Black History Month on PBS's Independent Lens

Our programming aims to celebrate black history more than just during the month February, but Black History Month is certainly a great time to pause and reflect on African American history both distant and recent. We’ve collected some of our favorite Independent Lens films that delve into different aspects of black history and culture through the years.

Seek out these films, and then watch two brand new documentaries airing this month, starting with Monday’s premiere of Thomas Allen Harris’s film Through a Lens Darkly, and continuing the following week with American Denial, which will surely start conversations in living rooms across the nation.


The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rightsrevisits the contributions of a less-celebrated member [of the Civil Rights Movement], Whitney M. Young Jr.,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times. “In doing so it reminds us how much turbulence there was behind the touchstone marches and speeches of the era. You’re also aware that Young’s approach had its limits, especially as the Vietnam War became a polarizing issue. Young had worked closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson on civil rights and economic matters, but he found himself in an awkward spot as Dr. King and other black leaders came out against the war. In turbulent times a moderate man is sometimes in the most uncomfortable position of all.” In that sense the film makes for a fascinating companion piece to the recent feature Selma.

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Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock is a moving portrait of another underappreciated figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Bates forced Little Rock’s Central High School to desegregate in one of the seminal moments of the fight for civil rights.  [Note to Arkansas folks: the film is being screened for free on Feb. 16 at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.]

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness is by two of the filmmakers behind the aforementioned Independent Lens film American Denial and would make a swell double-feature with that documentary. Wrote Cynthia Fuchs: “The story of Melville J. Herskovits is at once familiar and peculiar. ‘I think of him as kind of like the Elvis of black American studies,’ says Harvard historian Vincent Brown. Like Presley, he appropriates from an existing culture, in his study and support of black Americans at a time of overt racism and oppression, the 1930s–‘50s. But even as he ‘mainstreams some of these ideas about the relationship between Africa and African American culture,’ Herskovits also misunderstands, exploits, and evaluates his object of study. And so his relationship to that object remains vexed.”

The Trials of Muhammad Ali: He may have been the World Champion in the ring, but the toughest fight of boxer Muhammad Ali’s life was held outside the sports arena. Watch Bill Siegel’s fascinating portrait of Ali’s protests against the Vietnam War, and read this comic created exclusively for Independent Lens by artist Gavin Aung Than. Of the film, Jamie Rich wrote, “the emergent image is of a man who valued his convictions above all else, as tenacious and bold in his personal life as he was in the ring.”

Available on DVD via Shop PBS | Also now streaming on Netflix Instant

Music & Culture:

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is an unusual documentary in that it is a compilation of footage shot by Swedish journalists documenting the Black Power movement in the U.S., and wasn’t edited together until decades later by contemporary Swedish filmmaker Göran Olsson. Read this fascinating review by Wesley Morris, in which he concludes: “[T]his isn’t a work of propaganda or heart-tugging. Olsson doesn’t tell us how to feel. He doesn’t have to. His sharing this footage is a moral act whose righteousness can stand on its own. The material obviates the need for an outsider’s commentary. It’s powerful, vivid, inspiring, demoralizing, and damning enough to speak for itself.” And what musically inclined documentary would be complete without a companion Spotify playlist to bop along to after you see the film (or, heck, even before).

Available on DVD via Shop PBS

Soul Food Junkies: Shift from music to food with Byron Hurt’s “highly personal, often funny film [exploring] how traditional Southern comfort fare became entwined with African American identity. The film questions whether this food, often loaded with salt, fat, and sugar, is doing its consumers more harm than good” (via NPR). Afterward, hold the guilt with these 8 healthy soul food-inspired recipes.

Available on DVD via Shop PBS | Also available to stream on Amazon Instant Video

When I Rise is the the inspiring story of Barbara Smith Conrad, who broke ground as an African American opera singer in Texas during a time of segregation (and very few African American opera singers). Read more about Conrad’s story and the film in this New York Times feature, “With a Voice and a Spirit, Triumphing Over Racism.”

Available on DVD via Shop PBS


More Than a Month: For an alternate, provocative take on Black History Month, an African American filmmaker thinks being relegated to a single month is actually an insult, and embarks on a cross-country campaign to show why. You can also take your own journey across the landscape of African American history with an accompanying app the filmmaker created, called “More than a Map(p).”

Let the Fire Burn: A startling story set in the ’70s and ’80s but, wrote David Edelstein, filmmaker Jason Osder “has made a documentary that’s astonishingly in the present tense.” It is, adds Tasha Robinson, “a fascinating look at official overreaction, government overreach, and the corrupting effects of prejudice on powerful institutions.”

Available on DVD via Shop PBS | Also now streaming on Netflix Instant

Spies of Mississippi, another film about the past that still feels eerily timely, tells the story of how the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission tried to derail the Civil Rights Movement. “Weaving together fascinating interviews with images of the Commission’s surveillance photos and thousands upon thousands of files on the people they watched—some of them active civil rights workers, others everyday people—Spies of Mississippi is as cohesive as it is engaging, another interesting portrait of a time in our past too often regarded as a sort of ancient history,” wrote Zeba Blay for Indiewire. “Here, the links between the activities of the Sovereignty Commission and our government’s activities today are made clear, ending on a disturbing but thought provoking final note that asks the viewer to always question the morality of a government that spies on its citizens.”

DVD available via Shop PBS | Also now streaming on Netflix Instant

See all Independent Lens films about African American culture and history.