, which comes around every February, is a time to celebrate the achievements and diverse stories of Black Americans, reflect on the past and work toward a future free of .
To mark Black History Month, the CNET team has come up with a list of movies and TV shows that explore the triumphs and challenges of the Black experience. This is, of course, just a sampling of the vast range of content available on Black life and history. Got your own picks? Please share them in the comments. Ready? Here we go.
Where applicable, the shows and movies below are listed at subscription services where they’re available to stream at no extra charge. Otherwise, we’ve linked to Amazon, where they can be rented or purchased — but those picks should also be available at vendors like Vudu, iTunes and the like.
HBO’s Watchmen is one of the best television shows of the last decade. Damon Lindelof, of Lost fame (and perhaps more germanely, a showrunner on HBO’s spectacular show The Leftovers), was probably testing fate when he decided not simply to adapt, but rather to continue perhaps the greatest graphic novel ever written. Yet his fusion of the classic superhero story with Black history, contemporary politics and an impulse to subvert the rote roles of minorities in modern media created the most wildly entertaining and inventive show I’ve seen in years — and it’s the perfect sequel to a perfect tale to boot.
At the center of Watchmen’s story is Regina King’s Angela Abar, a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, fighting to keep the influence of white supremacists at bay. The mystery of the show seems at first fairly standard (albeit set in an alternate reality). A crime is committed, a conspiracy appears to be afoot, and various investigators and interested parties descend on the city to get in on the action.
But each episode spirals out into more experimental territory, exploring American politics, generational identity, the cosmos, the meaning of life and love and time itself. Along the way, viewers get treated to incredible performances from a stellar cast (Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jean Smart are uniformly brilliant); mind-bending cold opens; and a warm, human heart at the center of it all.
If you want a true, uplifting story, Hidden Figures ticks all the boxes. The Oscar-nominated biopic follows the Black female mathematicians who were instrumental in helping NASA during the space race. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are the names that hopefully you’ll remember after watching, and the three women are brought to life by the unwaveringly excellent performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
One of the powers of big-screen Marvel superhero Black Panther is his suit’s ability to soak up the punishment from any attack — and then fire it right back at the attacker. That’s a nifty metaphor for this absolute riot of an action movie: a righteous riposte to centuries of oppression, absorbed and answered with a glorious, joyous celebration of Blackness.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
This biographical film details Jackie Robinson’s emergence as the first Black player in Major League Baseball. The late Chadwick Boseman may be known for Black Panther, but this may’ve been his most important role.
I am loving Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe. As with Black Mirror, each episode is narratively independent but thematically connected and explores a different story about the West Indian community in London from the late ’60s to the ’80s. A restaurant-turned-community center and a school for the so-called “educationally subnormal” are just two of the sites where these stories take place.
If I had to highlight only one episode, I’d go for the second, Lovers Rock. The plot may feel almost nonexistent, but the intense atmosphere and feeling of this joyful and sensual house party is unforgettable. Its soundtrack has been playing on repeat in my home since I watched it. It’s literally playing right now as I write this.
The 12 Years a Slave director said in a statement that he dedicated these films to George Floyd “and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are, in the US, UK and elsewhere.” He added, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Black Lives Matter.”
If you’re in the mood for a feel-good movie with a story of triumph over adversity, Queen of Katwe will more than satisfy. The best part is that it’s based on a true story about the first titled female chess player in Ugandan chess history, Phiona Mutesi. Life in the Katwe slum is a constant struggle, but everything changes when she learns how to play chess. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe is a winning checkmate.
Merie W. Wallace/HBO
I’ve adored every minute of Insecure, HBO’s hilarious, heartfelt and insightful comedy-drama exploring the contemporary Black experience through a group of female friends living in LA. Based on Issa Rae’s Web series Awkward Black Girl, the show stars Rae as free-spirited Issa Dee, who’s navigating friendship, romance, career and community alongside her best buddy, Molly (Yvonne Orji), and a group of their pals. The main characters are smart, witty, exuberant and, well, insecure. They’re also perfectly relatable.
The show manages to be one of the funniest out there without ever veering into the overwritten-sitcom trap. And through all their ups and downs, elation and embarrassment, the characters always come across as authentic, the kind of people you want to hang out with in real life. Please be my friend Issa Dee.
On the surface, this extraordinary documentary from Bing Liu is a love letter to skateboarding. But scratch a little deeper and you’ll find Minding the Gap’s vast depths. A rich and thoughtful tale of young people growing up in 21st century America, it explores domestic trauma, systemic racism and classism. It resonates beyond the skate park.
Nearly single-handedly leading the rise of the “visual album” (The Beatles started it all way back in the ’60s), Beyoncé and her Black Is King, melds together stunning visuals and music from the tie-in album she curated for the recent The Lion King. A “love letter to Africa,” the film’s story is told with the help of some of today’s outstanding black artists, including Beyoncé, who directs as well.
With unbelievable cinematography, a score featuring traditional African music, instantly iconic costume design and powerful cultural themes, every second of this personal work of art needs to be glued to your eyeballs.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
This still dazzling 1996 crime movie puts an impassioned twist on the heist genre with a cast of Black women including Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise pulling off a score. Smartly crafted and brilliantly acted, Set It Off is as relevant now as it was when it was made.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
Anyone who’s a fan of Michelle Obama should have already read her memoir and watched the companion documentary of the same name. In case you haven’t seen it, though, I can tell you it’s everything you would want it to be and more. It’s is a love letter to and from the former first lady.
Becoming follows the sold-out national book tour for her 2018 memoir, as she interacts with adoring fans, with young women aspiring to follow in her footsteps and with family members who let loose around her. You visit her childhood home and see how she overcame obstacles, met a young man named Barack and grew into the amazing woman she is.
I’ve (obviously) revered Michelle Obama ever since she stepped onto the national scene. But the documentary gave me a chance to get to know her as a person and to enjoy her personality, style and determination anew.
Though Sylvie’s Love is, at its core, an old-fashioned love story, its dewy romance is remarkably refreshing: a period drama centered on Black people that isn’t dominated by issues of race and bigotry. Set in an aesthetically enchanting ’60s New York City, it follows Sylvie and Robert, who have a chance to reconnect after a summer romance five years ago. Both work in music, and the film’s soundtrack, featuring Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and more, helps transport you to this glowing place.
Eddie Murphy returned from his acting break with a glorious performance as Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian who played a character called Dolemite in stand-up routines and blaxploitation films from the ’70s. Dolemite Is My Name, from 2019, follows Moore from his job at a record store to the big screen. Tracking Moore’s rise to fame and its bizarre and enthralling turns, Dolemite Is My Name does justice to both Moore’s and Murphy’s talents.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
Four months before Black Panther came out, Chadwick Boseman starred in this quiet movie that delved into the early life of a real-life hero: civil rights crusader Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice in the United States.
Set in April 1941, Marshall introduces us to the then-32-year-old head lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who travels around the country defending Black people who have been accused of crimes because of their race. Played by a self-assured Boseman, Marshall is sent to Connecticut to defend Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who’s been wrongly accused of the rape of his employers’s wife, a white socialite played by Kate Hudson. Marshall needs a co-counselor who’s based in the state and knows local laws. He turns to a reluctant and unconvinced white insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman (an earnest Josh Gad), to be his lead counsel and argue it wasn’t rape but consensual sex.
As you watch the story unfold, you realize just how much of an uphill battle Marshall and Friedman faced in convincing an all-white jury that a Black man accused by a white woman was innocent — even though the socialite’s story is filled with inconsistencies and the police know it.
Spoiler: Marshall and Friedman prevail and Spell is found not guilty. It’s a powerful moment, a victory for racial justice in the US. But as we think about Black Lives Matter and the events of 2020, the movie is also a reminder of how much things haven’t changed. Even so, Marshall’s win sets the groundwork for his many other legal victories, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. He argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court — winning 29 of them — before being appointed to the court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET
A bunch of concert films on HBO Max provide tuneful snapshots of the 20th century’s iconic musical movements. One of them, Wattstax, is a funky fresh film of a 1972 “Black Woodstock” in LA featuring the soul, funk and jazz artists of Stax Records, such as Isaac Hayes, interspersed with introductions by Richard Pryor.
This 2016 documentary about author James Baldwin is phenomenal. It’s simply one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Baldwin was a deep thinker and a powerful speaker who fearlessly exposed racism. His insights into his lived experience as a Black man in America floor me. His devastating observations at the start of the civil rights movement in the 1950s until his death in the 1980s still ring absolutely true today. This is utterly depressing, but it also shows that Baldwin was extraordinarily prescient.
The documentary features archival footage, including the birth of the Black Lives Matter protest movement after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But if you didn’t know better, you’d swear the footage came from the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
That may be why Baldwin’s decades-old insights still feel so current.
I started Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom not knowing what to expect, other than that it was the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, whose sudden death last year still fills me with sadness. It’s a bit slow at first and awkwardly paced, with dialogue that feels like it came from a stage play.
Turns out, this is exactly that: a film adaptation of a 1982 August Wilson play. I think it helps to know that going in, as you can stop waiting for it to become a “movie” and just settle in for the small, self-contained story about two struggling musicians — the eponymous singer and her troubled trumpet-player.
They’re played by Viola Davis and Boseman, respectively, and, just, wow. I refuse to spoil anything, other than to say the story is wrenching at times, the performances dazzling.
Spike Lee’s best movies seemed to be behind him after the early aughts, but after a few duds, he’s returned to form by, well, returning to forms. That is, he’s using genre structures (like the cop movie and the war movie) as frameworks for his distinctively preachy (in the best kind of way) form of storytelling. Lee’s best movies, with Do the Right Thing standing clearly atop the heap, are argumentative, to understate it. They’re in your face, trying less to convince you and more to confront you.
Da 5 Bloods, about four aging men who return to Vietnam to recover gold they stashed in the jungle during their tour in the war, is the same: Shots repeat themselves to hammer home moments of significance, memories insert themselves as flashbacks yet keep the rememberers the same age no matter their context, and at a climactic moment of the film, a character addresses the camera in extended monologue.
And it works — the clever allusions to war films of yore, the deeply human moments of connection and alienation, all of it. It works because Lee is so attuned to characters in all their particularity, and the actors capture that particularity with a natural charisma. Delroy Lindo steals the show, but Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and the rest of the cast shine.
And as a film capturing and commenting on Black history and American history writ large? Few can match it.
Blindspotting is one of those movies you don’t forget. The film tackles issues of racism and gentrification (particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area) and is punctuated by jarring comedy. This makes it not only an incredibly entertaining piece of art, but an important one that paints a stark image of the impact systemic racism has on communities and individuals. Its message extends beyond the Bay Area to an entire nation that has long overlooked the impact of its policies and continuous marginalization of communities of color.
Sony Pictures Animation
There was no question which movie would win best animated feature at the 2018 Oscars. Into the Spider-Verse stole hearts by boldly ignoring the fact we’ve had three cinematic Peter Parkers and introducing five more. They stem from Marvel’s multiverse, wisely made less complicated by producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who focus on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the graffiti artist, hip-hop-appreciating version of Spidey. Morales teams up with the versions from other universes — including a bizarre and completely hilarious cartoon pig known as Peter Porker — to fight supervillain Kingpin.
Over 140 animators combined computer animation with a hand-drawn style to mimic a comic book look. Inventive visuals, fresh storytelling and embracing the comic books’ wackiness helped make the first nonwhite Spider-Man one of the best.
Get Out is the modern horror movie, the perfect coming together of horror, comedy and satire on racism. The setup to the punch line — or in horror’s case, the jump scare — takes exact timing. As one half of comedy duo Key & Peele, Jordan Peele is extremely well-equipped to achieve both. His directorial debut has a scarily loaded setup: a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his white girlfriend’s (Alison Williams) middle-class liberal parents. Their comments about how fine they are with their daughter’s boyfriend are comedy gold… with a delayed squirm. Peele’s exciting new voice brought horror, laughs and deeply unsettling self-reflection.