Home Art An Essential Watchlist of Groundbreaking Black Documentaries

An Essential Watchlist of Groundbreaking Black Documentaries

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tongues untied
From Tongues Untied (1989), dir. Marlon Riggs (courtesy Frameline Film Festival)

Political education can come in many different forms, including cinema. This selection of nonfiction films, all available to stream for free, spans decades and oceans, ranging from one of the first documentaries made by a Black woman to portraits of famed intellectuals to the works of a late auteur. Collectively, they illustrate both the undeniable threat of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the incomparable strength of Blackness.  

The Stuart Hall Project

Profiling one of the key architects of the school of thought now known as British Cultural Studies, this film revolves around revolution and the metamorphic framework of identity. Directed by John Akomfrah, a founding member of Britain’s Black Audio Film Collective, it’s a necessary revival of Hall’s theories around diaspora and class identification, all woven together by a stunning Miles Davis soundtrack.

On BFI Player.

Sisters in the Struggle

Featuring Black Canadian women activists, this is a brilliant snapshot of the individual thoughts and collective discourse around the legacy of systemic racism and sexism. Directors Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman carve a space for the women to dialogue and express their frustrations around the complexities of mainstream feminism and resisting institutionalized discrimination — all still relevant today. 

On the National Film Board of Canada site.

And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead

Making a welcome comeback 31 years after his first feature, leading LA Rebellion figure Billy Woodberry salutes a fellow criminally underrated Black American cultural figure, radical Beat poet Bob Kaufman. A beautiful approach to utilizing varied archival footage, this documentary humbly traces the enigmatic life and work of Kaufman, who was violently harassed by law enforcement in his time, then routinely glossed over in the whitewashed legacy of the Beatniks. Woodberry resurrects a figure whom Amiri Baraka called “the maximum beatnik … the most uncompromising, most principled, [making] no concessions to bourgeois culture.”

On Criterion Collection (currently available without a subscription) and Kanopy.

I Am Somebody

With Integration Report 1, Madeline Anderson became the first African American woman to direct a documentary film. I Am Somebody is a clear testament to her trailblazing oeuvre. She followed 400 poorly paid Black women hospital workers as they formulated and executed a strike in Charleston, South Carolina, only to be confronted by the state government and National Guard. Their united front serves as a testament to the bravery of laborers and activists, and is (unfortunately) as poignant today as it was on release. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said the documentary “packs a tremendous punch and is deeply moving at the same time.”

Integration Report 1 is available on Amazon Prime.
I Am Somebody is available on
Le Cinema Club through June 25, as well as on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Tongues Untied and Black is … Black Ain’t

Remarkable in both its innovation and intimacy, Tongues Untied is a poetic, provocative call to action wrapped up in a provocative 55-minute essay film. Marking the emergence of a singular voice in documentary, it was one of the first films to present the intersection of lived experiences of Black gay men in a homophobic and racist society in their own voices. Far from documents of a bygone era, the films of Marlon Riggs are just as relevant today as when they were made.

This is eloquently exhibited in his final ambitious polemic, Black is … Black Ain’t. Made while he was battling complications from AIDS in the mid ’90s (often from his hospital bed), it explores often-contentious identitarian debates such as “What is Black?” To acknowledge Riggs is to refuse his placement as an outlier and place him squarely in the center of visionaries who weaponized cinema as a tool of resistance and agency. Karen Everett’s 1996 tribute to Riggs, I Shall Not Be Removed, is also available on YouTube.

Tongues United is on Vimeo and Kanopy.
Black is … Black Ain’t is on Kanopy

Flag Wars

The first feature for both future Academy Award winner Laura Poitras and legendary art curator Linda Goode Bryant, this film was shot over the course of four years and culminated in a thoughtful time capsule of socioeconomic transformation in a historically Black neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Rather than curating a traditional narrative emphasizing red tape and the culture clash between an elderly Black populace and new gay residents, the directors took a more nuanced approach, using a focus on class warfare that refuses to provide easy answers on gentrification. And Arthur Jafa is credited as a visual advisor!

On the Internet Archive.

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask

Frantz Fanon was just 27 when he published Black Skin, White Masks, arguably one of the most seminal pieces of writing on critical race theory. Curious as to how, why, when, and where the West Indian psychoanalyst and social philosopher became to be? Multi-hyphenate extraordinaire Issac Julien stylishly weaves together rare interviews with Fanon’s family and friends, archival footage, and readings from his work in an experimental dramatization of the iconic thinker’s life. 

On Kanopy and other platforms.

Rebirth Is Necessary and Black to Techno

If you haven’t heard of Jenn Nkiru, it’s time to rectify that! The British-Nigerian artist has made a name for herself as an exciting new voice in cinema, as evident by her singular short films and music videos. Navigating a ethereal exploration into Blackness via the archive and stunning original portraits, Rebirth Is Necessary blends Afrofuturism, revolutionary politics, and jazz elements all into a 10-minute runtime. In her follow-up, Black to Techno, Nkiru makes an anthropological inspection of the Black roots of techno and electronic music through the geopolitics of Detroit. Employing her signature kinetic editing style and amalgamation of various celluloid materials, Techno is an essential watch for music lovers on how a Detroit-based genre became the soundtrack to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the basis of modern EDM. 

Black to Techno is on Frieze.
Rebirth Is Necessary is on NOWNESS

Journey to Justice

Most are familiar with the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, but have you heard of Viola Desmond, who insisted on keeping her seat at a Novia Scotia movie theatre? Roger McNair’s Journey to Justice aims to correct that blind spot. A well-deserved tribute to six unsung heroes who fought racist laws, it challenges the popular notion of Canada as a beacon of tolerance and equality.  

On the National Film Board of Canada site.

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