Black History Month is a great time for reflecting on the epic story of the African people who were brought here in bondage before their contributions to American culture made the music, art, literature and politics of our country unique in the world. Check out these streaming stories about black faces, black dreams, and black struggle, and learn about how they helped to make us all red, white and blue.
4 Little Girls (1997) – Spike Lee’s historical documentary illuminates the 1963 murder of four black girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Al. The film is a passion project that took Lee a decade to make after being inspired by a Times Magazine article he read during his first semester at N.Y.U. The film captures Birmingham at the height of the black struggle for civil rights, documenting the unspeakable violence and repression that boiled over in that community before the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. – available on Amazon Prime
Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene (2008) – Loren Mendell’s portrait paints the picture of a onetime alcoholic and convicted criminal who went on to become an outrageous entertainer and an untiring social activist as a firebrand radio DJ/television personality in Washington, D.C. Petey Greene was a superstar in our nation’s capital from the middle of the 1960s to the middle of the 1980s, wielding a public persona that was made up of equal parts shock comic and empowering community leader. Greene saw the absurdity of poverty and racism, and he laughed at them. And by making others laugh, he also gave them the strength to fight. – available on Netflix
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (2011) – Goran Hugo Olsson’s spotlight on the Black Power Movement that emerged after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X is a treasure trove of images unearthed from long lost footage shot by Swedish journalists during the period in the film’s title. I’ve watched every documentary I’ve found about this movement, but this documentary offers a fresh perspective on a familiar story. This isn’t the definitive film about Black Power, but it’s an important one. – available on Netflix
Luke Cage (2016) – After wowing watchers by bringing Marvel comic characters like Jessica Jones and Daredevil to the small screen, Netflix added another winning hero to its roster last year with the first season of Luke Cage. The series is really good when it’s focused on its signature hero, but it’s exceptional when it zooms in the gritty details of Harlem street life, the ennui of overworked police, the sleazy slithering of corrupt politicos, and the young people who are drawn to the opportunities provided by drugs and guns before their desperate dealings payoff with tragic results. – available on Netflix
Barry (2016) – What better way to say goodbye to President Obama than to say hello to Barry, the young, naïve, shy Columbia undergrad who would go on to become the first black President of the United States of America. Barry reads like the origin story of Barack Obama, showing the beginnings of Obama’s social and racial consciousness as Barry begins to transform from a cigarette smoking, basketball shooting would-be philosopher into the man who would call the White House his home. – available on Netflix
Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) – Charles Burnett’s profile of slave-revolt leader Nat Turner is as much about black Americans struggling for freedom from bondage as it is about the difficulty of separating the actual person Turner was from the legend that he has become. Burnett shines a light on Turner by examining the leader from every angle – even including fictionalized accounts of Turner and his rebels. The result is a wide-ranging portrait that tells us as much about biographical filmmaking as it does about Turner. – available on Netflix
T-Rex: Her Fight for the Gold (2015) – Nowadays most the news out of Flint, Mich. is focused on that city’s economic decline and its ongoing water crisis. That’s really a shame because Flint also has something to be proud of in the form of boxer Claressa Shields – the only American boxer to win an Olympic title twice in a row. Shields took the gold in the Women’s Middleweight Division in both 2012 and 2016, and T-Rex tells the story of how Shields and her fatherly coach made history even as the addiction and instability that disrupted Shields’ family life threatened to put an end to her dreams. – available on Netflix