10 Movies to Watch This Black History Month

Check out this year's Black History Month film selections. Dive deeper into Black culture and history with these 10 movie recommendations.

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.

Published January 27, 2022

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10 Movies to Watch This Black History Month

Black history includes a multitude of lived experiences, from the seemingly mundane to the monumental. Movies about Black culture often focus on well-known historical events like the enslavement of Africans and the civil rights movement. However, films that depict Black joy and everyday life are equally important.

Historic Black movies help us to broaden our collective understanding of Black experience, portraying stories about the complex day-to-day lives of Black people. The must-see movies below can inform our understanding of Black history and culture.

Top 10 Black History Month Movies

One Night in Miami... (R)

"One Night in Miami..." Regina King's feature film directorial debut, focuses on a single evening shared between four Black historical icons. As one of few Black women directing feature films in Hollywood, King often chooses projects that tell Black stories.

In "One Night in Miami...," Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali come together amidst the civil rights movement in 1964. The fictional storyline offers a modern take on Black leadership through the lens of friendship and historical connection. The film is an example of the powerful art that can be created when Black filmmakers are allowed to tell their own stories.

Passing (PG-13)

"Passing," based on Nella Larsen's 1929 novel of the same name, tells the story of two Black women who reconnect after years apart. The film focuses on the impacts of colorism and racial discrimination in the United States, both of which are still prevalent today.

Set in 1920s New York City, the movie centers the two women's experiences with passing as white. Through its main characters, "Passing" examines why Black people sought to pass in the past and the effects of doing so. Colorism's hierarchical structure continues to plague Black communities, making "Passing" an essential watch.

Just Mercy (PG-13)

"Just Mercy," based on the true story of Walter McMillian's wrongful murder conviction, invites the audience to examine the U.S. legal system. Starring Michael B. Jordan, "Just Mercy" addresses how systemic racism impacts the lives of Black Americans in the modern day.

McMillian's story of wrongful conviction is one of many. Dozens of Black people across the country are wrongfully imprisoned, and many of them will never be exonerated. By telling one man's personal account of wrongful conviction, the film addresses a systemic injustice that has disproportionately impacted the lives of generations of Black people.

Moonlight (R)

"Moonlight" features an entirely Black cast, a notable accomplishment for a Hollywood feature film. Among many other awards, Moonlight won an Academy Award for best picture in 2017 — the first movie with a gay protagonist to do so.

Based on the unpublished play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," the film takes viewers on a journey through the main character's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood starting in Miami in the 1980s. As he navigates daily life, audiences are confronted with the impacts of drug addiction and poverty. The protagonist's struggle to understand his sexuality and identity highlights the complexities of existing as a Black man in America.

13th (NR)

"13th" tells the origin story of the modern prison industrial complex in the United States. Starting from the country's inception, director Ava DuVernay examines the history of racial inequality in the U.S. The documentary is called "13th" in reference to the 13th Amendment, which made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal — except as a punishment for crime.

"13th" illuminates how federal systems used the 13th Amendment's exception to build a system of incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black people. In the documentary, DuVernay exposes the modern prison system as a continuation of Black people's enforced servitude. "13th" dispels the myth that slavery in the U.S. ended in the 1800s and highlights the ongoing effects of systemically racist practices.

Harriet (PG-13)

Released in 2019, "Harriet" focuses on titular character Harriet Tubman's lifelong pursuit of freedom for all Black people. While stories of enslavement are not new to the big screen, "Harriet" is worth the watch for Cynthia Erivo's dynamic performance and Kasi Lemmons' direction.

The film focuses on Tubman's strength and resilience as she escapes captivity and, afterward, leads others to freedom. The featured song — "Stand Up," sung by Erivo — reflects Tubman's turbulent triumphs and the complex emotions around Black history.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (R)

Andra Day makes her acting debut with a powerful performance as Billie Holiday in this 2021 film. "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" tells the story of one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and the high profile federal investigation that plagued her life and career. The U.S. government sought to stop Holiday from singing "Strange Fruit," a formerly controversial ballad containing anti-racist lyrics.

Holiday's federal investigation underscores the consequences that Black people faced, and continue to face, when speaking out against the government. The film also examines Holiday's drug use and the government's attempt to use her as a symbol in the war on drugs.

Selma (PG-13)

"Selma" is a historically accurate portrayal of the fight for equal voting rights for Black Americans. In the film, director Ava DuVernay illustrates a dynamic portrait of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama — an iconic moment in civil rights history.

This film offers audiences a more intimate view of Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Bevel; John Lewis; and Hosea Williams as they organized historic marches in 1965. The pursuit of the equal and lawful right to vote continues today, making "Selma" a film to watch or rewatch this Black History Month.

The Hate U Give (PG-13)

"The Hate U Give" tackles the topic of police brutality in the United States. The Black community is disproportionately the target of police violence and incarceration in America. Although "The Hate U Give" tells a fictional story, the film offers a look into the very real consequences of this state-sanctioned violence.

Based on Angie Thomas' young adult novel, "The Hate U Give" follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) as she code-switches to fit in at home and at her prep school. After a police officer kills her best friend, Starr steps into her power and speaks up for herself and her community.

The Forty-Year-Old Version (R)

Writer and director Radha Blank stars in "The Forty-Year-Old Version," a film about a playwright and teacher who decides to reconnect with her life's true purpose — rap — when she turns 40. Unlike some of the other movies on this list, this film is intimate. The movie focuses on one Black woman's journey through life with humor and realness.

Set in New York City, "The Forty-Year-Old Version" is joyful and refreshing. The story emphasizes the importance of following your own path despite challenges that present themselves along the way.

Feature Image: RgStudio / E+ / Getty Images