Updated: Feb 22, 2021
By Michelle Guan
TW: mentions of rape
Image retrieved from Polygon
Every February, Black History Month is celebrated as a time to recognize and commemorate the achievements of Black people and their contributions to American society. Unfortunately, their accomplishments and stories haven’t been properly included in history books and the mainstream media until recently, but even then, the information that is included doesn’t adequately highlight their fight for justice. There are movies that may seem like they portray the racial injustices that Black people face effectively, such as The Help and The Green Book. However, these movies fall short of showing an authentic perspective of Black people’s struggles because they use the white savior narrative — when white characters “rescue” people of color and magically cause racial progress. This type of narrative dilutes people of color’s stories since they minimize racial issues as matters that can be easily resolved by white people.
If you want to engage in the stories that Black producers/filmmakers are sharing, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s a list of some Black films and shows that you need to watch now:
1. When They See Us
Image via Netflix.
When They See Us is a four-part drama that spans over 25 years and is based on a true story of the ‘Central Park Five’. It follows their fight for their innocence as they are unjustly accused of raping a jogger in 1989. They continuously fight from their initial questioning to their exoneration in 2002 and after that as well.
The lack of evidence that can potentially convict the Central Park Five causes one of the prosecutors to bend the truth in order to make the evidence fit her narrative (her belief of what had happened at the crime scene). She accurately predicts that the press’s demand for blood can cause the five to be convicted more quickly since the public wants to place the blame on someone. Due to this, the prosecutors convict the five boys and sentence them to years in prison despite the fact that the Central Park Five are coerced into confessing to the assault of “the Central Park jogger” and that their confessions aren’t consistent when describing the crime. This desperation to point a finger at anyone effectively illustrates how the justice system has failed these five boys and other people of color since the press and prosecutors immediately believe that the five are the ones who have committed the crime without sufficient evidence.
Overall, this series shows how discrimination affects individuals, their futures, and their families; it also promotes fighting for social justice, which makes this series so relevant to this day.
Image via Netflix.
13th is a 2016 documentary that is named after the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. According to an interview held by NPR, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay chose its name as a reflection of its message that slavery may have been officially abolished (thanks to the 13th Amendment), but a loophole in the justice system still legally allows a form of slavery to occur, which appears in the form of criminal punishment. The documentary explores how “incarceration is an extension of slavery” by contributing to systemic racism today as it explains why the US has 25% of the world’s prisoners despite that it only makes up 5% of the world population. Modern social biases cause some people to easily classify Black men as criminals and dangerous people who must go to prison for the public’s safety.
Racism still lives within America, causing the audience to question if African Americans were ever truly liberated; this documentary’s response to that question is that they had always been chained to their stereotypes and others’ perceived notions that dehumanize them as criminals. The truth is that slavery is not something that is in the past that we can ignore; slavery and racial inequality are still currently happening in the form of criminal punishment.
Image retrieved from Oprah Magazine
Girlfriends is an early 2000s sitcom about a group of Black women who experience life together. These women have different personalities, professions, and styles who share a sisterly bond, so they are presented as authentic human beings who are imperfect, yet intelligent. Girlfriends reveal the trials and triumphs of these individuals, showing that Black women are capable of succeeding in their relationships and careers while overcoming any obstacle in their lives.
During the 2000s, an abundance of TV shows was about white people, so this specific sitcom gave Black women the opportunity to finally see themselves on television. Overall, Girlfriends conveys that Black people live regular lives as human beings.
Image via Hulu.
Insecure examines the friendship of two Black women as they cope with their insecurities (hence the name) since they are the minority in their workplace. Many people enjoy this show because of its authenticity when depicting Black womanhood. Anyone can see Issa’s frustrations of being the “token” black employee at her workplace whose only value is adding diversity to the workplace. However, despite how her coworkers treat her, she is able to overcome these hindrances and succeed, which creates more complexity to her character. Issa and her friend Molly significantly affect the story with their distinct personalities and storylines, so no one is there to bring more diversity to the show. Instead, the characters allow the audience to observe a spectrum of Black life, proving that not every Black person experiences the same things because they have different careers, values, and heritages. Being able to see these characters connect with one another within their community can be empowering to Black viewers since it can remind them that they are not alone.
Additionally, music created by Black artists is featured in the show (e.g: SZA, Bryson Tiller, and Girls in the Yard), showing their commitment towards supporting Black talent in the music industry. Insecure is considered to be a show that consists of positive Black representation because it focuses on sharing the narrative of a Black woman.
Image via FilmAffinity
Pose takes place in New York City during the 1980s and revolves around Black and Brown queer individuals in the ballroom community. Its progressive and genuine storytelling through the lives of Black and Latinx individuals draws the audience in while exploring many important themes, such as homelessness, sexually transmitted diseases, sex work, and homophobia. Furthermore, its implication that America has turned a blind eye to marginalized groups during an epidemic effectively shows the struggles that these people experience in order to truly feel like themselves. One character’s story depicts the experience of trans women who are trapped in expectations established by men; she is forced to choose between having a vaginoplasty or losing her lover (a man who is against her desire of having a gender-confirmation surgery). She chooses to be her authentic self by going ahead with the surgery, and the man deserts her, leaving her alone again.
This storyline is one of the sacrifices that trans women may make in order to feel loved by themselves again. Other numerous heartbreaking storylines show the rawness in trans people’s lives since many are forced to hide their identities from others just because their identities don’t match the world’s heteronormative social structures.
All of these films/shows are examples of media that shed light on different African American perspectives and depict how all of these individuals are real people who succeed and fail in life, just like everyone else. Remember to listen to Black people’s stories and continue to enhance your understanding of their experiences in a nation that systematically oppresses them. Happy Black History Month, everyone!
Written by writer Michelle Guan