Best Documentaries to Watch During Black History Month
It's almost February, which marks the beginning of Black History Month here in the United States. And while Black History Month has always been important, it seems ever more poignant in 2021 following last year and the major racial and economic injustices America faced. While these injustices unfortunately weren't new for our country, there was an overwhelming emphasis on educating and understanding people of color last year and the struggles they face daily.
At Hangover Hoodies, we see the importance of continually learning, listening, and educating ourselves on what it's like to be a person of color in America. That's why we believe this February is the perfect time to revisit documentaries centered around the experiences and stories of people of color in America.
Below we've shared a couple of documentaries recommended by Ashley Oken and Leah Marilla Thomas of Cosmopolitan, where we learn the history of Black people in America and how to become better allies in the future.
Until recently, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia who traveled to D.C. to get legally married only to face a massive legal battle and jail time when they returned home, was not common knowledge. The American Civil Liberties Union took on their case and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Their victory marked a turning point, and 16 states overturned bans on interracial marriage in response—all because of one sweet, unassuming couple. Or if you want a fictional take on this story instead, check out Loving (2016) starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
It’s a bit of an obvious choice—interest in Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary that explores James Baldwin’s unfinished work spiked in June 2020. But that doesn’t make Baldwin’s words and how he remembers figures from the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers) any less important. The documentary underlines the connection between the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement, which unfortunately still needs to be reiterated over and over.
You’ll need a library card to stream this documentary, but it’s absolutely worth it. Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions tracks the history of anti-Black stereotypes in popular culture, particularly cartoons, and how those harmful depictions have evolved from the antebellum period to the 1980s. We’ve all been coded with racist imagery since birth and we still see variations on the “mammy,” “magical negro,” and other tropes in films and television today. If you’ve ever been told that a popular film is racist and you didn’t think it was a big deal, this is the doc for you.
If you need proof that protests work and young people can make a difference, look no further than the story of the Freedom Riders, who pushed back against Jim Crow laws in the American South in 1961. This group of hundreds of activists included Representative John Lewis and brought an unprecedented amount of attention to segregation and troubles on the home front when national attention had turned overseas.
5.) 13th (2016)
The 13th amendment officially ended slavery in the United States back in 1865, and Netflix’s 13th, named after that amendment, delves into why slavery never really ended and was basically just replaced with mass incarceration. Directed by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the film puts the country’s history of racial inequality on full display through the lens of the nation’s prisons, which are disproportionately filled with Black Americans.
Dark Girls explores the deep-seated biases within Black culture against those of darker skin tones. This doc, which was nominated for a 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary, is filled with interviews from children, award-winning actresses, and Black female comedians who have experienced this bias. An equally powerful follow-up documentary, Dark Girls 2, goes even deeper on the prejudices that dark-skinned women face culturally and globally.
Okay, this technically falls more into the “biopic” category because it’s a fictionalization of real events, but we’re putting it here anyway. Another Ava DuVernay creation, this Netflix series illustrates the story of the Exonerated Five—formerly known as the Central Park Five—both artfully and powerfully. This four-part limited series tells the story of how the five men, four who are Black and one who is Latino, were falsely accused of and prosecuted for raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park. The series serves as a reminder of how badly the justice system has failed people of color (and continues to do so).
Directed by award-winning documentarian David France, this Netflix film investigates the 1992 death of transgender activist and trailblazer Marsha P. Johnson (pictured above), who was found floating in the Hudson River. Originally ruled a suicide, many believe she was murdered. If you thought the fight for LGBTQ+ rights was over, this documentary will remind you that we’re far from done.
Another movie that isn’t technically a documentary but is still based on true events, this Netflix film delves into the minds of four Black soldiers who fought in the Vietnam war during a time when their people were actively being oppressed back home. Weaving social commentary and hard-hitting emotions together, this Spike Lee movie will make you reexamine what you might have learned about Vietnam in your U.S. history class.