The most fascinating chapters of America’s past, including our stories of tragedy, pride, creativity, and triumph, are arguably contained in African American history. Black History Month is our yearly pop-up reminder to reconnect with these stories. Though, as last year’s Independent Lens documentary More Than a Month points out, why contain it to just one month? Here is a collection of African American history documentaries to watch throughout the year.
1. For a comprehensive view of the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize is tough to beat. The 14-hour documentary series was broadcast on PBS in 1987, and covers the time from the Brown v. Board decision to the Montgomery marches in just the first half of the series. The title comes from the folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a protest hymn during civil rights that plays as the opening theme to each episode. This stellar series was nominated for an Oscar.
2. Supposedly, Chris Rock made Good Hair after his daughter Lola asked “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” The resulting comedy documentary dissects the black hair industry through barber shops, salons, scientific laboratories that brew up hair straighteners, and the streets of India, where hair is exported for weaves. It features interviews with the Reverend Al Sharpton, T-Pain, Maya Angelou, and Salt-n-Pepa, among others.
3. Civil rights has been examined through many lenses, but few as fascinating as football. Breaking The Huddle: The Integration of College Football examines the pinnacle of the sport at historically black colleges in the South and Southwest and the lasting impact of the civil rights movement. The story’s climax chronicles the September 1970 game between University of Southern California and University of Alabama, pitting the stunning talents of running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham against Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
4. Black History Month typically addresses North American history, but why not include Latin America? The 2011 documentary Black in Latin America is the third in Professor Henry Louis Gates’s series for public television. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, more than 11 million Africans were taken to Latin America as slaves — 25 times more than the amount brought to the United States. Black in Latin America illuminates their heritage in the Caribbean and Central and South America, including influences of religion, gods, and music.
5. The word “Negro” was long associated with slavery, and leaders of the Black Power Movement phased it out and replaced it with the word “black” in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Black Power Mixtape (aired 2012 on Independent Lens) analyzes the growth of the movement through archival footage, including shots of Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver; music by Music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith; and interviews with African American activists, artists, and scholars. The movement’s leaders claimed African Americans had been striving toward “white ideals,” and it was finally time to follow their own.
6. From Ragtime to Louis Armstrong, from minstrel shows to the Harlem Renaissance, the story of jazz has played an integral role in African American history. The Ken Burns PBS miniseries Jazz features 10 two-hour episodes that offer a comprehensive course in the storied past of a cultural movement.
7. Against the backdrop of civil rights, another movement bubbled into the the mainstream: Kungfu. The Black Kungfu Experience outlines the rise of black Kungfu in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, and how it continues to impact martial arts from Washington, D.C. to Hong Kong. Throughout history, African American and Chinese experiences overlap in surprising ways: They challenge the social persecution of British colonialism in Hong Kong, the Qing rule in China, and American racism. The documentary shows how African Americans became champions in a sport “dominated by Chinese and white men.”
8. At times, history is best revealed through the lens of one person. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child gives a window into 1970s New York culture, high-selling graffiti in the pre-Banksy era, and racism in the art world. Basquiat “first became famous for his art, then he became famous for being famous, then he became famous for being infamous,” as Richard Marshall put it. His graffiti tag SAMO skyrocketed Basquiat to renown and financial success, but heroin became his downfall at the age of 27.