To some, Black History Month represents a time to commemorate the rich cultural contributions of the Black community. For others, it acts as an opportunity to further educate themselves about the realities of inequality, discrimination, and the systemic barriers to racial justice that still live on today. This year, we’ve selected 15 documentaries streaming in Canada that celebrate the triumphs in Black history and culture while examining the work still left to be done.
Nadia Hallgren’s 2020 documentary chronicles the travels of First Lady Michelle Obama as she embarks on a 34-city book tour for her memoir—Becoming—as well as her work during her time in the White House. The documentary depicts Obama in a far more personal, carefree light than the public is normally privy to. Ripe with messages espousing the virtues of education and the holistic ownership of personal narratives, Hallgren’s film is the perfect companion to Obama’s memoir for those hoping to gain insight into the brilliant mind of the First Lady.
Becoming now streaming on Netflix
Comedian Chris Rock was inspired to produce his 2009 documentary, Good Hair, after his three-year-old daughter Lola asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” He realized that there was a painfully pejorative narrative surrounding Black hair in America and sought to explore the pressures to assimilate that so often inhibit Black children. Rock delves into the $9 billion Black hair industry, visiting beauty salons, hairstyling conventions, and barbershops alongside cultural icons in Nia Long, Maya Angelou, Salt-n-Peppa, and many more. The audience learns alongside Rock as he explores the discriminatory practices of the beauty industry and how best to combat them.
Good Hair available on Amazon Prime
When They See Us
Inspired by New York City’s infamous “Central Park Five” case, Ava DuVernay’s four-episode Netflix masterpiece is based on events from 1989, yet the bitter injustice still resonates today. The series’ first needle drop features Special Ed’s hip-hop classic “I Got It Made,” a gentle old-school track that reflects the carefree innocence of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana. But the audience soon comes to understand how temporal such innocence is for Black children in a system designed to target them. What follows is a haunting exploration into the wrongful conviction of the five teenagers, the devastating effect on their families, and the process of rediscovering their place in society.
When They See Us now streaming on Netflix
The Black Godfather
The life and triumphs of Clarence Avant may not be widely known to the public, but Reginald Hudlin’s documentary pulls back the curtain to introduce one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in American history. Known as the king and queenmaker of Black America, Avant’s radically progressive approach to business and an uncanny ability to forge lasting partnerships earned him the title of “the Black Godfather.” With testimonies from Barack Obama, Hank Aaron, Quincy Jones, Cicely Tyson, Kamala Harris, and countless other pillars of Black excellence, The Black Godfather is an incredible insight into the legacy of Avant and his blueprint to equality.
The Black Godfather now streaming on Netflix
Theres Something in the Water
Elliot Page’s critically-acclaimed documentary details largely ignored issues of environmental racism, a concept that examines environmental injustice occurring within a racialized context. Page’s film depicts the conditions in the Black community outside Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where a correlation between contaminated well water and elevated rates of cancer goes unaddressed. Through a series of interviews with environmental activists and community members, the documentary illuminates just how historically ingrained this mistreatment of Black and Indigenous communities is into the very fabric of our country.
There’s Something in the Water now streaming on Netflix
British-Nigerian actress Beverly Naya shines a light on the colourism that remains so deeply-rooted across the globe. Throughout the hour-long documentary, Skin compiles the stories of Black women in Nigeria who have been abused and discriminated against for their dark complexion. They speak openly about the pressures of being defined by their pigment and the lack of awareness surrounding this particular form of discrimination, despite its worldwide ubiquity. A beautiful testimony to self-love and an indictment against colourist beauty practices like skin bleaching, Naya’s work is made to universally resonate with marginalized communities across the world.
Skin now streaming on Netflix
Yet another gripping project from Ava DuVernay, 13th is a documentary exploring the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States, particularly concerning the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Throughout, DuVernay outlines how the amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the country, except as a punishment for conviction of a crime. The film and its many commentators—including Angela Davis, Van Jones, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.—assert that slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War by targeting minority communities and forcing them to work for the state under convict leasing. It’s yet another powerful statement from Duvernay, this time exposing the prison industrial complex in post-Jim-Crow America.
13th now streaming on Netflix
Paris is Burning
Following its release in 1990, Jennie Livingston’s now-iconic Paris Is Burning quickly became the quintessential documentary chronicling the New York ballroom scene’s heyday and its transformation on Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ communities. Critics praised it as invaluable insight into the end of New York’s Golden Age of drag balls. Years later, it’s still a thoughtful critique of class, gender, sexuality, and race in America. The film offers an all-encompassing view of the community and the icons who defined the culture, showing the elaborate, fantastical balls play out while also shifting to confront more weighty issues of racism, AIDS, poverty, violence, and homophobia that still affect marginalized communities today. But while exploring the ever-present obstacles minority communities face, Livingston’s work is also a testament to the unique strength, pride, and humour that defined the space.
Paris is Burning now streaming on Crave
Consisting entirely of archival footage, LA 92 details the 1992 Los Angeles riots 25 years removed from the savage beating of Rodney King by four policemen. The documentary features video archives from the 1965 Watts Riots, the 1973 election of Tom Bradley, the 1978 promotion of Daryl Gates, the shooting of Latasha Harlins, the Rodney King tape, and the subsequent riots that erupted following the officers’ acquittal. The sheer amount of raw footage collected is astounding and transports the viewer back to a time of complete social disorder. The divide between Black civilians and law enforcement seemed entirely irreparable at the time, but LA 92 is also a powerful assertion of how far the country has left to go in terms of drastic reformation and accountability.
LA 92 now streaming on Netflix
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
When Netflix released The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson to the public in 2017, it immediately became cherished documentation of the gay liberation and transgender rights movement sweeping New York City throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Chronicling the life of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the film follows activist Victoria Cruz’s investigation into Johnson’s death in 1992, which was initially ruled a suicide by police despite suspicious circumstances. Using archival interviews with fellow activists and Johnson’s family and friends, the documentary exposes the abuse suffered by the transgender community but also shines a light on Johnson as a champion of equality and liberty.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson now streaming on Netflix
In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death—a 25-year-old Black Baltimore resident who was paralyzed and later died at the hands of police brutality—Sonja Sohn used Baltimore Rising as an outlet to depict a city and country divided in two. The documentary follows the protests and riots that immediately followed Gray’s violent arrest. It shows the efforts made to keep the peace during the unsuccessful prosecutions of the six police officers involved, as well as efforts to change policing by the US Department of Justice. Sohn’s work has been critically acclaimed for its attempt to explore all perspectives, from the police department to the community and the activists desperately trying to keep the peace. The documentary offers a modern perspective of the racial divide still gripping the country but also celebrates the community leaders, activists, and protestors actively trying to create sustainable policy changes amid upheaval.
Baltimore Rising now streaming on Crave
When the Levees Broke
Following the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought down upon New Orleans in 2006, Spike Lee travelled to the city to document the damage caused when the levees broke and flooded the city. The documentary draws on news video footage of Katrina and the wreckage it left behind, interspersed with interviews from politicians, engineers, historians, journalists, and residents. Heart-wrenching firsthand accounts coupled with the painful recapitulation of the incompetence, indifference, and confusion from the Bush administration make the film as illuminating as it is painful to relive.
When the Levees Broke now streaming on Crave
Time: The Kalief Browder Story
Perhaps one of the most unjust legal proceedings in the history of the United States, the tragic story of Kalief Browder is brought to life in Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-episode miniseries detailing how a 16-year-old spent years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. Infuriating with an ultimately heartbreaking result, Browder’s story started when the police picked him up in the Bronx on suspicion of stealing a backpack, an accusation he consistently denied. That arrest began a nightmare that saw him sent to Rikers Island, a notorious jail complex where violence is a fact of life and solitary confinement is a regularity. The series uses archival material, recreations, and interviews to tell the story of how a teenager was imprisoned for years without ever being given a trial. The story’s final chapter is heartbreaking, but the testimonies from those who fought for Browner’s freedom provide hope and a blueprint for radical systemic change.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story now streaming on Netflix
Who Killed Malcolm X?
Who Killed Malcolm X? is a gripping documentary that follows the work of Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a historian who has been ceaselessly investigating the assassination of minister and human rights activist, Malcolm X. Throughout the six-episode series, convicted assassin Talmadge Hayer states his four co-conspirators: Leon Davis, Benjamin Thomas, William X, and a man by the name of Wilbur or Kinly, all from the Nation of Islam mosque in Newark. The documentary also delves into a litany of theories surrounding the killing, including claims that the FBI was involved or that the assassination was executed by white nationalists. The evidence and testimony offered throughout were so compelling that the district attorney’s office claimed it will begin a preliminary review of the investigation to decide whether the case should be reopened.
Who Killed Malcolm X? now streaming on Netflix
40 Years a Prisoner
In this critically-acclaimed documentary, Tommy Oliver explores activist Mike Africa Jr.’s fight to exonerate his parents, who were among nine members of the revolutionary group MOVE imprisoned after a violent police raid on their Philadelphia commune in 1978. Throughout, Oliver revisits the case that so many have come to forget over the years. After the dust settled on the raid, a police officer was left dead and nine MOVE activists—all of them Black—received maximum sentences between 30 and 100 years in prison. Debbie and Mike Africa, expecting a child at the time, were among those convicted. Mike Jr.’s mother would give birth to her son inside the prison. In turn, he would spend the next 40 years fighting for the release of his parents and the other MOVE members. It’s a version of a tragic story we’ve become all too familiar with over the years, with conflicting police testimonies casting a foggy picture over the raid. Using access to archival footage and extensive interviews with MOVE members, journalists, politicians, police officers, and community members, Oliver and Africa compose a comprehensive and searing examination of race, police brutality, and criminal justice bias in America.
40 Years a Prisoner now streaming on Crave