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21 Best Feature Films and Documentaries about Black Americans

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The quest to become a more effective ally of the Black community in the U.S. begins with an earnest attempt to understand the actual lived experience of African-Americans. There are many ways to do so. One is by watching one or more of the masterful films about Black lives and race in America. There are hundreds of them, and we have curated a list of 21 excellent films to start with. What movies are the best to watch to better understand Black lives in America and the corrosive effects of racism? These are our picks of 21 of the best, most insightful feature films and documentaries to watch made by and/or about African-Americans and the history of Black people in the U.S.

insightful feature films and documentaries about Black Americans

Many people are looking to educate themselves on the racism, discrimination and violence that Black people have endured for four centuries in the United States. While none of these problems are new, in recent years more people than ever seem to be open to trying to empathize, understand, learn and change. And of course, one of the best ways to walk in someone else’s shoes is through film.

These 21 films provide an informative and empathetic glimpse into the Black experience in America. And shed light on the ways in which the systems that we rely upon have been designed to systemically reward one group at the expense of all the others.

21 Feature Films and Documentaries Best about Black Americans and their history

Here are almost two dozen of the many outstanding and insightful documentaries and feature films that are a good place to start if movies are one of the entry points you find most helpful when trying to understand what it really means to be Black in America.

Documentaries

1. 13th

13th is quite possibly the single most important movie to come out of the last decade. Directed by legendary filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the documentary traces a devastating line through America’s history, connecting the dots of systemic racism all the way from the Civil War through the moment of Trump’s ascension to the Presidency.

best films black lives matter

Consider it an Oscar-nominated crash course in America’s prison industrial complex, and the way in which systems like this one simply replaced slavery as methods of racial control in the United States.  If you haven’t already seen this one, make it your first watch from this list.

Where to Watch: Netflix

2. The Black Panthers : Vanguard of the Revolution

Directed and written by Stanley Nelson Jr, this documentary about the foundation of the Black Panther Party premiered at Sundance in 2015.

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With a combination of interviews and archival footage, it offers a comprehensive view of the party’s birth and rise, showing the obstacles they met in their struggle for systemic revolution. It offers a necessary history lesson on the Party, which has so often been mischaracterized in later accounts.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime and PBS

3. I  Am Not Your Negro

Samuel L. Jackson narrates an unfinished essay from James Baldwin, called Remember This House. It’s a searing and poignant account of the author’s relationships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.

best films black lives matter

Getting to hear Baldwin’s words read aloud in this way, illuminated by news clips and images, is an incomparable experience. We are lucky to have his perspective on America to inform us.

Where to Watch: Amazon, Hulu and Kanopy

4. LA 92

Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin have directed an unforgettable documentary, putting archival footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots together with footage of other related rebellions and politicians’ responses.

There is a particular power in documentaries that do not include any voiceover or commentary, and here the directors have simply allowed the raw moments that the camera captured to speak for themselves.

Where to Watch: Netflix and Hulu

5. Whose Streets?

There could not be a more appropriate film to watch right now. Directed by Sabaah Folayan, this vital documentary covers everything about the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown.

best movies black lives matter
One of the best films about black lives and the corrosive impact of race in America: Whose Streets? Courtesy Photo.

Watch it to understand the ways in which, all around the United States, racism has not only not gone away.  It has really never changed much at all.

Where to Watch: Hulu

6. When They See Us

Though Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a miniseries and not a movie, it is essential enough viewing that it merited inclusion here.

best movies black lives matter
One of the best films about black lives and the corrosive impact of race in America: When They See Us. Courtesy Photo.

It is a further, brutal deconstruction of the failings of our legal system. It follows the lives of the five innocent young men.  Their lives were torn apart by accusations that they assaulted a woman in Central Park. Whatever you may know about the Central Park Five, you must watch this series if you have not already.

Where to Watch: Netflix

7. Boss: The Black Experience in Business

This PBS documentary traces the lives, achievements, and innovations of Black entrepreneurs throughout America’s history. Directed by Stanley Nelson, the film explores the tumultuous and little-known history of Black entrepreneurship in America. And the overwhelming odds Black Americans have faced and overcome to succeed in business.

Where to Watch: PBS

8. BLACK BOYS

The critically-acclaimed Peacock original documentary Black Boys illuminates the full spectrum of black boys and men in America. In a quest to uncover the sources of black male identity, the feature film focuses squarely on the nexus of sports, education and criminal justice.

Where to Watch: Peacock

9. Harry & Meghan

We were riveted by this 6-part documentary, produced by the Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan Markle. While many people may have found it most informative about the House of Windsor, life in the Royal Family and the British press, we found it most insightful in its honest portrayal of what it was like growing up biracial in LA. And how black identity can come to the fore when outsiders decide to make it the defining characteristic of one’s existence.

Photo by Chris Jackson/Chris Jackson/Getty Images.

Meghan seems initially perplexed at why her race and upbringing are so alienating (read: horrifying) to the British public. By the end, she’s clear on the fact that no matter how she sees herself, the world views her as Black. And Harry is clear about how much he missed and took for granted about his family’s character – and his own – before marrying a woman of color. And how it felt to see his marriage trigger the collapse of his closest family relationships.

Where to Watch; Netflix

10. WHO WE ARE: A Chronicle of Racism in America

WHO WE ARE: A Chronicle of Racism in America interweaves lectures, personal anecdotes, interviews, and shocking revelations. Criminal defense/civil rights lawyer Jeffery Robinson draws a stark timeline of anti-Black racism in the United States, from slavery to the modern myth of a post-racial America. The film debuted at the SXSW Film Festival.

11. SUMMER OF SOUL (or when the revolution could not be televised)

The 2021 documentary Summer of Soul is a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage of this alternative Woodstock was largely forgotten. Until Questlove made it into an Oscar-winning film. Summer of Soul premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Watch it if for no other reason than to catch the incredible performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.

Where to Watch: Hulu

12. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland

Say Her Name is a 2018 documentary recounting the true story of the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland after a routine traffic stop in Texas. The official report was that she died by her own hand while in prison. But this multi-layered and deeply reported film shows how the local police and the national mood of impatience with any discussion about race and incarceration conspired to create the conditions that led to such a tragic outcome.

Feature Films

13. If Beale Street Could Talk

From Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), the adaptation of the James Baldwin novel is first and foremost a love story. Tish and Fonny’s lives are turned upside down by two events: when Tish discovers she is expecting a baby; and when Fonny is falsely accused of a crime and arrested.

best films black lives matter
The Best Films and Documentaries about Black Americans.

The film is resolutely radiant from beginning to end, drawing into even sharper relief the unjust systems that thwart this beautiful couple and their families through what would otherwise be a joyful story of adolescent romance.

Where to Watch: Hulu

14. Selma

Ava DuVernay knocks it out of the park with this sweeping and emotional historic picture, which preserves on film the march that fought to eliminate voting restrictions for Black people in the United States.

David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King Jr. is impossible to forget, with an incredible supportive cast bringing to life this quintessential moment in history.

Where to Watch: Netflix

15. Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s iconic film about the hottest day of the summer is a cinematic masterclass in showing, rather than telling. For two thirds of the movie, you watch as the tensions of racism and gentrification swarm between characters’ interactions and relationships, until at last everything explodes in some of the most memorable movie minutes of all time.

Though it was made in 1989, there is an eerie and horrific timelessness to its concluding events, making this film as necessary a watch now as ever before.

Where to Watch: Amazon (for rental or purchase), or anywhere you can rent movies

16. The Hate U Give

Starr Carter’s life is changed forever when her best friend, Khalil, is murdered by police right in front of her eyes. Based on Angie Thomas’s bestselling young adult novel, George Tillman Jr’s film tells a story that feels all too familiar.

best movies black lives matter
One of the most insightful films about black lives and the corrosive impact of race in America: The Hate U Give. Courtesy Photo.

It does what fictional movies do best, and grants the viewer temporary passage into the mind of a young girl who has to live in a reality that her white classmates at school cannot understand. Though it puts the issue of police brutality front and center, it takes care to spotlight the other forms of racism that Starr has to endure on a daily basis.

Where to Watch: HBO Max and Hulu

17. Blindspotting

Written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting is a story about two best friends living in the city of Oakland. Though the same issues of racism and police brutality run through the center of this story, they manifest in a friendship where Collin (Diggs) often pays the price for Miles’s (Casal) unhinged behavior.

best movies black lives matter
One of the most insightful films about black lives and the corrosive impact of race in America: Blindspotting. Courtesy Photo.

This is a nuanced look at how racial inequality can permeate even the closest relationships. It shows how it can lead two men who have lived such similar lives in two different directions.

Where to Watch: HBO Max

18. Just Mercy

Based on the book by Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy is an account of the author’s own work as a defense attorney in Alabama. Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, with Jamie Foxx starring as Walter McMillan, the innocent death row inmate who Stevenson represented in court.

best feature films and documentaries to watch about African-Americans and the history of Black people in the U.S.
Best feature films and documentaries to watch about African-Americans and the history of Black people in the U.S. Just Mercy. Courtesy Photo.

The film drives home the decay at the very center of the US legal system. It is an extremely moving portrayal of Stevenson’s fight for justice.

Where to Watch: Amazon (for rent), or anywhere you can rent movies

19. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is adapted from Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name. This HBO feature film tells the true life story of Henrietta Lacks. Her cancer cells were illegally harvested in 1951.  They subsequently led to significant breakthroughs in medicine, saving thousands of lives, and rendering her “immortal,”  against her will. Told through the eyes of her daughter Deborah Lacks (played by Oprah Winfrey). This is what to watch to better understand the health care crisis that is part of what is fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a devastating examination of the grim history of racial discrimination in the medical field. And the grave impact of racism on Black patients.

Where to Watch: HBO

20. Passing

In the 2021 film Passing, mixed-race childhood friends from high school reunite in middle class adulthood and become increasingly involved in each other’s lives and insecurities. While Irene identifies as African-American and is married to a Black doctor, Clare “passes” as white and has married a prejudiced, wealthy white man.

Where to Watch: Netflix

21. Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is a feature film based on a true story. After being offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on its charismatic Chairman Fred Hampton. The tragic results speak volumes about the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover – and about the price of loyalty and freedom.

insightful feature films and documentaries about Black Americans

That’s our take on 21 of the best, most insightful feature films and documentaries to watch about African-Americans and the history of Black people in the U.S. What’s at the top of your list, dear reader?

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