As part of Black History Month, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max are each offering an impressive slate of films related to the Black experience, nationally and the world over. These are cinematic benchmarks set in eras both past and present, with subject matter including racial disparity, adversity, empowerment, and the quest for justice. Stories both fact and fiction, these films are all important works of art. Read on to discover the best movies to stream for Black History Month, as brought to you by the streaming services we love the most.
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Taking home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016, Moonlight is crucial cinema for modern times. Chronicling the life and times of Chiron (portrayed by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) from adolescence to early adulthood, director Barry Jenkins treats us to an exquisite and heartfelt character study, focusing on themes of identity, masculinity, homosexuality, self-love, and forgiveness. All this set against the deep-orange sunsets and kaleidoscopic nightlife of a Miami that never sleeps.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Genre: Drama, LGBTQ
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland, Alex Hibbert
Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 111 minutes
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s biographical drama takes us through a day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old convict looking to lead a better life. Coogler’s authorship keeps us close to the protagonist, a struggling Black man that chooses a life of love, and the family and friends that receive his affections or question them. All of this leading up to the final moments of unspeakable tragedy, a true event that sparked an outcry and rings just as true over a decade later.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz
Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 85 minutes
Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening documentary 13th is an unflinching exposé of the American prison system, specifically how racial disparity has led to the mass incarceration of African Americans throughout the nation. A host of scholars, politicians, and activists weigh in on the subject, tracing inequality from the Civil War era, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, and into the disparaging era of Regan’s War on Drugs. Timely and often infuriating, DuVernay’s stark examination is truly a rallying cry for legislative movement, peace, and justice.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich
Director: Ava DuVernay
Runtime: 100 minutes
LA 92 (2017)
A stark reminder of the events surrounding the Los Angeles Riots in April-May of 1992, LA 92 is a disturbing but potent return to the days of civil unrest following the acquittal of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers that savagely beat Rodney King. Featuring presidential and public servant addresses, rare archival footage of the beating, and eyewitness video of the fiery riots that consumed Los Angeles in the wake of the judicial decision, LA 92 exposes us to plenty of images that frighten, infuriate, and force us to ask questions; many still without answers.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Bill Clinton, Danny Bakewell, Tom Brokaw, Tom Bradley
Director: Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Runtime: 114 minutes
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is set in 1970s Harlem. When Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), a Black artist, is put behind bars for a crime he did not commit, his fiancée, Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), will stop at nothing to clear her lover’s name. Beale Street is a brilliant examination of young love weighed down by the cruelty and unjust nature of the Black experience. Our second pick from writer-director Barry Jenkins, this is well-crafted storytelling with a mesmerizing ensemble of performances to back up an airtight script.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Genre: Drama, Crime, Romance
Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo
Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 117 minutes
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a disenfranchised telemarketer living in an alternate version of present-day Oakland, California. Living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius’s job takes an interesting turn as a colleague (Danny Glover) shares some advice on how to be a “power caller” and get ahead at the company — use his “white voice.” Harnessing his new “power,” Cassius ascends to a life of material wealth that rapidly devolves into a hallucinogenic nightmare. Toeing the line between dark comedy and political satire, Sorry to Bother You doesn’t stray from making you uncomfortable and is a “show no mercy” move that works to the film’s advantage.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Genre: Sci-fi, Comedy, Fantasy
Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler
Director: Boots Riley
Runtime: 112 minutes
4 Little Girls (1997)
Spike Lee’s emotional 4 Little Girls recounts the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a vicious hate crime coordinated by a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing killed four African American girls: Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson. Through archival footage and interviews, we relive the incident and its far-reaching effects on the Civil Rights Movement and American history as a whole. Lean and emotional, Lee aims directly for our hearts and minds with this one.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Spike Lee, Sheila Nevins, Samuel D. Pollard
Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 102 minutes
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
In this searing documentary, writer-director-producer Raoul Peck adapts James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript for a 1979 non-fiction novel entitled Remember This House. Made up of a series of notes and letters that Baldwin logged about his dear friends and associates Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, Peck’s film is a fitting epilogue to Baldwin’s prose and a fierce work of art that weaves naturally into our current national fabric of unrest.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Stars: Samual L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Director: Raoul Peck
Runtime: 95 minutes
Crown Heights (2017)
Teenage immigrant Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) faces a life behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. His best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), refuses to accept Colin’s fate and dedicates his life to proving his innocence. Adapted from an episode of This American Life, Crown Heights is led by two stirring lead performances from Stanfield and Asomugha, powerful acting set against a tale of injustice in 1980s New York.
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Genre: Crime, Biography, Drama
Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul
Director: Matt Ruskin
Runtime: 94 minutes
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) are lifelong friends, born and raised in San Francisco, whose streets they cruise relentlessly on Jimmie’s skateboard. But it’s a San Fran growing more and more foreign to them. Specifically discomforting to Jimmie is watching the Victorian home his grandfather built being occupied by white homeowners. When an estate debacle forces the occupants out, Jimmie and Mont take the opportunity to settle into the residence. A story of gentrification’s ill effects on people and places, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a meditative exploration of the Black experience in the face of environmental and generational changes.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Danny Glover
Director: Joe Talbot
Runtime: 120 minutes
Malcolm X (1992)
In Malcolm X, Denzel Washington delivers a tour-de-force performance as the famed Muslim minister and human rights activist. The film chronicles Malcolm’s rise from a life of petty crime on the streets of Boston to his transformative experiences in prison, where he joined the Nation of Islam. Exiting incarceration, Malcolm vows to preach the teachings of Islam, gaining prolific status as a speaker of the political and religious movement. This three-hour-plus opus of a biopic is an authentic depiction of one of the central figures of the Civil Rights era.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Genre: Drama, Biography, History
Stars: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall
Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 201 minutes
A riveting biopic led by an arresting lead performance from Jamie Foxx (who won the Best Actor statuette for his portrayal), Ray delves into the life of famous blind jazz musician Ray Charles and his ascent from rags to riches. Viewers buckle up for an all-encompassing rollercoaster ride through Charles’ life, as we experience his struggles with drugs, infidelity, and increasing fame, much of which is set against the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. Lovingly photographed, director Taylor Hackford delivers a heavy-hitting film about one of the greatest and most influential American musicians of all time, and an integral figure of the Black experience.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Genre: Drama, Biography, Music, History
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell
Director: Taylor Hackford
Runtime: 152 minutes
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