5 Civil Rights Documentaries to Watch During Black History Month (And Beyond)

Black History Month is a great opportunity to enjoy the current golden age of documentaries. Filmmakers have been taking advantage of technological advances that allow for the digitization and remastering of archival footage which has made available hours of high-quality historical video. The genre allows for more exceptional niche projects than other types of filmmaking, and black history has been a chief beneficiary of many of these documentaries.

As events from the Civil Rights movement are brought back to life, it’s encouraging to see the progress that the United States has made over the past 50 years, while at the same time sobering to see how resonant some themes of inequality and struggle of the mid-1900s still are today.

The Children’s March (All Ages, available for free on YouTube )

In 1963, hundreds of kids in Birmingham, Alabama participated in a non-violent protest march that resulted in the arrest of more than 800 students. The film demonstrates the power of young people to be an agent of change, while also laying bare how completely racism had corrupted the hearts and minds in the South. The event wound up rallying support behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the images of fire hoses and dogs being unleashed on peaceful kids proved to be a clarifying moment that forced people to pick a lane in the fight for Civil Rights.

Soundtrack for a Revolution (All Ages, currently available for free on Vudu)

Artists such as The Roots and John Legend reimagine songs from the Civil Rights movement, which are then connected to specific events during the 1950s and 1960s. Soundtrack moves at a brisk pace and utilizes a compelling visual aesthetic to hold viewer’s attention tightly. Older viewers will learn the significance of familiar songs while younger viewers will be introduced to historically significant songs by artists they know. And, yes, the film has an excellent soundtrack that is widely available across streaming services.

Black Power Mixtape (Middle School and Older, available to rent across multiple platforms )

Mixtape uses film shot by Swedish journalists between 1967–1975 to explore the Black Power movement in the United States. Because the timeline of the film begins just before the assassination of MLK and extends several years past his murder, it covers a period of the Civil Rights movement that is often neglected in the classroom. Following figures such as Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton, Mixtape familiarizes viewers with the stories of people whose names are somewhat recognizable but who most Americans have not learned details about.

Black Panthers: Vanguard to the Revolution (Middle School and Older, available to Netflix subscribers and to rent across various platforms )

The Black Panthers are one of the most misunderstood organizations in US history. For instance, did you know that the group was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense? One thought experiment that lingered in my mind after seeing the film was how the Black Panthers may have leveraged the power of social media had it been around while the party was active. Party leaders knew how to take advantage of the media exposure of their day, and it would have been interesting to see how the broader perception of the group would have been different had they been able to more widely broadcast the positive and tangible work they did within the black community.It’s an especially important film to watch for anyone who thinks that the group is the black version of the KKK.

I am Not Your Negro (Middle School and older, included with Amazon Prime subscription and available for rent or purchase across multiple platforms)

James Baldwin knew how to tell stories. Some were autobiographical while others were works of fiction that communicated unflinching truths. Sometimes he spoke his stories aloud, and other times he put them on paper. One story he never fully articulated was an unfinished manuscript Baldwin was working on to look back on the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers, all of whom he called friends. I am Not Your Negro is inspired by that work in progress, and is narrated by the methodically resonant voice of Samuel L. Jackson. While different from Baldwin’s distinctly powerful oration, Jackson’s voice work is a potent alternative that conveys the gravity of Baldwin’s words.

As always, all of these resources can also be procured through your local library. You may need to plan ahead to get them sent to smaller outposts, but you won’t get docked points on your final grade if you watch them once Black History Month is over.

Christian Dashiell writes about parenting, adoption, race and culture. He also co-hosts Imperfect Dads: A Parenting Podcast, and enjoys honing his BBQ Jedi skills.