In the spirit of President Obama’s empathic words, we curated a collection of movies, documentaries, and television shows that reflect on America’s history of racism, celebrate the achievements of black social activists, and highlight a range of experiences of black communities.
Whether in honor of Black History Month each February, or for a good dose of perspective any time of year, here are 20 films and shows to watch that put black lives front and center.
Director Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age film chronicles the life of a young black man named Chiron in three defining chapters. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes star as Chiron at various points in his life (child, teen, and adult, respectively) in this must-watch Academy Award–winning film.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures is another biopic. This one tells the previously untold, true story of three women who played a vital role to help launch the first American astronaut into orbit. Three mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, brought their brilliance to NASA during this incredible moment in history.
This inspiring documentary follows a Baltimore high school step team as they attempt to win a championship. Director Amanda Lipitz’s film focuses on the high school seniors on the team as they prepare for the competition, and college. Notably, Michelle Obama loved this uplifting film.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Based on the unfinished book by author James Baldwin, Remember This House, I Am Not A Negro is a documentary that reflects on the civil rights movement. Upon its release in 2017, the The New York Times described the documentary as the film that “will make you rethink race.”
Ava DuVernay’s provocative documentary delves into America’s prison system, where 25 percent of the world’s population is incarcerated, reports NPR. The film highlights oft-overlooked effects the Constitution’s 13th Amendment has had on black communities around the country. In that same NPR report, DuVernay explains, “The documentary was built for two different kinds of audiences – folks out there that know about this and folks out there that have never heard of it.”
Available on: Netflix
School Daze (1988)
Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee, School Daze traces the academic year of two cousins and their extra-curricular pursuits. Though School Daze is largely a comedy, the film illuminates class discrimination and sexism within the Black community.
Whose Streets? (2017)
In this documentary, activist filmmakers chronicle protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death in 2014. Firsthand accounts and powerful footage pull you into the community and offer an emotional and intimate point of view.
The Color Purple (1985)
Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker’s novel comes to life in the cinematic adaptation of The Color Purple. Whoopi Goldberg plays protagonist Celie, seemingly trapped by layers of oppression—by racism, by her sharecropper husband (played by Danny Glover), by the early 20th century South. The women she encounters throughout the film may be her only hope.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
This Oscar-nominated biographical documentary highlights the life of infamous American singer and Black Power movement icon, Nina Simone. The film, directed by Liz Garbus, includes never-before-seen clips of performances and interviews with friends and loved ones that create an intimate portrait of Simone, and is told from her daughter’s point of view.
After serving a 28-day prison sentence, a transgender sex worker learns her boyfriend (and pimp) has been cheating on her. Armed with this information, she teams up with her best friend to track him and his new lover down to teach them a lesson.
Black Panther (2018)
To date, Black Panther has been Marvel’s most successful movie in its cinematic history, reported Vox in 2018. And it’s abundantly clear why. The film portrays the nation of Wakanda and its black characters with multifaceted strength, heroism, and nuance. Our protagonist, T’Challa, must return home to Wakanda to succeed the throne following his father’s death, and faces fatal opposition.
Get Out (2017)
The New York Times praised Jordan Peele’s Get Out as “a meme generator, a social critique, and a metaphor for our times.” In this movie, the dreaded relationship milestone of meeting the parents takes an especially horrifying turn.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Michael B. Jordan stars as 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the biopic, Fruitvale Station. The film, directed by Ryan Coogler, follows events leading up to the night an unarmed Grant was shot and killed by police at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California.
Malcolm X (1992)
One of the foremost public figures of the civil rights movement and challengers of nonviolent protest upheld by Martin Luther King, Jr., gets the Hollywood treatment. Directed by Spike Lee, Denzel Washington plays the outspoken and controversial Malcolm X (formerly Malcolm Little), who converted to Islam while serving jail time. Part of X’s transformation would be his rise as public activist, which the film follows in three parts, until his inevitable assassination in February, 1965.
Queen Sugar (2016)
Produced by Oprah Winfrey and award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Queen Sugar unspools the story of the estranged Bordelon siblings. When a family tragedy forces them to reunite, siblings return to the family-run sugar cane farm in Louisiana.
Show creator Issa Rae, known for her popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, stars as Issa Dee in this series. Issa navigates complicated romances, burgeoning friendships, and tricky work situations in Los Angeles.
Underground, a historical drama about the Underground Railroad made The New York Times list of Best TV Shows of 2017. Set in the 1850s, the series illuminates heroic people of the time. As the Times mentions, Aisha Hinds’s performance as Harriet Tubman is outstanding.
If you’re a fan of family sitcoms, Black-ish is a must-watch series that fuses familiar tropes of the genre with plots that touch on specific issues that affect black families, including racism and police brutality. If you already love this show, check out Freeform’s spinoff series Grown-ish.