This Black History Month, let’s appreciate Black women’s history. This Black History Month, we should be educating ourselves— not only in reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, teaching Rosa Parks in history class or watching a Martin Luther King Jr. Special on PBS—but by choosing to support Black women especially, and more fiercely than before. Though these movies and shows can and should be watched during any month of the year, Black History Month is a perfect time to put them at the top of your list. Here are nine movies by or about Black women that will teach you something and make you feel empowered this Black History Month.
Co-written and directed by the critically acclaimed Ava DuVernay, this documentary on black disenfranchisement from slavery through the prison industrial complex is a vital watch. Though it doesn’t focus on women, DuVernay is one of few prominent and brilliant black female filmmakers in the US, and if she releases something, I'll watch it. 13th is one of DuVernay’s most popular documentaries; it was nominated for an Academy Award and won over a dozen other awards. It also features voices like Angela Davis and DuVernay herself. Not only is 13th a beautifully executed documentary, it is also a great way to learn new things about black history that can help you understand modern social issues. Big issues like institutionalized racism and mass incarceration are often difficult to undertake, but 13th is one of the most accessible documentaries I’ve ever seen— it was easy to understand but profound and impactful. Taking the first step to watching 13th can open up your world. Stream it on Netflix, or watch it for free here.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Inspired by a true story, Hidden Figures highlights Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson: the three Black women behind the NASA launch that cemented the country's place in the Space Race. Starring three powerhouses– Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe– this film highlights the difficulties the three women faced as black women in such a white, male-dominated field. They hit many roadblocks, and, as the title insinuates, were largely ignored in history. Even at such a high level where intelligence is a given, the women are consistently underestimated. In the end, their contributions made history, and they aided NASA in its technological growth. Available for streaming on Disney+.
Harriet, featuring Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo, tells the story of Harriet Tubman, an enslaved woman who escaped bondage and subsequently went back to the south to help over seventy more people escape slavery. The movie follows her through her life, from when she first escapes to the Civil War when Tubman joined the Union army. Harriet tells the full story of a historical figure, a woman who constantly sacrificed herself to save others from the horrors of enslavement. The movie, though it can be tough at times, also has a musical element, which makes it that much more powerful. An astounding story, Harriet is an emotional and triumphant must-watch. Watch it free on Peacock.
Disclosure is a documentary exploring Hollywood’s disparaging depiction of trans people in film. Though this documentary is not only about black women, Laverne Cox, the first trans woman to win an Emmy, is an executive producer, and she is featured in the film. Disclosure features many black trans women like MJ Rodriguez and Sandra Caldwell, and deconstructs the problematic ways popular media has portrayed trans people. As a cishet person (cisgender and heterosexual), I learned so much from this documentary, about trans rights and the impact of media representation. Disclosure is a beautiful and necessary film. On Netflix now.
Self-Made: Madam CJ Walker (2020)
This limited series featuring Octavia Spencer depicts the rise and success of Madam CJ Walker, the first female self-made millionaire. Self-Made explores American beauty standards, women's empowerment, and women in business. Walker starts as a washerwoman, struggling to rise up out of poverty and take control of her life. She ends up accruing millions in wealth through empowering black women to love and cherish their hair. In her quest to empower other black women and create inclusive hair products, Walker becomes more than she could have ever imagined. Available on Netflix.
This film is not Black history, exactly, but it definitely was historic. Beyonce’s Coachella performance was an incredible display of music, dedication, and black excellence. Interspersed with documentary-like clips of her process and personal experiences, Beyonce’s Coachella Netflix special is not only entertaining, it is built around the HBCU (Historically Black College or University) homecoming experience. Beyonce harnesses a legacy of black education and community in this musical concert special. This masterpiece can be found on Netflix.
Based on the true story of the historic supreme court case Loving v. Virginia, Loving is a heart-wrenching and beautiful film featuring Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress who won an Academy Award for her role as Mildred. The film depicts an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred, two Virginia residents who get married over state lines in 1958. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia at the time, and the two were subsequently arrested late one night. This one act spurs a court battle, a move out of the state, and ultimately, the historic win that allowed all people to get married, no matter their color. Though Mildred is pretty timid and unassuming, opting to abide by the laws and bend to the court’s demands, it is her actions and her determination that ultimately change the law of the land. This movie is eye-opening and hopeful, and a great way to learn about Black History and a great love story. Stream it on Netflix.
The Hate U Give (2018)
Adapted from Angie Thomas’s novel, this movie, starring Amandla Stenberg, is an impactful story of one black girl trying to understand her identity, but is split between different worlds. As a student at a predominantly white high school, Starr is constantly code-switching (alternating between two or more ways of speaking/voices in different situations) and splitting her life between her neighborhood community, often labeled as “the hood,” and her school. When she witnesses her childhood friend die at the hands of the police, she attempts to reconcile her two worlds and ends up finding her voice. Though it is fiction, it highlights and chronicles a common story for Black girls and women across the country in past decades. Stream it on Hulu or rent it on Amazon Prime.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
This movie depicts a small snippet of singer Billie Holiday’s struggle with US law enforcement agencies as she performs her iconic song “Strange Fruit” all over the south. Holiday, in the 1940s, was known for her fun, upbeat songs— singing such a solemn tune was not taken well, especially when it attempted to raise awareness about violence against Black people in the country. As she continues to perform the song, she is constantly being warned and watched by the people around her that she will be stopped. She refuses to stay silent— even if it comes down to life or death. You can stream this movie on Hulu.
Photo: Screenshot from youtube
Dakotah Jennifer is a senior at WashU who is ready to graduate. She started creative writing at eight and has loved it ever since. She loves watching bad TV, listening to music as much as possible, and making her opinions known. Jennifer has been published in Across the Margin, HerStry, Popsugar, The Pinch Journal, Voyage YA, JMWW, Protean Mag, Oral Rinse Zine, and Ripple Zine. She has also published two chapbooks, Fog (Bloof Books) and Safe Passage (Radical Paper Press).