Celebrate Black History Month by, Well, Learning History

How can we understand the racial tensions and disparities we see today? By knowing the history of the people who fought—and in some cases died—for racial equality before us. Celebrate Black History Month by streaming these PBS documentaries about incredible people and movements in our country’s history.

1. “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” (2016)

If you watch one film this month on black history, make it this one. “Black America” gives a sometimes-inspiring, oft-times sobering analysis of key moments in the rise and fall and rise again of African-Americans from the mid-sixties up to today. The film is, in part, an earnest affirmation of the soaring successes of African-Americans through decades of stifling oppression, both institutional and cultural. Yet the program is strongest when it takes us back to our yesterdays to understand the roots of today. You’ll learn the roots of the “welfare queen” myth and how integrated neighborhoods came to be thought of as black “hoods.”

The program also broaches lighter subjects, like the growth and spread of black pop culture. Shoutouts include Oprah, hip-hop, TV pioneer Bill Cosby (I know, I know, but they had to—he made TV history in the ’80s) and Beyoncé.

Watch the film online at PBS.org this month.

2. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (2015)

This film from “Independent Lens” chronicles the rise and fall of the iconic Black Panther Party for Self Defense in the late ’60s and early ’70s and includes emotional, insightful, and candid interviews with many of the founding fathers and mothers of the movement. To great effect, the film also includes revealing insights from FBI agents and cops who, in blunt talk, share accounts of their shooting war with the Panthers.

One of the film’s stories from the shadows of the era is of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. While many baby boomers would knowingly brace for it, younger adults who aren’t familiar with the dark history of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program will learn of a conspiracy story Fox Mulder wouldn’t believe.

The Panthers’ story speaks to the rise of today’s identity politics and reminds us all that our country was built on a foundation of resistance and protest.

Watch clips of the film and find out how to watch it in its entirety online at PBS.org.

3. “Hoop Dreams” (1994)

Now more than 20 years old, this iconic and ground-breaking film will never lose its resonance, not as long as black, inner-city young people face obstacles to success. It follows two black high school students in Chicago as they chase their dream of going pro in basketball.

The two teens are from poor neighborhoods in inner-city Chicago, but are recruited by a wealthy, predominantly white suburban high school with a stellar basketball program. They commute 90 minutes to and from school every day and are forced to get used to a social environment that’s completely foreign to them, while also juggling back-home struggles—including family drug addiction and neighborhood violence. One of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of all time, it won an Academy Award for best film editing, and is the most recent documentary to be nominated for that honor.

Rent the film via Amazon (or through your favorite service).

4. “Jackie Robinson” (2016)

This is so much more than a sports film. This documentary from Ken Burns shows how Jackie Robinson, a figure we learned about in elementary school as the first black player in Major League Baseball, used his position to push social change. Faced with discrimination and hatred throughout his life, he always stood up for what he believed in while building a history-making baseball career. Martin Luther King Jr. once called him “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” “Jackie Robinson” tells both the athletic and activist stories of this legend.

Watch clips of the film and find out how to watch it in its entirety online at PBS.org.

5. “America ReFramed: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (2014)

Seeing this documentary for the first time forced me to see my hometown of St. Louis in a new light. The city’s Pruitt-Igoe housing development provided shelter for low-income families starting in the 1950s. The buildings were billed as “the poor man’s penthouse,” the modern architecture and amenities a huge upgrade from the crumbling homes of the inner city. But 20 years later the once-shiny buildings had fallen into ruin, with drugs and crime taking over the complex and families living in abject poverty in squalid conditions.  The complex was demolished and the project was labeled a mistake and a failure. This film looks at what led up to the destruction of the towers and the families who called them home, calling into question if it really was the failure the media claimed it to be and calling out the ensuing stigmatization of public housing residents.

Stream the film for free via Amazon Prime (or rent through your favorite service).

6. “Slavery by Another Name” (2012)

We’re taught about slavery and the Abolition Movement in school. We learn that the Civil War happened and slavery was ended. But what’s not taught with much enthusiasm is the ugly time between the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and World War II when free black Americans were forced into labor, held against their wills to do back-breaking work for minimal or no pay. The justice system was abused to keep black people in conditions as close to slavery as possible. This happened well into the 20th Century. “Slavery by Another Name,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon, brings this less-widely-known chapter of black history into painful focus.

Watch the film online at PBS.org.

Want to learn more?

Don’t miss the premiere of the PBS documentary “The Talk: Race in America” on Feb. 20. Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times.

Check out PBS’s own must-watch list of black history documentaries.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.