11 Films, Shows, Podcasts & More to Put on Your Radar This Black History Month


Illustration by Anne Meadows based on photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Black history in America clearly doesn't begin with the Civil War -- nor does it end with Barack Obama. There are so many more stories to be told and stories that went untold in the past. So this Black History Month we'll be celebrating that history -- and the present -- with modern perspectives that are getting serious and much-deserved attention.

Here are 11 thought-provoking documentaries, TV shows, songs, podcasts, and more to put on your radar this month, and really every other damn day after.

  • O.J.: Made in America

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    Mickey Osterreicher/ESPN Films

    If you were alive in the '90s, you already know the basic facts of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But unless you're a die-hard sports fan, you might not be familiar with Simpson's unprecedented rise to mainstream celebrity out of college football.

    The documentary miniseries O.J.: Made in America, produced for ESPN's 30 for 30 series, examines the murder trial in the context of the complex world of superstardom, wealth, and white acceptance that O.J. had painstakingly built for himself in the '90s. It considers the history of policing in Los Angeles and racial tension that was bubbling in the American psyche at the time. The fascinating intersection of all these themes make this familiar story new -- and earned the doc a nod from the Academy.

  • 13th

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    Why are so many of the people in our prison system black? The answer isn't a simple one. Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary argues that while the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted slaves freedom on paper, it also provided a loophole to enable their continued oppression and exploitation. Claims made in the doc by representatives of the prison-industrial complex itself are eye-opening -- and disturbing. It's no surprise this rousing film was nominated for an Academy Award. 

  • Fruitvale Station

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    Any time a true story is adapted for the big screen, you're pretty much guaranteed to need more than a few tissues to get you through. That's definitely the case for Fruitvale Station, the dramatic telling of Oscar Grant's shooting at the hands of Bay Area Rapid Transit police in 2009, which was caught on video by dozens of witnesses. The movie focuses more on Grant's day leading up to the shooting than the aftermath (protests, riots, and, shocker, a conviction!). The focus on Grant's humanity is intentional -- and powerful. 

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  • black-ish

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    ABC/Bob D’Amico

    Donald Trump might not get it, but TV critics and millions of fans do. The highly acclaimed ABC show black-ish was created by Kenya Barris to fill the family sitcom slot left open by the departure of '90s faves like Family Matters -- and it's a space now populated with more inclusive shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Speechless.

    However, while black-ish addresses typical family woes like increasingly independent teenagers and the influence of live-in grandparents on parenting, it doesn't shy away from politics. The emotional episode "Hope" addresses head-on the destructive ramifications of tense relations between the black community and the police force dedicated to protecting them. The show bravely addresses the challenge of raising children to view a violent world with cautious hope. Beloved faces like Golden Globe winner Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne, and Hamilton's Daveed Diggs round out a cast that could easily live next door.  

  • Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement

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    Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET

    An outspoken activist for civil rights, Jesse Williams is executive producer of the documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement about the grassroots social media campaign. It's only 41 minutes, and is available via BET.

    Williams gained major attention for his activist spirit in his acceptance speech for the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, during which he said, "Now, what we've been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day. So what's going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours."

  • Formation

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    Beyonce shook the world by dropping "Formation" a day before the 2016 Super Bowl. Her Black Panthers–inspired half-time performance of the song the following day launched a million think pieces on the state of race relations in America. The video, at turns confrontational and celebratory, is above all else an unapologetic statement affirming Beyonce's black identity. The video, in addition to the visual album Lemonade, has been nominated for a Grammy. 

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  • Semi-Prominent Negro

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    Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for The Recording Academy

    Sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell doesn't shy from uncomfortable territory when it comes to race. The United Shades of America host's 2016 comedy special Semi-Prominent Negro covers topics ranging from raising mixed-race daughters to gentrification. The bit that hits home the hardest is when he calls out white folks for questioning people of color who claim they've experienced racism with an unexpected comparison to questioning whether people are sure they ate pizza. The full, hilarious special is available on Showtime.

  • Code Switch

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    Code Switch/NPR

    While the concept of listening to people talk about race as it intersects with news and popular culture might sound a bit dry and academic, NPR's Code Switch is a podcast with real character and heart. The team of journalists, all people of color, have honest, personal discussions surrounding racism, politics, and culture. Recent episodes included an interview with Barry Jenkins, director of the critically acclaimed film Moonlight, and a three-part series dissecting Barack Obama's legacy as the first black president. 

  • March

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    Top Shelf Productions

    Comics fans take graphic novels seriously -- and maybe we all should. Rather than just showing musclemen in tights punching each other, they often reflect important issues at play in our everyday world -- as does the beautifully moving graphic novel series March, written by civil rights hero John Lewis. The first volume tells his story of growing up in the segregated South, leading up to his historic stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The books flew to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list after Trump's attacks on Lewis's record of "inaction," proving any medium can be a platform for resistance.

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  • Voices on Black Twitter

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    Twitter

    Black Twitter isn't something that can be fully explored in a caption in a slideshow, but -- to give a cursory introduction -- it's not an exclusive club or separate app. It's a community of like-minded folks (not all of them African-American) who share memes and jokes, and comment on popular culture or news through the lens of their own experiences as people of color in America. Just a few of the more prominent voices worth following (we couldn't possibly list them all): April Reign, @reignofapril, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag; Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, @deray; and sex-positive blogger Feminista Jones, @feministajones

  • Dear White People

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    The phrase "Dear White People" might cause a bit of tension -- and that's exactly what the title of this film is meant to do. The 2014 campus comedy -- written, directed and coproduced by Justin Simien, who is black -- addresses race on college campuses in a modern, relatable way. More than just a comic riff on so-called "post-racial" society, the film takes a look at how identity affects the way people interact with the world, and forces viewers to face the fact that racism is still a persistent problem.

    This crowdfunded project proves audiences want to see voices of color telling their own stories. And Netflix is continuing the conversation by picking up a 10-episode series (based on the film) and written by Simien, who will direct the first episode.

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