Celebrate Black History Month With These 8 Documentaries

This Black History Month, familiarize yourself with the backstories of Bayard Rustin, Billie Holiday, and more crucial figures in the culture.

john lewis good trouble
John Lewis with fellow protestors at Edmund Pettus Bridge, in JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Alabama Department of Archies and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The origins of Black History Month date all the way back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson founded “Negro History Week” during the second month of February. By 1970, Black educators at Kent State University had started the very first celebration of Black History Month, and in 1976 the annual observance was finally recognized by President Gerald Ford.

Today, Black History Month is commemorated every February in the United States. While there are countless aspects of Black culture that have yet to be recognized, many documentaries have been produced to archive and preserve Black history—and in recent years, a handful of critically acclaimed films have become available to stream online.

These are the stories of civil rights leaders, musical icons, and literary legends whose influence and impact have helped shape Black culture. And while Black culture should really be celebrated all year round, these eight documentaries should give you more than enough history to learn from during the month of February.

John Lewis: Good Trouble

Before his death in 2020, U.S. House Representative John Lewis left a legacy of over 60 years of activism. Compiled interviews and archival footage chronicling his life and career comprise this documentary, titled after his famous quote encouraging citizens to “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble” was released just two weeks before Lewis died.

Where to stream: HBO Max


Filmmaker Sam Pollard pored over newly declassified files confirming that the United States government surveilled and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. at the direction of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The result was MLK/FBI, a recently released documentary receiving critical acclaim for its “fair” approach to documenting history. If you’ve never heard the theories, and now confirmed claims, that the FBI wanted Dr. King dead, this documentary is a good place to start.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime


As the world prepares to see Andra Day’s take on the iconic jazz singer in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, watching the 2020 documentary Billie might be a good prerequisite for the fictional film. Filmmaker James Erskine found notes from a journalist named Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who had been working on a Holiday biography in the 1970s until she died in 1978. He turned the archival interviews and notes into Billie, a documentary about the singer.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin never finished the manuscript for Remember This House when he died, but decades later, it became the inspiration for I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary made by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The letters that formed the manuscript included correspondence with and chronicles of civil rights leaders who were friends with Baldwin, such as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Where to stream: Netflix

LA 92

Made 25 years after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, LA 92 uses archival footage from the 1965 Watts Riots as well as the 1992 L.A. Riots to demonstrate how the city responded to the LAPD beating of Rodney King.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

The Black Power movement from 1965 to 1975 is examined in this documentary, which boasts archival footage of Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton, as they discuss the Black Panther Party, the War on Drugs, and COINTELPRO. Before watching Judas and the Black Messiah, which tells the story of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, give The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 a watch.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

Even those familiar with the Civil Rights movement in the United States might not know the story of Bayard Rustin, a gay leader in the movement who was often working behind-the-scenes, and has even been credited with teaching Martin Luther King, Jr. about nonviolence. He was an outspoken figure in the labor and gay rights movements as well, and was posthumously awarded the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Where to stream: Kanopy, PBS


Maybe you’ve seen Paris Is Burning or maybe you haven’t, but in any case, you need to see the 2016 documentary Kiki, which is a contemporary assessment of the drag and ballroom scenes. Co-writing with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, Sara Jordenö filmed for several years, and directed a documentary that was praised for its examination of the scene’s queer and transgender people of color as they have become involved with HIV/AIDS activism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and sex work.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime

Related: Gordon Parks’s Pictures Run Through the Subconscious of Black America