In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. And since 1988, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month, which is recognized and celebrated every year in a variety of ways, all across the country, throughout the entire month.
As this year’s Women’s History Month of celebrations comes to an end, here are 20 feature documentaries on notable black women in world history that you should add to your watch-lists, not only to close out the month, but to watch and appreciate beyond it. After all, black women should be celebrated every month, all year, not just in March.
These films are all accessible, available in at least one home video format (DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, Digital Download, YouTube, Netflix etc). This is by no means a definitive list, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section below.
1 — Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (2013)
In October 1970, Angela Davis was arrested in New York City in connection with a shootout that occurred on August 7 in a San Raphael, California courtroom. She was accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into the courtroom in a bid to free inmates on trial there (the Soledad Brothers) and take hostages whom he hoped to exchange for his brother George Jackson, a black radical imprisoned at San Quentin. In the subsequent shoot-out with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed, along with Judge Harold Haley and two inmates. Davis, who had championed the cause of organizing black prisoners and was friends (later became involved) with George Jackson, was indicted in the crime, because the guns used in the shoot-out were registered to her; but she went into hiding, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals; she was apprehended only two months later. Her trial drew international attention. Eventually, after about 18 months after her capture, in June 1972, she was acquitted of all charges. Shola Lynch’s Free Angela & All Political Prisoners relives those eventful, uncertain, transformative early years of Angela Davis’ life; it aims to raise awareness and reignite discussion on the movement she joined and eventually led, by introducing it to a new, younger generation, in a simple, straight-forward, accessible style.
2 — Another Shola Lynch film, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004)
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy for president of the USA, launching the first-ever run by a woman and person of color for presidential nomination, which, as you’d expect, engendered strong, and sometimes bigoted opposition, setting off currents that affect American politics and social perceptions to this day. Lynch’s film features stirring archival footage, music of the era, interviews with supporters, opponents and observers, and Chisholm’s own commentary – then and later (she passed away in 2005). A remarkable recollection of a campaign that broke new ground in politics, and truly reached out to ‘the people.’
3 — Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 (2012)
Dagmar Shultz’s film tells an untold chapter (the Berlin years) of the late writer, poet and activist, child of immigrants from Grenada, who died rather young at 58 years old in 1992. The film focuses on Audre Lorde’s years in Berlin during which she catalyzed the first movement of Black Germans to claim their identity as Afro-Germans. As she was inspiring Afro-Germans, she was also encouraging White German feminists to look at their own racism. The film serves as a historical document for future generations of Germans, profiling and highlighting, from the roots, the African presence in Germany, and the origins of the anti-racist movement before and after German reunification. It also offers analysis and an understanding of present-day debates on identity and racism in Germany. Consider it a companion piece to the 1994 documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde by Ada Gray Griffin and Michelle Parkerson, which is also certainly a film you should see.
4 — Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai (2008)
In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kenyan political and environmental activist died at age 71 in September 2011, losing a lengthy battle with cancer. Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai documents the story of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization encouraging rural women and families to plant trees in community groups. The film centers specifically on Maathai, the movement’s founder, as she helps spark a movement to reclaim Kenya’s land from a century of deforestation, while providing new sources of livelihood to rural communities. The film follows her three-decade journey of courage to protect the environment, ensure gender equality, defend human rights and promote democracy – all coming from the simple act of planting trees. Lisa Merton and Alan Dater directed the film.
5 — Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (2003)
LisaGay Hamilton’s directorial debut, the documentary is a record of the graceful, seemingly indomitable actress Beah Richards – a sensitive portrait of an artist and activist who became especially iconic to generations of black actors. While Richards struggled to overcome racial stereotypes throughout her long career onstage and onscreen, she also had an influential role in the fight for Civil Rights, working alongside the likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Louise Patterson. After performing with Richards in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, Beah: A Black Woman Speak director Lisa Gay Hamilton said she was compelled to get her inspiring story on film, and began the project with Demme as co-producer. Hamilton’s intimate interviews capture Richards’ passion and enduring elegance, and are interwoven with archival footage of her work, including riveting performances of some of her most famous poems. The film celebrates the life of the legendary actress, poet and political activist.
Watch an extended clip from the film:
6 &mdash Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (2008)
Director Sam Pollard’s documentary on the path-breaking novelist, pioneering anthropologist and one of the first black women to enter the American literary canon (Their Eyes Were Watching God), as well as one of the most vital, inventive voices in American literature. A definitive biography, 18 long years in the making, the film portrays Hurston in all her complexity: gifted, flamboyant, and controversial, but always fiercely original. It incorporates insights from leading scholars, and rare footage of the rural South (some of it shot by Hurston herself), with re-enactments of a revealing 1943 radio interview. Hurston biographer, Cheryl Wall, traces her unique artistic vision back to her childhood in Eatonville, Florida – the first all-black incorporated town in the USA. It’s a well-rounded, informative account of an exuberant, independent woman, outlining Hurston’s life and her near-miraculous achievements, drawing on an impressive and eclectic group of talking heads.
7 — Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013)
Writer and activist Alice Walker made history as the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her seminal novel The Color Purple (1982), for which she won the National Book Award. Delving into her personal life, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth reveals the inspiration for many of her works. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s documentary tells Walker’s dramatic life story with poetry and lyricism, and features new interviews with Walker, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire and the late Howard Zinn in one of his final interviews.
8 — Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You (2013)
Whoopi Goldberg directed the documentary feature on the life of pioneering comedian Moms Mabley. Having broken racial and sexual boundaries as a pioneering comic talent, the late Moms Mabley has long been an icon in the comedy world. In the film, Goldberg takes a deep dive into Mabley’s legacy via recently unearthed photography, rediscovered performance footage and the words of numerous celebrated comedians. The film shows Mabley’s historical significance and profound influence as a performer vastly ahead of her time. It delves into the comedy of Mabley, and helps define her significance through clips, old photographs, television show appearances and interviews with famous and influential people who either knew and worked with Moms or were inspired by her.
Watch a preview below:
9 — Dark Girls (2013)
Dark Girls is an emotional exposé on what it means to be a dark skinned woman in America. Filmmakers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke capture moving interviews with women who open up about their experiences being dark, black women in America. They share painful stories about things their mothers, sisters and friends have said, in addition to what they’ve taken away from mass media. The filmmakers reach both in and outside the Black community to seed conversations that reveal deep-rooted biases about race. Combining these emotional interviews with historical context and well-known psychological studies, the film sheds light on the perceived biases of “dark versus light.”
10 — Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2016)
From co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack comes the feature-length documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise which tells the remarkable story of Maya Angelou – iconic writer, poet, actress and activist – whose life has intersected some of the most profound moments in recent American history. The film pieces together the life of prejudice and oppression that made the seminal author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings the great, inspirational writer whose name defies categorization. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers trace Dr. Angelou’s incredible journey, shedding light on the untold aspects of her life through never-before-seen footage, rare archival photographs and videos and her own words.
11 — T-Rex (2016)
An intimate coming-of-age story about a new kind of American heroine. For the first time ever, women’s boxing was included in the 2012 Olympics. Fighting for gold from the U.S. was Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, then just 17 years old, and by far the youngest competitor. From the hard knock streets of Flint, Michigan, Claressa is undefeated and utterly confident. Her fierceness extends beyond the ring. She protects her family at any cost, even when their instability and addictions threaten to derail her dream. Claressa does have one stable force in her life. Coach Jason Crutchfield has trained her since she was a scrawny 11-year-old hanging out at his gym. Jason always wanted a champion; he just never thought it’d be a girl. Her relationships with her coach and her family grow tenser as she gets closer and closer to her dream. But Claressa is fierce and determined. She desperately wants to take her family to a better, safer place and winning a gold medal could be her only chance. She would eventually claim her sport in history as the youngest, and the first woman boxer to win a Gold Medal in her weight class. She would pick up another Gold Medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The tri-continental effort (North America, Europe and Asia) comes from directors Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepari, who begun work on the film in 2012.
12 — A Ballerina’s Tale (2015)
Nelson George’s documentary explores the rise of Misty Copeland, who made history as the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theater. It gives audiences an intimate look at a groundbreaking dancer during a crucial period in her life, as she makes the transition. On June 30, 2015, Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT’s 75-year history. It recounts her early struggles as a young dancer living in a welfare motel with her family, and provides an insider’s look at the cutthroat world of professional ballet, telling a moving story of dreams and perseverance, and reflects on her legacy as she trains and mentors talented hopefuls from diverse backgrounds, looking to take on the next major step in their ballet careers.
13 — Iron Ladies of Liberia (2007)
After nearly two decades of brutal civil war, Liberia is a nation ready for change. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated the country’s first elected female president and Africa’s first freely elected female head of state. A Harvard-educated economist and grandmother of eight who had been exiled to Nigeria and nicknamed the Iron Lady, Johnson Sirleaf won a run-off election with 59 percent of the vote, but faces enormous obstacles in rebuilding a war-torn country. Despite massive support both in Liberia and abroad, Johnson Sirleaf must not only find ways to reform a corrupt authoritarian government saddled by astronomical debts, but must also confront opponents loyal to former President Charles Taylor – all without alienating her voter base. Since taking office, Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, “Iron Ladies of Liberia” goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war. Other “iron ladies” seen throughout the film include Minister of Justice Francis Johnson-Morris, Commerce Minister Olubanke King Akerele and Minister of Gender Vabah Kazaku Gayflor. The film is co-directed by Daniel Junge, Siatta Scott Johnson.
14 — The Real Shirley Bassey (2001)
Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey, DBE began her career in the mid-1950s, and is best known for both her powerful operatic voice and for recording the theme songs to the James Bond films Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979). In January 1959, Bassey became the first Welsh person to gain a No. 1 single. In 2000, Bassey was made a Dame for services to the performing arts. In 1977 she received the Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist in the previous 25 years. Bassey has been called “one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain during the last half of the 20th century.” The life of Welsh singer is told through archive footage and with interviews of those who have known and worked with her since the 1950s, as she went on to become the greatest singer and diva of our generation. Directed by Michael Wadding, this film charts the story of an incredible woman.
Watch the full documentary below:
15 — Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee (2014)
Directed by her grandson Muta’Ali Muhammad, the film tells the life and love story of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis for the first time, incorporating candid and revealing conversations with the award-winning actress, playwright and activist Dee, conducted by Muta’Ali who not only discovers intimate details about his grandparents’ relationship, but also questions his ability to carry on the very dynasty that gave him life. In the film, the director breaks the wall between himself and his subject to ask heartfelt questions of his grandmother. Her answers only spark more questions for Muta’Ali, provoking him to dig deeper into the family archives and history, as he chronicles their remarkable journey as trailblazers in the arts community and activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Muta’Ali also shares exclusive video footage, family photos and memorabilia, capturing his grandmother’s perspective about life’s essentials: love, marriage, commitment, conscious art and activism.
16 — Bronx Gothic (2017)
Director Andrew Rossi’s film is based on Okwui Okpokwasili’s lauded performance piece of the same name, which follows the Bessie Award–winning actor, dancer, writer, performance artist and singer as she stages a final tour for her one-woman show, Bronx Gothic. Inspired by Okpokwasili’s early 1980s Bronx childhood, Rossi’s film asks the audience: “Can I make all of you be born again as a black girl?”
17 — Whitney. “Can I Be Me” (2017)
The Showtime documentary is an intimate portrait of Whitney Houston, one of the most successful female recording artists of all time, who, after a troubled marriage to singer Bobby Brown and many years of struggles with addiction, died suddenly and tragically at age 48. The film is directed by acclaimed BAFTA Award winner Nick Broomfield with Rudi Dolezal.
18 — MAVIS! (2015)
More than just a biopic, this story celebrates the deep influence of Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers across music genres—from gospel to soul and rock-and-roll. MAVIS! also illustrates the history of social movements in America and is a powerful reminder of one woman’s impact on popular culture.
19 — Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess (2015)
Roy T. Anderson’s self-financed feature film debut Akwantu: the Journey tackled the history of the Jamaican Maroons. He continued along that path in his followup film, Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess, telling the story of the legendary “Nanny of the Maroons,” Jamaica’s only female National Hero who was confirmed by Jacqueline DjeDje, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, as “the first black female freedom fighter in the Americas – coming before Harriet Tubman, and even Sojourner Truth.” This eighteenth-century warrior queen led a band of former enslaved Africans in the mountains of Jamaica to a decisive victory over the mighty British army. Despite all the acclaim, Queen Nanny remains a mystery. Conceived by Anderson and History Professor Harcourt T. Fuller, this landmark one-hour documentary unearths and examines this mysterious figure that is Queen of the Maroons.
20 — To celebrate Black Women in Comedy Week last year (March 2017), VH1 released a documentary called All Jokes Aside which follows leading comediennes including Tichina Arnold, Amanda Seales, Luenell, Tiffany Haddish, Yvonne Orji, and more as they share the ups and downs of being comedians who also happen to be black women. From racism, sexism, the lack of representation and opportunity, and other obstacles, viewers discover what makes their lives as Black comediennes tough work.
The full documentary is online (it’s just over 22 minutes long). Watch it below:
And there are others… consider this a starter list and feel free to recommend titles that you think should be included.
Now go watch some documentaries and learn more than a few things that you didn’t know of before!