director Göran Olsson mined the footage made by Swedish camera crews over the years they visited the U.S. to cover the Black Power movement. Then he created a soundtrack for his assemblage with voice-over insights from those inspired by the activism and a soundtrack with songs from Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Gladys Knight & the Pips, to name a few.
The 1619 Project (2023)
With the help of producer Oprah Winfrey and an impressive collection of talented filmmakers, Hulu has turned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ celebrated (and contested) New York Times Magazine series into a six-part docuseries. Hannah-Jones hosts the show about the arrival of slavery to the U.S. in 1619 and how it has defined the United States. Each episode takes its lead from one of her essays. The 1619 Project premiered Jan. 26; the final episode will be available Feb. 9.
Watch it: The 1619 Project on Hulu
Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-96) and Denver Post film critic (2003-15) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post, and others.