Ah, documentaries, the secret infotainment that no one tells you about until you join that special club of watchers. Documentaries can be informative, entertaining, compelling, and exciting. Before you know it, you’re hooked. Paste has uncovered 10 African American docs that are currently streaming or will be very shortly, from the Oscar-nominated Attica to jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, a dive into the early aughts life of Kanye West. With so many excellent documentaries to choose from, it makes Black History Month (and beyond) a great time to explore what’s out there.
Original Network: Showtime
This documentary by filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry is a 2022 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature. It takes an eagle-eyed look at the five days of an inmate insurrection at the upstate New York prison in 1971. Presented with just the right amount of dramatic tension and backed up by sometimes visceral footage, Attica plays very much like a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Yet, it’s not a movie. It is real. In addition to the inmates and the 10 people they hold hostage, the doc also focuses on the surrounding players, including politicians, family members, law enforcement officials, and the media.
Screen Queens Rising
Original Network: ABC
This one is fun. Screen Queens Rising could also be called How Black Actresses Made It Pre-Woke (kidding, sort of). This engaging doc, part of ABC News’ Soul of a Nation series, features news correspondent Deborah Roberts and GMA3: What You Need to Know co-anchor T.J. Holmes interviewing Halle Berry (the first Black woman to receive a Best Actress Oscar), Tessa Thompson, and veterans like Debbie Allen, Jackée Harry, Marla Gibbs, and Regina Hall about the good and bad of navigating an acting career in Hollywood. Producer and writer Sunny Hostin, who wrote the comedy Girl Trip, in which Hall starred, also appears.
Everything’s Gonna Be All White
Original Network: Showtime
From Sacha Jenkins (Emmy-nominated for Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men
) comes the documentary series Everything’s Gonna Be All White, a biting, comedic commentary on the current state of socialized and institutionalized racism through the narratives of comedians Amanda Seales and Margaret Cho, rapper Styles P, and journalist Jemele Hill, among others. All give their take, explaining how they believe the United States was tainted from the beginning and has not yet come to terms with the atrocity of slavery. The “whew” part is that these stories, while blunt, are told with humor. Also, who knew that Jenkins had a band (The 1865)? They perform in the doc.
Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship
Original Network: National Geographic
There are still so many parts of African American history that seem lost to, well, history. But in National Geographic’s Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship, there is the possibility of treasure. In 2019, the remnants of the shipwreck were found near Mobile, Alabama. In the documentary, writer Tara Roberts follows a group of scuba divers, historians, and archaeologists deep into the oceanic slave route in an effort to find not only the Clotilda (the last slave ship to leave West Africa for the Americas) but other lost slave ships as well. In a video from Nat Geo’s Education Resource Library, Roberts briefly talks about the large number of ships carrying slaves that followed routes to the Americas (35,000 ships and 12 million slaves) and the approximately 500 that were likely wrecked and never made it. The documentary is not only an adventurous journey but also an opportunity for Roberts to visit relatives and bond with the descendants of the Clotilda along the way.
American Experience: The American Diplomat
Original Network: PBS
Watch on PBSWatch on PBS Documentaries via Amazon Prime
Although The American Diplomat sounds more like the title of a spy novel, the PBS documentary narrated by Emmy winner Andre Braugher details the lives of three U.S. ambassadors who were strategically placed during the Cold War because they were of African American descent.
In 1940, when President Harry Truman allegedly needed to find an African American candidate suitable for a diplomatic position in Liberia, Edward R. Dudley, a civil rights lawyer and later counsel to the then-governor of the Virgin Islands, was recommended by Thurgood Marshall. He became the first African American diplomat. Dudley was followed by the Virgin Islands-born, Polytechnic Institute and Syracuse University-educated Terence Todman. He worked in the U.S. State Department before his appointment as Ambassador to Chad by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Meanwhile, journalist Carl Rowan became Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President John F. Kennedy and later ambassador to Finland in 1963. Diplomat traces the career trajectories of the three men and their respective fights for justice and racial equality before, during, and after their ambassadorships. And if reading this conjures up thoughts of James Bond-like adventures deep under the radar because of the times, then this doc is worth a view.
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
Original Network: Netflix
This isn’t your pop culture Kanye. There’s no Kimye or major romance here. No matching clothes or emphasis on the designer that he would also become. Instead jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is a three-part docuseries exploring the early days of his professional life. It shows him doing what any performer does before he breaks through. In Kanye’s case, it’s knock on record company doors, perfect his beats, schmooze, and rely on his friends for friendship and emotional support. His friends Coodie (Simmons) & Chike (Ozah) astutely recognized that their friend was on his way to stardom and began following him with a video recorder in the early-to-mid 2000s. While Kanye was fully aware that he was being recorded and that the goal was a documentary, neither he nor those around him could have known just how successful he would become. The exception is the late Donda West, his doting college professor mom. She died in 2007, but the love of mother and son figures prominently in the early parts of the series and makes it easy to see why Kanye’s creative content and design company and two studio albums are named after her.
Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches
Original Network: HBO
Premieres: February 23
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass became one of the most celebrated speakers of his time. He was also an abolitionist, politician, writer, and celebrity. Yet in a time when African Americans were still considered property in most parts of the nation, his fierce commitment to freedom was sorely needed. Douglass’ great oratory style is brought to life in HBO’s Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches as actors Denzel Whitaker, Jonathan Majors, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Beharie, and Colman Domingo stylize and recite his words. Five Speeches is directed by Julia Marchesi (known for her work on American Masters, The African Americans, and The Italian Americans for PBS) and produced by Oluwaseun Babalola, with narration by André Holland and context and insight provided by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and David Blight.
Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy
Network: Amazon Prime
Ever wonder what it was like when peeps like Tiffany Haddish, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey, or Cedric the Entertainer were starting their stand-up careers? The answers are in Phat Tuesdays, the title of which refers to the one-time Tuesday night comedy showcase at The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip. The 50-year old club was also the starting venue for legendary comics like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, and Robin Williams. The documentary is told from the viewpoint of Phat Tuesdays founder Guy Torry, with great footage from Haddish and company. Torry’s recollections of the mid-’90s are joyful.
Original Network: Lifetime
If you were under a rock and missed the first airing of Janet Jackson’s documentary (and all of the tweeting and Insta activity from celebs and fans along with it), you still have a chance to see it as it is available to stream on Lifetime’s site (if you have a subscription). The Janet-sanctioned doc features Ms. Jackson on the positives and negatives of fame and growing up in her well-known family (not a lot new there), but it also covers what you want to know about her marriages to singer El DeBarge and dance/director René Elizondo; the almost urban legend rumor of a baby with DeBarge who was supposedly given up for adoption or adopted by her sister, Rebbie; Janet’s feelings about the unfortunate Super Bowl performance with Justin Timberlake; and her sometimes strained relationship with her brother Michael. If you are a fan of Janet Jackson, this is for you.
Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmaking
Original Network: HBO Max
This documentary is worth watching to get acquainted with the early 20th century African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Without his pioneering spirit, it would have been more difficult for early Black actors to find careers outside of the stage or touring companies. During his time, there were other non-Black directors making films for Black audiences, yet Micheaux’s Lincoln Motion Picture Company provided legitimacy to his intent to produce films for a long time. While he continued to work on movies whether he had the studio space or not (his motion picture company lasted from 1916 to 1923, but Micheaux continued to make films into the early ‘30s), he was able to produce films that dealt with romance and social problems of the time, such as passing.
Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based writer covering entertainment in its many forms. You can follow her @diedremichelle.
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