By Aswad Walker
Talk about an impossible assignment. There are so many incredible Black documentaries worth your time, that making a Top 10 list seems insane. Yet, here I go. And a word of warning before you start screaming about all the very worthy ones I’m inevitably going to leave off this list: I already know I’m going to have to do a Part 2 to this list soon. But here goes…
#10: Exterminate All the Brutes (2021) – When I first watched this documentary on HBO, I could not for the life of me figure out how this even got approved for viewing. I’ve never seen a documentary do an entire historical breakdown of the actions and thought processes and effects of white supremacy on the world’s people of color. This documentary leaves no stone unturned and holds nothing back.
#9: The Black Godfather (2019) – This film brought to the larger public’s attention someone who has been a behind-the-scenes king and queen maker for decades. There is hardly a brother or sister in entertainment whom Clarence Avant didn’t have a hand in opening the door of opportunity for, and shaping their career. And that’s not even half of the insanely incredible story about this game-changing brother.
#8: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) – Who better than Spike Lee to tackle the untold stories about Hurricane Katrina and the nation’s total disregard for Black lives? Yet, even while revealing all the white supremacist madness that had Uncle Sam turning his red, white and blue back on our cousins in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast, Lee manages to lift up and celebrate the humanity and courage and grit of the people President George W. and company chose not to see!
#7: Dark Girls (2011) – This video is as painful to watch as it is important to see. Dark Girls forces us as a people to confront the colorism that has been conditioned into us—the vestiges of our enslavement, and the absolute brainwashing we received that convinced so many of us on a conscious and/or subconscious level to literally hate ourselves, and define our beauty by someone else’s standards. It shows the pain inflicted upon our onyx-hued mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, cousins and friends by society, but most often by us, their loved ones. And oh, the irony, as them other folk who convinced us to believe Black ain’t beautiful and white is right have spent nearly their entire existence trying to look like us; secretly and not so secretly worshipping and appreciating our darkest of dark skin, fullest of full lips and hips and kinkiest of kinky hair. Even while we were brown paper bag testing each other for entrance to and/or exclusion from this or that “boozhie-ass” society.
#6: Homecoming (2019) – Houston’s own Beyonce made a modern classic that not only chronicled her Coachella performance and its preparation, but provided a glimpse into what dedication to one’s craft looks like, all while coming in the form of a love letter to HBCUs and Black marching bands.
#5: Summer of Soul (2021) – It is absolutely amazing how much of our history, our story, is still out there waiting to be discovered. Summer of Soul gave so many of us a glimpse into one huge moment of our story that had been almost totally swept under the rug—or left rotting in basements until footage was discovered and put together in an Academy Award-winning documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, iconic drummer of the Roots and DJ extraordinaire. If you haven’t seen Summer of Soul yet, do yourself a favor, and get to it.
#4: Slavery By Another Name (2012) – It’s hard to comprehend that there is a time period in American history that some deem worse for Black people than the actual period of enslavement. That period is the 80 years between the end of enslavement and the beginning of World War II. During that time, something scholars have labeled “Slavery By Another Name,” or the Convict Leasing System dominated American life. It was common knowledge to folk in America that Blackfolk were the hardest-working. Countless persons who lived during that period consistently called out whites for their disgusting laziness and inability to do anything for themselves. But after Blackfolk gained their freedom, the narrative changed immediately.
Overnight, Blackfolk were defined as lazy and in need of discipline and direction. There was also the fact that the free labor force responsible for making America a global power was now gone (i.e. free). In order to reinstate that free labor source, cities and states began making up insane laws meant specifically as excuses for the mass incarceration of Black people. This shifted America’s prison population from over 90% white to what it is today. And once imprisoned, as the 13th Amendment states, they were essentially enslaved and available to be used to make companies, cities, states and individuals who could afford them, wealthy. And unlike during enslavement when “massa” had a vested interest in keeping his enslaved free labor force alive, with the convict leasing system, they could work Blackfolk literally to death, and then simply go “rent” another, making Black life during this period even more expendable. Don’t believe me? Check out the documentary.
#3: 13th (2016) – There are few things, if any, more horrific than a monster that feeds on both individuals, families and entire communities. And not for revenge or some lofty cause, but rather, just for fun, for sport and for profit. That kind of monster is operating on “a-whole-nuthah” level of evil; one that has no name. Oh wait, it does have a name—the prison industrial complex. In spotlighting this diabolical and very real-life system, “150 years in the making,” Ava DuVernay exposes a horror greater than Michael Myers, Jason and Freddie Krueger put together. Consider this the sequel to “Slavery By Another Name.”
#2: Eyes on the Prize (1987) – This documentary may be the biggest game-changer of them all. Eyes on the Prize chronicled the Black story in America like no documentary before or since. And the fact that it came out during the 80s, when there was a resurrection of Black pride on college campuses and beyond, just seemed to be perfect timing, with the film feeding the movement and the movement elevating the film. And for all of its priceless value, one additional benefit of this documentary is that it reminds us that “history” is not as ancient as we like to think it is. Also, Eyes on the Prize gave real human voice to things up until that point, most folk had only read about.
#1: When We Were Kings (1996) – It’s hard to put into words what Muhammad Ali meant to Black people and people of color all over the world in a way that Millennials and Generation Zers can fully grasp. He was not only “The Greatest” in the ring, but his stances against racism, against the U.S. Military Industrial Complex (refusing to serve in the U.S. military as a religious objector), and against the idea of the ideal Negro having to be quiet, humble and unassuming, endeared Ali to a global population that was getting kicked in the ass by white supremacy on the daily. When We Were Kings documents via film footage the historic “Rumble in the Jungle,” when Ali fought the Mike Tyson of his era, the invincible George Foreman, in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Ali had lost over three and a half years of his boxing prime, as he was banned from fighting due to his stance against the Vietnam War.
When he was finally able to return to the ring, he picked up where he left off, winning fights. However, when he came up against the brother who would become Ali’s greatest nemesis, Joe Frazier, Ali lost that 1971 “Fight of the Century.” Ali was preparing himself for a Frazier rematch when a funny thing happened on the way to payback. Foreman beat Frazier like a parent beating a child. It was such a one-sided fight that commentator Howard Cosell’s phrase “Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier” became mythic.
When Ali signed up to fight the unbeatable Foreman who was from the mean streets of Houston’s 5th Ward, everyone–and I mean everyone–thought Ali was not only going to lose, but he might just get killed in the ring. When We We Kings chronicles the lead-up to the fight that changed the fight game forever. And even if you know how the story ends, this documentary will keep you captivated from beginning to end. And surely, you’re not surprised that this film is #1. Hell, Ali said it best himself: “I’m the greatest of all time!”
Honorable Mention: There are no honorable mentions, just a lot of other really good, really entertaining, really thought-provoking Black documentaries that deserve to be on either this list… or the next one I do.