A Netflix Mini Syllabus on Black History

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
The United States has been celebrating Black History since the 1920s, when Carter G. Woodson, a Black historian, proposed Negro History Week. Then in 1970, Black History Month was observed after educators and students at Kent State University initiated it. There is a lot of ground to cover, and there are entire disciplines dedicated to African-American history. From slavery to contemporary activism and the Harlem Renaissance to hip-hop, Black people have had a deep impact on American history and culture. That’s a lot of literature to consume.
And let’s face it: As a country, we’re reading a lot less than we used to. We’re dedicating more and more time to screens on TVs, computers, and phones. But our technological evolution is not at all a barrier for getting our Black History on. Netflix has some pretty dope titles, from documentaries to biopics, that offer compelling takes on the African-American experience. Tackling everything from entertainment to the justice system, these movies and shows dig deeper into Blackness. So grab your popcorn and someone to chill with (it is Netflix, after all), and stay woke.
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It's Black History Month, but at Refinery29, we believe in celebrating Black voices, Black art, and Black women 365 days of the year. Follow us on Instagram at @r29unbothered for more on issues that affect Black women's everyday lives.
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Photo: Off White Prod./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Paris is Burning (1990)
Filmed in New York City during the ‘80s, this documentary takes viewers inside the LGBTQ+ ballroom subculture. Mainly populated by Black and Latino gay and trans communities, Paris is Burning goes beyond the performance of gender and identity during balls but interrogated intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender, in addition to the inner workings of a scene that is still thriving today.
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Photo: American Playhouse/Wmg/Geechee/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
A Black cult classic and the inspiration for some of the scenes in Beyoncé’s musical film Lemonade, Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film released in theaters directed by a Black woman (Julie Dash). It tells the story of three generations of Gullah (an island off the coast of Georgia) women preparing to migrate north to the mainland. It’s beautifully shot and just as meaningful.
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Photo: Antidoteusa/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Celia (2015)
Before Amara La Negra schooled the masses on what it means to be Afro-Latina when she joined the cast of Love & Hip Hop: Miami, there was Celia Cruz. The Cuban born singer became an international sensation as a Latin singer, and was a huge sensation in the United States. The Netflix original series Celia is based on her life as a teenager in Cuba with big dreams.
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Photo: MEDIA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Legendary performer and musician Nina Simone has left a permanent mark on the music industry, inspiring the likes of Lauryn Hill to Patti LaBelle. Her songs combined themes of love, self-identity, and social justice, and she sang them in such a way that listeners can feel how much they meant to her. Much of Simone’s music is moody, reflecting the complicated way she felt about herself in a world steeped in anti-Blackness, but also conjuring something deeper. Simone suffered from mental health issues and every time I watch this documentary about her life and career, I’m reminded that self-care is survival and that we can all stand to be more gentle with each other.
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Photo: Nishijima/Paramount/Pathe/Harpo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
13th (2016)
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, Ava Duvernay’s 13th is an excellent film that makes a direct connection between slavery and the current criminal justice practices that disproportionately affect Black people. She links the mass incarceration epidemic to in African-American communities to the exception to the 13th Amendment — which abolished slavery unless enacted as a punishment.
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Photo: Universal History Archive\UIG/REX/Shutterstock.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016)
Before her death in 2014, Maya Angelou lived an extraordinary life. Writer, poet, activist, and phenomenal woman, Angelou is undoubtedly one of the most notable women in American history and she chronicled her life in a seven-part autobiographical series that began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Named after one of her famous poems, this inspiring documentary uses her words and images to celebrate Angelou’s life.
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Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Southside with You (2016)
Being the first Black President of the United States is only one part of Barack Obama’s lasting legacy. What is just as important to is iconicity is role as Michelle Obama’s husband. Southside with You tells the story of America’s first couple on their first date. That fateful day on the Southside of Chicago marks the beginning of their love story, but also the budding political career of one of the most important figures in political history.
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Photo: Peter Anderson / PYMCA /REX/Shutterstock.
Hip-Hop Evolution (2016)
A history of the country’s dominant genre of music as told by the Black people who helped it become the global movement it is today, Hip-Hop Evolution is a mini crash course on hip-hop’s roots.
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The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Black trans women are disproportionately targeted for violence and discrimination. They are often ignored by the criminal justice system and this is just one of their stories. Marsha P. Johnson was an LGBT and AIDS activist in New York City throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. She fought in the Stonewall Riots and continued to fight for “gay rights” in the aftermath. She was reported missing on June 30, 1992 and her body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Police initially ruled her death a suicide, a finding that was strongly contested by those who knew her. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson documents Johnson’s legacy and the struggle of Victoria Cruz to get the NYPD to reopen her case.
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