It’s no surprise that in the last eight years or so, there has been a massive resurgence of critically-acclaimed black-focused entertainment, from television shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta, all the way to important documentaries like 13th, a new world has opened for black television writers, producers and directors to shine.
What makes black-centric television amazing is that it does an impeccable job of captivating the audience through its tales of oppression, humour, beauty and most importantly of triumph. From documentaries to true stories, and especially in prime time television, what can seemingly be entertaining to the naked eye, always tells a deeper story about the Black American struggle. If you don’t know where to begin, here are our picks for television shows and documentaries that you should check out!
In this now cult-classic documentary, comedian and actor Chris Rock is on a journey to understand what his two daughters are going through to achieve “good hair”, a term as defined by Black Americans, mostly Black women to have the optimal and most pristine weave. He visits Bronner Brothers’ annual hair convention in Atlanta, teaches us about sodium hydroxide, a toxin used to relax hair. He looks at weaves, and travels to India where tonsure ceremonies produce much of the hair sold in America. A weave is expensive: he asks who makes the money. He visits salons and barbershops, central to the Black community. While being educational, it is wildly entertaining, and stars various talking heads, many of whom are women with good hair, and Maya Angelou and Tracie Thoms provide perspective. Available on Prime TV.
Trial By Media
Each and every episode of this Netflix docuseries will leave you saying, “HUH?!” It covers some of the most dramatic trials of all time, and examines – with emphasis – on how the media may have impacted verdicts. It is both captivating, and infuriating to watch many of the injustices done to marginalized groups in the United States. Available on Netflix.
OJ Made in America
Although some might say a controversial choice, the most prolific trial in US history – the OJ Simpson Case – happened on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. These riots occurred in response to the acquittal of four white Los Angeles policemen on all but one charge (on which the jury was deadlocked) connected with the severe beating of an African American man, Rodney King, who was an American construction worker turned writer after surviving this act of police brutality. While the focus is on the case of OJ Simpson, a former college and professional gridiron football star, who was acquitted in 1995 of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, the greater narrative that is brought up is systemic racism in the United States. Available on Crave.
Based on True Stories
When they see us
Trigger warning: this is a difficult watch, but a very important one that comes with high recommendation. This American drama web television miniseries was created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix. It is based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and explores the lives and families of the five male suspects who were falsely accused then prosecuted on charges related to the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park, New York City. A beautiful reenactment of a heart-wrenching and true story, When They See Us is a must watch that will leave you both broken but softened, all at the same time. Available on Netflix.
Spike Lee does it again. In this American biographical black comedy crime film directed by Lee, it follows the story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader. It’s brilliant, it’s an enjoyable watch, but reveals the sickening truths of anti-black and antisemetic injustices in the United States.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Based on a best-selling novel, set in early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt. This story follows them as they grow up together, but as they begin to plan for the future, their plans are derailed when Alonzo is arrested for a crime he did not commit. While this story isn’t based on a specific story, like many of those wrongfully accused for crimes they did not commit, this movie tells the tales of many untold black men in America who are incarcerated. Available on Prime Video.
I cannot say enough good things about this show. If you enjoyed Girlfriends, Broad City, Girls or any story about young up-and-coming women navigating life’s truths, then this show is for you. Insecure is an American comedy-drama television series created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, and is partially based on Rae’s acclaimed web series Awkward Black Girl (which, you should also watch!). It’s funny, it’s beautiful, it is a celebration of black culture. Available on HBO.
Dear White People
Aside from the obvious fact that this TV show has a ridiculously gorgeous cast, it is informative, funny, maddening and brilliant. Dear White People follows several black college students at an Ivy League institution, touching on issues surrounding modern American race relations. It is based on the 2014 film of the same name. Check it out if you haven’t already. Available on Netflix.
While critically-acclaimed and insanely popular, Atlanta is the dark horse of popular TV. Created and written by Donald Glover (who also stars in it), Atlanta is based in Atlanta Georgia, and follows the story of Earn and his cousin Alfred as they try to make their way in the world through the rap scene. Along the way they come face to face with social and economic issues touching on race, relationships, poverty, status, and parenthood. It’s weird, it’s cooky, it’s funny, it’s smart, and it’s a definite must watch. Available on FX.
A “Curb Your Enthusiasm” style show, writer and director Kenya Barris (of Black-ish, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish fame) stars as a heightened version of himself, with Rashida Jones as his wife, Joya. The framing device is that we meet and learn about the family through a documentary that his teenage daughter is producing, complete with her own crew as further evidence of how much the producer spoils his six kids. While a gross exaggeration of what many people believe the “baller” black culture of America is, it accurately dispels this truth, while examining how that culture came to be. It’s amazing and the most aesthetically pleasing show I’ve ever laid eyes on. Available on Netflix.