It’s almost Black History Month, and as the film industry continues to open wider each year from its history of exclusion it’s yet another reminder to celebrate the art we have at our fingertips. And this year has plenty to be excited about, from unconventional love stories like Malcolm & Marie to sobering biopics like Judas and the Black Messiah. Here is a list of films, both recent and new, that make for great viewing this coming month (and every month).
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Based on the “mother of the blues” herself, Gertrude Pridgett, better known as Ma Rainey, August Wilson’s play-turned-film takes audiences through the tense recording session of the album Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Rainey’s music embodies the essence of the southern Back experience, telling her story as a Black woman making her own way and experiencing poverty, sex, incarceration, and superstition, with a phenomenal performance by Viola Davis.
The film is a powerful send off for Chadwick Boseman, who plays brilliantly alongside Davis in his final role. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a prime example of the plight of Black women fighting for what they deserve, and a Black man’s will to make a place for himself in a world that does not honour his existence.
Where to watch: Netflix
One Night in Miami
In One Night in Miami, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Sam Cooke come together on the eve of Ali’s 1964 win against Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall. Watching legends in sports, politics, music, and activism enveloped in pure Black joy is a sight we don’t often see in our leaders — and it’s refreshing, to say the least. The cinematic retelling marks actress Regina King’s directorial debut and has been met with critical acclaim.
Where to watch: Prime Video
I Am Not Your Negro
Based on the nonfiction literature of James Baldwin, this documentary illustrates Baldwin’s sharp commentary on the Black experience. In the film, the story of Black folk through the ages is juxtaposed with the current life and times of the “white man,” creating a stark image of two different Americas. Baldwin has a poignant way of pointing out the dichotomy of race to a captivated audience, and I Am Not Your Negro shows the world how being unapologetically Black can look.
Where to watch: Stan.
Moonlight is a Black queer coming-of-age story that highlights the constricted and complicated experience of queerness in Black culture. Director Barry Jenkins and screenplay writer Tarell Alvin McCraney express that tension with subtly and grace, illuminating memorable moments from a night trip to the beach to pep talks from a neighbour. It’s a story of repression, but also immense love, warmth, and truth.
Where to watch: Netflix
Malcolm & Marie
Zendaya and John David Washington play Marie and Malcolm in this love story that takes place entirely in their home. It displays Black love in a way that plays with the nuances of their experience, subverting tropes of violent Black men and complacent Black women that are often the easiest imagery to find. Done entirely in black and white, with only the couple as our focus, Malcolm & Marie is an avant garde story of Black love.
Where to watch: Netflix, available February 5
If Beale Street Could Talk
Childhood sweethearts Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) are starting their lives together when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. If Beale Street Could Talk, based in 1970s Harlem, is a telling story of another Black man who “fits the description,” and this film shows the deeply personal impact of societal injustice.
Where to watch: Netflix
In every venue she played and record made, The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a force, and Amazing Grace is the unreleased footage of her live recording session at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. Aretha was a groundbreaking recording artist who broke colour lines by performing on whites-only stages, paving the way for Black singers for decades to come. She did not alter her image to fit the crowd, and her powerhouse vocals reshaped music forever.
Where to watch: Foxtel
Dolemite is My Name
In Eddie Murphy’s return to cinema, the comedian plays the outlandish character Dolemite, made famous in the 1970s by indie filmmaker and comedian Rudy Ray Moore. Dolemite is a crime-fighting kung fu master, equipped with raunchy one-liners and a way with women. Rudy Ray Moore began making comedy records and action films during the rise of Blaxploitation, and Eddie Murphy’s performance as Moore (and also as Dolemite) created controversy at the 2020 Oscars when Murphy wasn’t nominated for Best Actor.
Where to Watch: Netflix
High Flying Bird
High Flying Bird is a deep dive into the business of basketball, which is known for having a mostly Black players but an even higher majority of white team owners, putting players’ success in the hands of people who may not always have their best interests in mind. Andre Holland plays Ray Burke, a sports agent to player Erik Scott (Melvin Gregg) who, during a league lockout, has a plan to change the industry. In 2014, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape saying racist remarks, exposing evidence of discrimination in the NBA. This film flips the narrative, and it’s a welcome switch.
Where to watch: Netflix, available February 8
Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield play prominent Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and William O’Neal. The FBI’s infiltration of The Black Panthers in 1969 sought to eradicate the party by deeming them a “threat to national security” and enlisting informants to sow distrust and paranoia. Inevitably the party was dismantled from the inside out, and Judas and the Black Messiah looks to be an eye-opening representation of the betrayal that led to Fred Hampton’s killing and the fall of the Black Panther Party.
Where to watch: Prime Video, available February 12
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday is one of the most influential blues artists of all time, and her most iconic song, Strange Fruit, is a haunting melody that paints an indelible image of an American lynching. The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the government’s attempt to stifle her voice and influence on Black Americans for fear of an uprising against white communities. It takes a lot of guts to play Billie Holiday — it’s one of those make-or-break roles — but after seeing the trailer, I have high hopes. And the rest of the world is already talking Oscars.
Where to Watch: Hulu in the U.S., available February 26; Australian release currently unconfirmed