The Films and TV Shows That Capture The Black Experience with Love and Courage


Written by Mimi Anagli, Mitch CarrKara HeadleyAlexandra Hidalgo, and Allison Simpson
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Jennifer Bell and Iliana Cosme-Brooks

It seems difficult to imagine that anything could compete with the pain caused by COVID-19, but starting with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer back in May 2020, the systemic mistreatment of Black citizens in the US has constantly held our attention as more Black victims of police brutality emerge and protesters around the country demand justice. We at agnès films believe that having a better understanding of the Black experience can help prevent some of these atrocities. Films and TV have the power to help us empathize and connect with others at a deep level. Stories teach us about life, about ourselves, and about others. Well told stories help us develop an understanding—and with it respect and appreciation—for experiences that are different from our own. We have asked our readers to tell us about their favorite films, TV shows, and documentaries featuring Black characters and their lives. We hope you will join us in celebrating Black History Month by losing yourself in these spellbinding worlds so that, little by little, we can build a better society through watching and discussing these characters’ experiences. Tell us what you think after watching and whether we missed some of your favorite content on our Twitter, @agnesfilms, or our Instagram, @agnes.films

Films

Still from One Night in Miami... with all the characters wearing suits and sitting at a restaurant counter.
“Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) takes a photo of Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) celebrating after Clay’s historic boxing match.”

One Night in Miami… (2020), dir. Regina King

By Kara Headley

One Night in Miami… four prominent activists gather in a hotel room to celebrate the historic win of boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who will later be known as Muhammad Ali. The discussions they take part in that night forever change their sense of self and their roles in the US Civil Rights Movement. One Night marks the directorial debut for beloved Academy-Award-winning actor Regina King, and her years in the industry show through her craft and the powerful way in which she approaches this story. The film’s four leading men, minister and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football player and actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer and songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Clay, all have their own perceptions of their roles in the movement. How they perceive each other and the ways they choose to fight for the same cause raises tension between them. What carries this film is the actors’ dedication to their roles. The sets, camera work, and soundtrack are atmospheric, giving the film a dark, almost gritty feeling, while allowing for the four leading actors to really shine. Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcolm X is especially moving. He embodies the desperation and the dedication the real-life activist likely experienced as he fought for his community’s rights while keeping an eye out for the danger his position leant him and his family. The conversation Malcolm X leads in the film is harrowing because many of the struggles he describes, and the ways each of these men work to fix these issues are still relevant to the world we inhabit today. 80 years into the future, we can still take lessons from those at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. King’s directorial debut is one Hollywood will be buzzing about for years to come. One Night in Miami… is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Still from Daughters of the Dust with girls sitting on a beach under an umbrella
Women of the Peazant family enjoy a moment of closeness before their impending separation in Daughters of the Dust.

Daughters of the Dust (1991), dir. Julie Dash

By Alexandra Hidalgo

Daughters of the Dust is the sort of film that new generations keep on discovering and can’t stop talking about to whoever will listen. And if you’re a woman, well, then it’s a rite of passage to saunter down its hypnotic world. The ritualistic way in which so many of us engage with Julie Dash’s groundbreaking work stems, no doubt, from the fact that the film itself is brimming with rituals about how to go from childhood to womanhood while remaining connected to our roots. How do we develop our own identity while honoring our ancestors’ stories? It’s a question we ask ourselves throughout our lives and this film gives us ways to answer it through its magnetic characters and extraordinary visuals and writing. It’s 1902 and the Gullah inhabitants of St. Simons Island  have been able to hold on to their ancestral African roots and traditions by being isolated from mainstream American society. Narrated by a yet unborn daughter, the story follows three generations of the Peazant family as some of them decide to move to the mainland in search of economic and professional opportunities while others want to stay and protect their cultural heritage and connection to their forebears. As the characters struggle with the impending separation that will sever so much love and history, they also provide viewers with a spellbinding meditation on familial bonds and the literal magic with which African traditions and heritage bless their children, born and yet to be born. You can stream Daughters of the Dust on Kanopy.

Still from Moonlight, silhouette of the main character
Chiron (Alex Hibbert) on the beach under the moonlight.

Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins

By Mitch Carr

Moonlight is brimming with touching moments that depict the main character’s internal struggles. Chiron (played as he grows up by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) is trying to find his identity as a gay Black man, while also navigating the external hardships of growing up in impoverished Miami neighborhoods with a drug-addicted mother and no father in sight. The film takes us on a coming-of-age journey from trust to fear to self-acceptance. Director Barry Jenkins explores themes of race, masculinity, sexuality, and poverty, while we root for Chiron and worry about his emotional wellbeing. As a gay man, I consistently saw aspects of my queer identity surface in this film and am uplifted by Chiron’s perseverance throughout the story. Moonlight boils down to a film that depicts a Black gay man’s experience of growing up without a supportive family and community. Besides taking care of his mother when she should be the one taking care of him, Chiron is lacking a queer community, and because of this, he is left by himself on his journey towards self-acceptance. Chiron is not just lacking queer mentorship and support, he also struggles to fit in with the Black community not only due to his sexuality but also because of his struggles at home. Throughout the film, we watch him wander to the beach at night to sit under the moonlight. His unstable and unsafe homelife makes him find refuge under the moon’s glow. Working as a metaphor for our innermost self, Jenkins uses the moonlight’s ethereal connection between a human being and nature to give Chiron and viewers a sense of hope. It is under the blue moonlight that Chiron discovers who he truly is and comes to accept his repressed sexual desires. Even though the scenes unfold in the night time, Jenkins captures a few vibrant colors that offer hope. These color contradictions reflect Chiron’s conflicting moods: blue and vibrant, often at the same time. His tangled feelings are all too familiar to the Black queer community. Through Chiron’s story, Jenkins takes you on a moving and uplifting journey that will keep tears pooled in your eyes from the opening scenes until the credits roll. Moonlight is available to stream on Netflix.

Hidden Figures (2016), dir. Theodore Melfi

By Allison Simpson

We all know of the many groundbreaking space missions NASA completed, often leading its members to great achievement. However, it is not often we gain insight into the minds that make these unimaginable accomplishments come true, especially when these minds do not belong to white male scientists. Hidden Figures is an extraordinary biopic following the lives of three brilliant African American women who, relegated to staying behind-the-scenes by the patriarchal system under which they worked, helped NASA achieve its most revolutionary operation: the first American orbital spaceflight. The year is 1961 and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are working in NASA’s computing section to launch astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. While facing segregation and discrimination in the workplace, and every other aspect of their lives, each woman overcomes their personal hardships while in their own way helping restore the nation’s confidence through problem solving and working together. The value of this approach ultimately led them to help the US win the great Space Race. The film depicts how these remarkable women crossed the gender, race, and professional lines of their era with perseverance, innovation, and a desire to dream, making them into the kinds of heroes that should be present in our history books. Through the strong performances of Henson, Monáe, and Spencer, this film becomes an inspirational story of determination and strength during a time period filled with uncertainty and despair. As we long for the day when it is possible to leave our homes without worrying about COVID-19, this film reminds us we can endure and achieve what may seem impossible, even under the most dire of conditions. Hidden Figures is available to stream on Disney+, Sling TV, or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Still from Black Panther showing their government
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) confronting his cousin Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther.

Black Panther (2018), dir. Ryan Coogler

By Mimi Anagli

Black Panther is essentially a film about the Black Experience disguised as a superhero movie. The film is centered around the fictional country of Wakanda, whose abundant natural resources and the technological advancements its citizens have achieved were hidden to the world for most of history. As the country’s wealth and innovation becomes subject to global discussion and intervention, a young man named T’Challa, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, has to navigate his new role as king while also stopping crime at home and abroad as the Black Panther. The film highlights topics of colonial exploitation and Black identity while also celebrating a variety of African cultures through traditional attires and customs. It’s hard to put into words the role Black Panther has played in my journey to feeling comfortable in my Blackness. I had the unforgettable experience of watching Black Panther in theatres with my Dad who is from Ghana. The memory of sitting there while he pointed out the Ghanaian Kente cloths and identified the different languages he could hear spoken throughout the film is something I will always cherish. As the film finished I had a moment of reflection wondering if the other Black families in the theatre were also leaving with an immense feeling of pride and empowerment. Black Panther creates a space where members of the Black diaspora of every generation can feel connected to the African continent and feel accepted seeing something other than white and Western beauty ideals celebrated on such a huge scale. Whether it’s due to the fact that Black kids can dress up as a superhero that actually looks like them or the fact that a film with a Black director and majority Black cast broke multiple box office records, Black Panther is and will always be a staple in Black cinema. You can watch Black Panther on Disney+.

  • The 40-Year-Old Version (2020), dir. Radha Blank
  • August the First (2007), dir. Lanre Olabisi
  • Clemency (2019), dir. Chinonye Chukwu
  • Compensation (1999), dir. Zeinabu Irene Davis
  • Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee
  • Do the Right Thing, (1989), dir. Spike Lee
  • Eve’s Bayou (1997), dir. Kasi Lemmons
  • Fruitvale Station (2013), dir. Ryan Coogler
  • Get Out (2017), dir. Jordan Peele
  • Glory (1989), dir. Edward Zwick
  • Hair Love (2019), dir. Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
  • Harriet (2019), dir. Kasi Lemmons
  • The Hate U Give (2018), dir. George Tillman Jr.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), dir. Barry Jenkins
  • Love & Basketball (2000), dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood
  • Malcolm and Marie (2021), dir. Sam Levinson
  • Malcolm X (1992), dir. Spike Lee
  • Middle of Nowhere (2012), dir. Ava DuVernay
  • Mudbound (2017), dir. Dee Rees
  • Pariah (2011), dir. Dee Rees
  • Princess and the Frog (2009), dir. Ron Clements, John Musker
  • Selma (2014), dir. Ava DuVernay
  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986), dir. Spike Lee
  • Sorry to Bother You (2018), dir. Boots Riley
  • Soul (2020), dir. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
  • Us (2019), dir. Jordan Peele

TV Shows

Four characters in Black-ish sit on a couch together
Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Diane (Marsai Martin) meeting Zoey’s (Yara Shahidi) boyfriend in Black-ish.

Black-ish (2014 – Present), created by Kenya Barris

By Mimi Anagli

Loosely based on creator Kenya Barris’ own family, Black-ish is a sitcom about what being Black in a predominantly white space can look like. Dre Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) professional success has placed his wife, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, and four kids in a middle-to-upper-class white neighborhood. With a lack of exposure to Black culture, the four kids assimilate to what they know, resulting in white-washed behavior, like the fact that the oldest son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) lets kids at school call him Andy. Dre sees his kids heading in this damaging direction and makes an effort to create a stronger sense of their ethnic identity in their life, ultimately setting the show up for hilarious interactions and conversations that offer insight into what fitting in means as a Black person living in a society where most decisions are made by white people. Black-ish hits the nail on the head when it comes to Black experiences in “White Suburbia.” As a person who grew up as being one of maybe three or four Black kids in my classes, I relate to the in-between limbo of struggling to identify with Black culture while feeling like an outsider when immersed in white spaces. I remember when Black-ish first premiered in 2014, there was a promo that my sister and I saw, where Ross’s character Rainbow says, “If I’m not Black, then would someone please tell my hair and my ass?” As mixed girls who are sometimes viewed as not able to understand Black experiences, this quote resonated with us. So much so that we still quote it from time to time. Black film and TV is saturated with narratives of embracing Blackness and Black-ish offers a refreshing narrative of the struggles that come when you’re not taught to embrace your Blackness in a society that promotes white normativity. You can watch Black-ish on ABC.

Still from Pose with Blanca in pink
Pose‘s Blanca (Mj Rodriquez) wowing the crowd in a ball competition.

Pose (2018 – Present), created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy

By Kara Headley

Who’s to say we can’t choose our families? Set in New York in the 1980s, Pose follows Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a Black trans woman, as she founds her own house—a place for selected LGBTQ+ youth to live and form a surrogate family. Blanca and her children, the House of Evangelista, compete in balls, where members of different houses face off in categories and are judged based on their outfits, dance skills, and attitude. As Blanca describes it, “Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome together anywhere else.” Through the ball scenes, the audience can see the influence of Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary Paris is Burning. The camera, lighting, and costuming evoke a similar feel to the film that captured the very competitions Pose is based on. Despite the hardships faced by the LGBTQ+ community during the time period in which this show is set, those in the ball community have found a way to come together and celebrate everything they are, instead of focusing on the things they lack. The series explores the reality of living with HIV/AIDS at the height of the epidemic through several characters, including Blanca. She and her house members must deal with racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia on a daily basis. The show explores how the intersection of multiple identities can, like race and gender, offer unique challenges to an individual.  Pose also shows how a found family, like the members of your house, can become your real family in all the ways that matters. As house mother, Blanca does all she can to support her member’s dreams, believing in them when the rest of the world has all but left them behind. The cast is made up of primarily Black and Latinx actors, many of whom identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. The actors’ personal connections to their characters makes for stunning performances from the entire cast. Pose made history when Billy Porter—who plays Pray Tell, an emcee for the balls—became the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy. Pose is available to stream on Netflix.

Still from On My Block with four of the main characters sitting on the couch
Ruby (Jason Genao), Monsé (Sierra Capri), Jamal (Brett Gray), and Cesar (Diego Tinoco) together at Ruby’s house.

On My Block (2018 – Present), created by Eddie Gonzalez, Jeremy Haft, and Lauren Iungerich

By Allison Simpson

Many of us enjoy shows that provide the nostalgic feeling of being a kid again, walking us through our childhood and what it was like to grow up. On My Block takes us on such a journey, but what makes this story unique is its look into the lives of underprivileged teenagers. This coming-of-age story follows a small group of Black and Latinx friends living within the fictional inner city neighborhood of Freeridge, in South Central Los Angeles. The series begins as Ruby (Jason Genao), Monse (Sierra Capri), Jamal (Brett Gray), and César (Diego Tinoco) are ready to begin their first year of high school; however, César has taken a different path, joining the neighborhood gang instead. As the series evolves, the rest of the group works to save César from the violent world he is now a part of, while also working through their own issues. The group’s teen experience is quite conventional on the surface level, they date, hang out with one another, and work low-paying jobs; however, they are doing these things while surviving poverty and worrying about their own and their families’ safety. Through symptoms of systemic racism like white flight, the gentrification of neighborhoods, and housing descrimination, Black people and other people of color continue to live in high-crime areas with underfunded schools and services. This show brings to life the experiences of what it is like to grow up as part of a marginalized community in a country that was not built to support young people of color. As the show argues, when our society does not take care of us, we learn to take care of each other. These characters rely on their friendships to keep the dreams they still have alive and help others do the same. On My Block is available to stream on Netflix.

The Proud Family (2001-2005), created by Bruce W. Smith and Doreen Spicer

By Mitch Carr

Many cartoons offer a mixed-race cast of sweet kids who basically look and act the same and barely resemble real kids. The Proud Family goes against that tide by bringing Black culture to the foreground. The show follows Penny Proud (voiced by Kyla Pratt) and her quirky and frenzied family. Penny, the 14-year-old protagonist, journeys through high school, tackling self-discovery, falling in love, complicated friendships, cultural differences, and politics—all topics that kids (and adults) can relate to. Her group of friends turn to her for advice when things get rough, and Penny never hesitates to tackle the challenges head on. With her friends and family by her side, she navigates teenage woes, at times giving into peer pressure. As her friends continue to put her in sticky situations, she has to think outside the box to find solutions. Whether she is conflicting with her series rival, LaCienega Boulevardez (voiced by Alisa Reyes), or confronting the show’s bullies, Penny is an appealing role model and a strong character. She is the type of friend that all of us would have been lucky to have in high school. Her confidence and independence offers the show’s audience a sense of how powerful and undaunted Black women can be as they engage with a world that isn’t always rooting for them. The Proud Family shows the underrepresented Black experience by digging into Penny’s feelings and thoughts as she overcomes sexist and racist obstacles. The Proud Family creators, Bruce W. Smith and Doreen Spicer, challenge the norms in a playful way to share an extraordinary young Black girls’s high school experience with viewers. You can watch Penny to continue to be a strong Black female role model by streaming the first two seasons on Disney+.

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) and Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) stand next to eachother in Star Trek Discovery
Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) in Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery (2017 – Present), created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman

By Kara Headley

The Star Trek franchise has a long history of portraying progressive themes and characters on television when no one else would, and that same heart can be seen in one of the newest series, Star Trek: Discovery. Discovery, set roughly five years before the original Star Trek series, follows a young Starfleet officer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human raised on the planet Vulcan and the first Black woman to lead a Star Trek show. After an attack by the Klingons and some bad judgement on her part leads to the destruction of her ship and the death of her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), Michael is stripped of her command and sent to prison. Six months later, Michael finds herself aboard the USS Discovery, a new class of starship experimenting with cutting-edge technology. As the Discovery travels among the stars, Michael must find her palace among the crew, learn how to harmonize her upbringing with the person she is becoming, and question the balance between authority and what is right. 

The character Michael is inspired by Nichele Nichols’ performance as Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series. Uhura was one of the first Black women on television to be depicted in a role of authority. Martin Luther King Jr. praised Nichols’s work, stating, “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.” Discovery takes cues from the original series, expanding on the work it began. At its heart, Star Trek has always been about imagining a better, more equitable future for all, and Discovery stays true to this vision. When Dr. King praised the show, Uhura’s character marked a change in the way Black women could be portrayed on television, and now Michael represents where we are today. While there is still work to be done in achieving equal representation on screen, I believe Dr. King would be proud of how representation has evolved through Michael’s journey. Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access.

  • Atlanta (2016 – Present), created by Donald Glover
  • Black Earth Rising (2018 – Present), created by Hugo Blick
  • Black Lightning (2017 – Present), created by Salim Akil
  • Chewing Gum (2015-2017), created by Michaela Coel
  • Dear White People (2017-2021), created by Justin Simien
  • Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009), created by Ali LeRoi and Chris Rock
  • Girlfriends (2000-2008), created by Mara Brock Akil
  • Grown-ish (2018 – Present), created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore
  • I May Destroy You (2020 – Present), created by Michaela Coel
  • Insecure (2016 – Present), created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore
  • Key and Peele (2012-2015), created by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele
  • Living Single (1993-1998), created by Yvette Lee Bowser
  • Luke Cage (2016-2018), created by Cheo Hodari Coker
  • My Wife and Kids (2001-2005), created by Don Reo and Damon Wayans
  • Queen Sugar (2016 – Present), created by Ava DuVernay
  • Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020), dir. DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons
  • Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (1993-1999), created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990), created by Andy Borowitz and Susan Borowitz
  • The Neighborhood (2018 – Present), created by Jim Reynolds
  • When They See Us (2019), created by Ava DuVernay

Documentaries

Still from Time featuring Sibil and Rob Richardson
Sibil Richardson and Rob Richardson share an intimate moment before their separation in Time.

Time (2020), dir. Garrett Bradley

By Allison Simpson

It is always tough losing our loved ones; however, this loss becomes particularly distressing when instead of losing them altogether, they are behind bars and there is little we can do about it. This is an issue that affects millions of Americans, but if you’re Black, the possibility looms much larger for you. Statistically, a black man is six times more likely than a white man to end up in prison. Time demonstrates just how devastating this separation can be for those who are on the outside yearning for the person they love stuck on the inside. This compelling documentary follows Sibil “Fox” Richardson as she tirelessly fights for the release of her husband, Rob, from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he is serving a 60-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed 24 years ago in which no one was hurt. Not only is she trying to reduce her husband’s prison sentence, she also is forced to raise their six boys as a now single mother amidst Rob’s absence. The story of the Richardson family is displayed entirely in black and white, hinting at the idea it is hard to see life through vibrant and colorful eyes when a large piece of themselves and their family is missing. Through intertwined home videos and exquisitely shot present-day footage, the narrative unveils a family’s battle to be whole again while they work against the deep tears in the American justice system. Not only are Black men more likely to be found guilty of crimes, they also consistently receive heavier sentences than their white counterparts for committing the same crime. Rather than portraying the experience of an incarcerated person, Time focuses on the family who misses one of its vital members. This approach allows the film to personalize that fact than when we give excessively harsh sentences to those who commit a crime, we also punish those who depend on the incarcerated for their wellbeing. Although the Richardson family struggles with great hardship, the importance of love, both family and romantic, is at the heart of this story. Through one family’s journey, the film argues that the biggest consequence of mass incarceration is the separation of people who love and desperately need each other. Time is available on Amazon Prime.

A still from Anita: Speaking Truth to power with Anita Hill during her testimony
Anita Hill standing up for women everywhere during her Senate hearings in Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2013), dir. Freida Lee Mock

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

We all have a stash of stories we turn to at dinner parties and networking events, the pithy versions of key moments in our lives that we share because they quickly give people a sense of who we are or want to become. One of mine is that in 2018 at TheWrap’s inaugural Power Women Summit I rode an elevator with Anita Hill. I was with Women and Hollywood’s news editor Rachel Montpelier, and we turned to each other in disbelief as we entered the elevator and found Hill there. We rode down a few flights before managing to stammer something about how much she meant to us and to women everywhere. She was gracious as she thanked us, making eye contact and smiling before walking off into the main floor—where countless more women would be dazzled by her presence—while Rachel and I stood there, knowing we’d just shared a small moment with one of the bravest women to ever grace this country. In Anita, director Freida Lee Mock uses a seamless blend of archival footage with present-day interviews to explain to viewers why every one of us should be awestruck if they ever run into Hill. As the film unfolds and we tensely watch footage of the events, we realize the infinite courage it took for Hill to stand before an all-male group of Senators and explain how Clarence Thomas, George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court judge nominee, had sexually harassed her. The absurdity of the questions the Senators ask and the ways in which they quickly turn to attacking her character is familiar to anyone who watched history repeat itself as Christine Blasey Ford shared her own painful story to prevent Brett Kavanaugh from being confirmed to the Supreme Court the very year I ran into Hill. Of course, being a Black woman unlike Ford, Hill was also facing an unclimbable mountain of racism as she made her case against Thomas. Neither woman succeeded at stopping these men from sitting on the Supreme Court, but they both inspired millions of us to stand up and speak our truths. As Anita shows, Hill was not deterred by her government’s mistreatment but instead turned that experience into the fuel for her lifelong battle for gender equality. As we feel like our lives may never seem normal again, this film reminds us that no fall can keep us down if we rely on each other to get back up. Anita is available to stream on Kanopy.

Good Hair (2009), dir. Jeff Stilson

By Alexandra Hidalgo

There’s a prevalent belief, usually held by those who haven’t watched a lot of documentaries, that the genre is too serious or just plain boring. If only we could show these naysayers a few glorious minutes of Good Hair, they would realize how misunderstood the documentary genre is. Worried by his young daughters’ belief that their magnificent curly hair is not “good hair,” comedian Chris Rock goes on a globe-trotting journey from hair salons to a relaxer factory to a temple in India where women shave their heads as a sacrifice, unaware that that hair eventually becomes the weaves Black women pay thousands of dollars for back in the US. It is no surprise that Rock, who narrates the film and converses with those we see on screen, turns this premise into a delightfully funny quest. He gets everyone from middle schoolers to hairstylists to icons like Maya Angelou and Reverend Al Sharpton to discuss their views on hair and Black identity. What may catch some viewers unaware is that he uses the issue of Black women’s hair to expose how racism and sexism can turn something as seemingly basic as the hair we are born with into a lifelong dilemma for millions of women. As we learn that the ones making most of the profits from this billion-dollar industry are not the Black people whose money makes the industry possible, the intricate link between racism and financial hierarchies seems undeniable. However, the film—true to its warm heart—doesn’t limit itself to grim realities. As Rock engages in profound conversations with patrons at hair salons and barbershops, we realize that the practice of chasing after “good hair” is also a source of connection and empowerment for the Black community. You’ll laugh, you’ll sigh, you may even shed a couple tears, but you will never again say that documentaries are boring after you watch this one. Good Hair is available to stream on Netflix

A still from Black Panthers featuring a group of them in blue shirts
Agnès Varda’s camera captures her subjects’ confidence and defiance in Black Panthers.

Black Panthers (1968), dir. Agnès Varda

By Alexandra Hidalgo

The combination of Agnès Varda’s ever perceptive eye with the Black Panthers as they protest the arrest of the party’s co-founder Huey P. Newton for the killing of officer John Frey is visually arresting and revolutionary in its message and craft. Shot on a handheld camera by Varda alongside David Myers, Paul Aratow, and John Shofill, this short documentary uses the camera’s movements to invite viewers to imagine themselves as a member of the crowd feeling the call from these powerful and defiant Black activists to take up the fight for racial equality. It is hard not to be at once disheartened and heartened by the images of these Black women and men proudly wearing their natural hair and coming together to celebrate Black Power in 1968, when in 2020 so many unarmed Black citizens like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks were murdered by police officers. The racism the Black Panthers gave their whole beings to battle is still devastatingly beating through America’s heart, but as the images captured remind us, most of the battles worth fighting are the ones we may never win in our lifetime. Changing the world is immeasurably hard and slow work, after all. Varda not only shows us the Panthers in action but interviews Newton himself, capturing his intellectual brilliance and commitment to Black liberation. His words linger long after his conviction for manslaughter, which we tensely watch unfold as the film comes to the sort of climactic and poetic ending Varda excels at. You can watch Black Panthers on The Criterion Collection or rent it on Amazon Prime

A still from Tongues Untied with a bunch of men in front of a graffitied wall
Marlon Riggs (second from the left) posing with his Black Gay family in Tongues Untied.

Tongues Untied (1989), dir. Marlon Riggs

By Mimi Anagli

An important part of understanding the Black experience is understanding the intersectionality of identities and how that shapes many Black lives. Marlon Riggs’ experimental documentary Tongues Untied was one of the first films to explore an intersectional conversation on race, culture, and sexuality by highlighting the narratives of Black gay men. Black gay men are discrimintated against by both white and Black communities, resulting in a complex and painful experience of having multiple systems of oppression silencing one voice. With poetic personal accounts and strong imagery of the gay rights movement, Tongues Untied is a powerful and groundbreaking rush of emotion and rhetoric from a community whose voice had been bottled up and silenced for so long. The consistent rhythm of song and dance in the film shows the beauty and humanity of a community faced with undeserving hatred and violence. The film sparked a national controversy prior to its 1989 release on PBS. Figures such as Reverend Donald E. Wildmon and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan spoke out against it, ultimately giving Rigg’s groundbreaking work more publicity and a bigger platform. The release of Tongues Untied represents a monumental time in history where the Black gay community felt heard and empowered. The film works so well to represent its two communities that it manages the rare feat of being both a key milestone for Black history and LGBTQ history in media. You can watch Tongues Untied on Kanopy.

  • 13th (2016), dir. Ava DuVernay
  • Black is… Black Ain’t (1994), dir. Marlon Riggs
  • Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019), dir. Beyoncé and Ed Burke
  • I Am Not Your Negro (2016), dir. Raoul Peck
  • LA 92 (2017), dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
  • Paris Is Burning (1990), dir. Jennie Livingston
  • Portrait of Jason (1967), dir. Shirley Clarke
  • Strong Island (2017), dir. Yance Ford
  • Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (2017), dir. Stanley Nelson Jr. and Marco Williams
  • The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) dir. David France
  • The Last Dance (2020), dir. Jason Hehir
  • The Rabbit Hunt (2017), dir. Patrick Bresnan
  • The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017), dir. Nancy Buirski
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), dir. Liz Garbus
  • Whose Streets? (2017), dir. Sabaah Folayan

What are you watching this Black History Month? Be sure to tweet us @agnesfilms! You can learn more about Mimi, Mitch, Kara, Alexandra, and Allison on their profiles.