With the nation engaged in a prolonged confrontation about the history of systemic racism and anti-racist books selling out of bookstores, many filmmakers and distributors are making movies and TV series about black Americans free to watch. Some are hard-hitting documentaries about police brutality and some are simply overlooked narratives by black filmmakers, but they’re all important, and in many cases, essential. Here are some of the best.
America to Me. This 10-part documentary series directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Bing Liu (Minding the Gap), Kevin Shaw, and Rebecca Parrish spends a year following black, white, and mixed-race students of a progressive public high school outside of Chicago that has struggled to close its racial “achievement gap.” It’s a penetrating look at how the best of white liberal intentions can still fall short, and how young people of color persevere with or in spite of their help. It’s now streaming for free (just scroll down to hit play), courtesy of Starz.
Black Mother. The first feature from documentary filmmaker Khalik Allah, who also contributed to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, is available for free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
Burn Motherf*cker Burn. Sacha Jenkins’ 2017 documentary about the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King is now free to stream on YouTube, courtesy of Showtime.
Black Panthers. This 1970 portrait of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton directed by the late great Agnès Varda is now streaming for free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
Cane River. The story of a young man who turns down a career in the NFL to return to his rural Louisiana hometown and work his father’s farm, Horace Jenkins’ first and only feature was nearly lost: He died soon after completing it, and it was never distributed. But it was revived and restored in 2019, and it’s now available free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
Daughters of the Dust. Julie Dash’s landmark 1991 feature tells the story of three generations of Gullah women on a remote island off the South Carolina coast. Set in 1902, the film, whose dialogue is in Gullah creole, was called “achingly gorgeous” and “a lyrical dream of rural life that’s plainspoken about its troubles” when it was selected by a panel of filmmakers and critics for Slate’s Black Film Canon.
A Huey P. Newton Story. Spike Lee films the one-man show starring Roger Guenveur Smith (Do the Right Thing’s Smiley) as the Black Panther leader. Free courtesy of Starz.
My Brother’s Wedding. Charles Burnett’s follow-up to his legendary Killer of Sheep is another chapter in the life of South Central Los Angeles, buried after a rough-cut debut in 1983 got mixed reviews and finally completed by Burnett in 2007. Free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
I Am Not Your Negro. Magnolia Pictures is making three documentaries about black American subjects free to residents of eight cities, including Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, and St. Paul. They’ll be available on a weekly schedule, beginning Sunday with this riveting portrait of James Baldwin, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, directed by Raoul Peck (Lumumba), and based on Remember This House, the book Baldwin was writing at the time of his death.
Just Mercy. Available free for the month of June, Destin Daniel Cretton’s true story stars Michael B. Jordan as real-life attorney Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative fights wrongful convictions and racial disparities in the justice system. Jamie Foxx co-stars as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, who was sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old woman despite dozens of witnesses who testified that he was miles away at the time of her death.
Let the Fire Burn. On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police firebombed a house occupied by the black liberation group MOVE, killing 11 and destroying 61 homes. Jason Osder’s documentary, edited by Cameraperson and The Hottest August’s Nels Bangerter, uses archival footage to investigate what led to that still-notorious action, and how the city handled the aftermath. Maysles Cinema’s online presentation, free to a limited number of viewers, includes an introduction from filmmaker Penny Lane.
Losing Ground. The second feature by black playwright and author Kathleen Collins was virtually unseen when it was released in 1982, but it was hailed as a sensational discovery when it was rereleased in 2015. The story of a married philosophy professor and painter at a crossroads in their marriage, it’s a “no-budget charmer that mixes lighthearted philosophical inquiry with serious whimsy” according to Slate’s Black Film Canon, and it’s now available free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
Selma. Paramount is making Ava Duvernay’s movie about the 1965 voting rights marches, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., available for the month of June. Oyelowo said earlier this week that after the movie’s cast staged a protest against the death of Eric Garner, Oscar voters called the studio to complain. According to the Black Film Canon, it’s “the definitive movie about the struggle, and about how change happens in fevered times: through hard, dedicated, dangerous work.”
16 Shots. Richard Rowley’s 2019 documentary examines the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot to death by a Chicago police officer later convicted of second-degree murder. Free to stream on YouTube, courtesy of Showtime.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. The documentary portrait of the late literary icon will be available free via Magnolia Pictures to residents of Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, St. Paul, and other cities on June 21.
The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl Dunye’s movie presents “the oft-marginalized (women of color, lesbians) in rich detail while grappling with the uncovering and retelling of history,” according to the Black Film Canon. It’s the story of a Philadelphia video clerk (played by Dunye) who becomes obsessed with a black actress she keeps seeing in old movies and decides to make a documentary about this forgotten aspect of American culture. Now available free courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
Whose Streets? This on-the-ground documentary about the Ferguson protests may look much like the world outside, or at least your Twitter feed, right now. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ movie will be available via Magnolia pictures to residents of Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, St. Paul, and other cities on June 14.