I immigrated to this country in 2006 and haven’t stopped playing catch up on its culture and history ever since. I first learned about the Tulsa race massacre by watching the HBO miniseries Watchmen. Even though Lovecraft Country was a horror series that often veered into the supernatural, it was also a good history lesson: Misha Green’s show taught me about sundown towns and the lynching of 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955 as well as James Baldwin’s thoughts on how the American dream comes at the expense of African Americans.
2020 was a year of racial reckoning and demands for social justice. For many of us, it was also a year of learning about often buried or forgotten chapters of Black history in the United States. We made conscious decisions to read more Black authors, seek out tales by Black storytellers and follow more Black leaders and activists on Twitter.
If, like me, you prefer your lessons in the form of a good movie, 2021 was the perfect time to brush up on your history. These recent titles are set in the 1960s, but shed a lot of light on the United States’ current state of affairs.
Five Titles About the ’60s That Will Teach You About Black History and Its Contemporary Reverberations
Da 5 Bloods (Netflix, June 12, 2020): If anyone knows how to intertwine present-day America with the fight for civil rights from decades past it’s Spike Lee. His latest fiction movie starts with a rapid montage of historical events from the ’60s and ’70s, it reflects the parallels between Black Army G.I.s and Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War in addition to introducing the viewer to historical Black figures like Crispus Attucks and Milton L. Olive III.
Look out for an outstanding monologue by the late Chadwick Boseman. His character is a squad leader very much in favor of reparations: “We’ve been dying for this country from the very get. Hoping one day they’d give us our rightful place. All they give us was a foot up our Black asses. I say the USA owe us. We built this bitch!”
Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max, February 12, 2021): If you’ve seen the Netflix movie The Trial of the Chicago 7, you might recall a poignant conversation in the film about the assassination of the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton. The Trial of the Chicago 7 only briefly refers to it and instead tackles another chapter of American history with its own incarnations of racism.
Judas and the Black Messiah — produced by Black Panther writer and director Ryan Coogler and directed by Shaka King — is inspired by true events and tells the story of how the FBI planted an informant inside the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to keep close tabs on Hampton. That surveillance would ultimately lead to Hampton’s assassination.
“We’re still fighting the same monsters, we’re still fighting the same system,” Coogler explained during a virtual conference back in August 2020, showing just how the film relates to today’s fight against racism and racist systems.
One Night in Miami (Prime Video, January 8, 2021): Activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, footballer Jim Brown and boxer Cassius Clay all gathered in a hotel room one night in 1964 after Clay took the boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship. The night was real, but this movie’s account of their conversations is fictional. Oscar-winner Regina King directs this story about what it means to be Black in America and the responsibilities successful Black men like the ones portrayed here have toward their community.
“Our people are literally dying on the streets everyday. Black people are dying. Everyday,” an impassioned Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir ) tells Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) emphasizing the need to be vocal about antiracism.
MLK/FBI (Hulu, January 15, 2021): This documentary is the perfect companion piece for all the fiction proposals on this list. It establishes the quasi-obsession FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had with the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover — who saw himself as a sort of guardian of the American way of life — collected salacious and sexual material on King obtained via wiretap and bugs. The intent was to damage King’s reputation. But the documentary points out how, despite tracking King so closely, the FBI was unable to warn the Baptist minister about the threats on his life.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu, July 2, 2021): Another nonfiction feature on the list, this title made our selection of the most impacting documentaries of 2021. Directed by hip-hop artist Amir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul is part music film, part historical record. It transports the viewer to the summer of 1969 and the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week celebration of Black history, culture, music and fashion.
Hosted in Manhattan’s Marcus Garvey Park, the festival featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and B.B. King. “Much of the film focuses on sharing expertly restored footage of these concerts, but Questlove’s goal with Summer of Soul wasn’t just to ignite our imaginations with a visual energy boost,” writes Ask Media Group’s Managing Editor Hannah Riley in her 2021 documentaries compilation. “The director also aimed to uncover why this watershed event was (and still is) eclipsed by Woodstock; its deeper discussions of discrimination against Black artists give the film a level of nuance and immersion concert documentaries rarely achieve.”
Other Recent Titles That Spotlight Black History
Although they aren’t set in the ’60s, here are a few more recent proposals with which to learn about Black history.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu, February 26, 2021): This biopic directed by Lee Daniels (Precious) is based on the real trial faced by singer Billie Holiday after she was arrested for possession of narcotics. Set in 1940s, the movie depicts the government’s racialization of the war on drugs and the power of Holiday’s protest theme against lynching “Strange Fruit”, which was one of her biggest hits.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix, December 18, 2020): Based on a theater play by August Wilson (Fences), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is another fictional account with real characters. In this case it portrays a recording session on a hot summer afternoon in 1920s Chicago. Viola Davis plays the blues singer Ma Rainey, the legendary “Mother of Blues.” Chadwick Boseman, in his final film, plays an ambitious cornet player trying to make a name for himself in the music business. But even the successful Rainey struggles to keep control over her career.
All In: The Fight for Democracy (Prime Video, September 18, 2020): Activist and politician Stacey Abrams, who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia in 2018, is prominently featured in this documentary about voter suppression in the United States. Produced by Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy tackles gerrymandering, voter ID laws and the purging of voters’ registrations.
Small Axe (Prime Video, November 20, 2020): British filmmaker Steve McQueen directed a film about Black American history — 2013’s winner of three Oscars 12 Years a Slave — before turning the lens on his native London and the city’s West Indian community. With the five-episode anthology series Small Axe, McQueen, the son of Grenadian and Trinidadian immigrants, gets personal about the experience of being Black in London from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. He chooses particular turning points in British history like the trial of the Mangrove Nine as well as the struggles of Black police officer Leroy Logan. There’s also a love story (Lovers Rock) that will make you long to go to a party and dance to the rhythm of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” The whole series allows the viewer to establish analogies between some of the realities faced by the Black community on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Underground Railroad (Prime Video, May, 2021): Academy Award-winner and filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) turned his gaze toward television, serving as showrunner and director of this 10-episode limited series, which was one of our favorites in 2021. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the show tells the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) after she escapes a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South and discovers an actual railroad and a covert network of tunnels.
You can always count on Jenkins to narrate a story in the most cinematic and exquisite way possible, while also discovering new faces like Mbedu and Aaron Pierre.
And a Selection of Recent Black Biopics
Genius: Aretha (Hulu, March 22, 2021) and Respect (Video on Demand, August 13, 2021): The first one is a limited series starring the Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) in the role of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. The second one is a movie with the Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) as Franklin. Both stories tackle the musician’s fight to find her voice as a singer and become a best-selling artist. As you’ll see, she was gifted with a miraculous voice but had to learn to navigate the music business, garner respect as a singer and songwriter and fight to gain recognition as a producer on her own work.
King Richard (HBO Max, November 19, 2021): Will Smith is at his utmost Oscar-baity here. He plays Venus and Serena’s dad and formative coach, Richard Williams, a man laser-focused on taking his daughters to the highest levels of pro tennis. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green does a good job of establishing that back in the 1990s tennis wasn’t a sport that welcomed many Black players. The movie is especially satisfying not only because you know that Venus and Serena went on to become absolute stars and champions, but also because you see their first steps as activists and role models for girls all around the world.
Of course, movies and even documentaries are just a jumping-off point. Often enough, while watching some of these titles I found myself researching, learning more about the historical figures, and investigating what was real and what was fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Some of the stories gathered here are difficult to process because of the brutality and plain racism that they depict. They’re still necessary.
For more reading on the subject, check out our story on films that examine racism and discrimination in America and our article about movies that celebrate and center Black characters.