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12 Free Documentaries And Shows About Black History And Racism In America

To understand our present, we must understand our past. These programs will give you a closer look at the history of racism and injustice against black Americans that lead us to this moment.

A still from the documentary

Credit: Independent Lens

Above: A still from the documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution."

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 was a spark that ignited protests against racism and police brutality around the nation—but there was over 400 years’ worth of kindling underneath.

To understand our present, we must understand our past, and that means taking a closer look at the history of racism and injustice against black Americans that lead us to this moment.

Below is a list of documentaries and programs about black American history and the pervasive systemic racism that persists today.

Where to Watch: All of these films are available to stream for free on video.kpbs.org or via the PBS Video app. The PBS Video app lets you stream 4000+ of your favorite PBS shows and local KPBS programs on demand, anytime, anywhere. You can download the PBS Video app on any device where you watch streaming video. PBS Video is available for iOS, Android, Amazon Fire, Roku, Apple TV and more - just check the app store on your favorite device.

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise - Trailer

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise

In this four-hour series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. embarks on a deeply personal journey through the last fifty years of African American history. Joined by leading scholars, celebrities, and a dynamic cast of people who shaped these years, Gates travels from the victories of the civil rights movement up to today, asking profound questions about the state of black America—and our nation as a whole.

The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross - Trailer

Written and presented by Professor Gates, the series explores the evolution of the African-American people, as well as the multiplicity of cultural institutions, politic strategies, and religious and social perspectives they developed.

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

This series chronicles the full sweep of African American history, from the origins of slavery on the African continent right up to today when America remains a nation deeply divided by race.

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recounts the full trajectory of African-American history in his groundbreaking six-part series premiering October 22, 2013. Written and presented by Professor Gates, the series explores the evolution of the African-American people, as well as the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies, and religious and social perspectives they developed.

RECONSTRUCTION| Extended Trailer

Here is the extended first look at RECONSTRUCTION: AMERICA AFTER THE CIVIL WAR. This new, four hour documentary series will tell the full story of this misrepresented and misunderstood chapter of American history.

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s four-part documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" explores the transformative years following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself in the face of profound loss, massive destruction, and revolutionary social change.

The twelve years that composed the post-war Reconstruction era (1865-77) witnessed a seismic shift in the meaning and makeup of our democracy. This series tells the full story of this misrepresented and misunderstood chapter of American history.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution: Trailer

A film by acclaimed documentarian Stanley Nelson about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution sheds light on the Black Panther Party — and all its reviled, adored, misunderstood, and mythologized history.

In the turbulent 1960s, change was coming to America and the fault lines could no longer be ignored. A new revolutionary culture was emerging and it sought to drastically transform the system. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would, for a short time, put itself at the vanguard of that change. "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" tells the story of a pivotal movement that gave rise to a new revolutionary culture in America. Their causes, with slogans like "power to the people" and "creating a better world" are relevant again in this moment, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the escalation of tensions between African American communities and the police.

The Talk - Race in America: Promo

"The Talk" is a two-hour documentary about the increasingly necessary conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.

The Talk: Race in America

"The Talk" is a two-hour documentary about the increasingly necessary conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.

The film presents six personal stories to illustrate the issue from multiple points of view: parent, child, the police and the community.

Race Matters: America in Crisis

Race Matters: America in Crisis

“Race Matters: America in Crisis, A PBS NewsHour Special” focuses on the frustration pouring out onto American streets, and outrage about police brutality and also explores America’s deep systemic racial disparities in education, the criminal justice system, the economy and health care, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program also includes grassroots voices from around the country and roundtable conversations with thought leaders, newsmakers and experts.

John Lewis - Get In The Way: Official Trailer

Follow the journey of civil rights hero, congressman and human rights champion John Lewis. At the Selma March, Lewis came face-to-face with club-wielding troopers and exemplified non-violence. Now 76, Lewis is considered the conscience of Congress.

John Lewis — Get in the Way

Follow the journey of civil rights hero, congressman and human rights champion John Lewis. The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up in rural isolation, seemingly destined to a bleak, segregation-imposed future. But his fate took a different turn, and Lewis rose from Alabama’s Black Belt to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, his humble origins forever linking him to those whose voices customarily go unheard.

This film follows John Lewis from the Selma March in 1965, where he came face-to-face with club-wielding troopers and exemplified non-violence, to the 21st century, where he has come to be considered the conscience of Congress.

FRONTLINE: Policing The Police: Preview

Frontline: Policing the Police

How do you change a troubled police department? “Frontline” goes inside the Newark Police Department — one of many forces in America ordered to reform. As the country’s debate over race, policing and civil rights continues to unfold, the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb examines allegations of police abuses in Newark, N.J. and the challenge of fixing a broken relationship with the community.

Tell Them We Are Rising - Trailer

The rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the end of slavery, flourished in the 20th century, and profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years — yet remains largely unknown. With "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities," the story of the rise, influence, and evolution of HBCUs comes to life.

Tell Them We Are Rising

The rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the end of slavery, flourished in the 20th century, and profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years — yet remains largely unknown. Though much of its history was eclipsed by the explosiveness of the 1960s, the essential role the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) played in shaping black life, creating a black middle class and dismantling segregation cannot be overstated.

Say It Loud - Trailer

Say It Loud

"Say It Loud" is a PBS Digital Studios series that celebrates black culture, context, and history — because black history is American history. Hosts Evelyn from the Internets and Azie Dungey give you a comedic take on identity and pop culture, from black pride movements to Black Twitter. The show explores the complexity of black experience and finds joy in the many ways black folks have influenced American life.

GREAT PERFORMANCES: Twilight: Los Angeles: Preview

On the 23rd anniversary year of the Los Angeles riots, Great Performances presents a special encore of "Twilight: Los Angeles." Anna Deveare Smith provides a new introduction to her landmark piece as its themes continue to reverberate powerfully within the context of today’s current events.

Twilight: Los Angeles

“Great Performances” presents Anna Deavere Smith’s powerful one-woman theater piece, which gives a riveting account of the violent aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the lasting impact of the Los Angeles riots on America’s conscience. Award-winning director Marc Levin weaves Smith’s stage performance with news footage and interviews to create a portrait of rage, sorrow, loss and battered hope.

POV Shorts: Positive Images

Two short docs explore the history and memory of African-American communities: the creator of an archive of black excellence fights to make it permanent; and a family’s audiovisual legacy, identities, and relationships are revisited.

POV Shorts: Positive Images

Two short docs explore the history and memory of African-American communities: the creator of an archive of black excellence fights to make it permanent; and a family’s audiovisual legacy, identities, and relationships are revisited.

Bonus Videos on KPBS Passport

The following documentaries from "Independent Lens" are currently available to watch with our member benefit KPBS Passport. For information about KPBS Passport, click here.

Trailer | The First Rainbow Coalition

In 1969, the Chicago Black Panther Party formed alliances across ethnic and racial lines with other community-based movements in the city, including Latino group the Young Lords and southern whites the Young Patriots. Banding together in one of postwar America's most segregated cities to confront issues like police brutality and substandard housing, they called themselves the Rainbow Coalition.

The First Rainbow Coalition

In 1969, the Chicago Black Panther Party formed alliances across ethnic and racial lines with other community-based movements in the city, including Latino group the Young Lords and southern whites the Young Patriots. Banding together in one of postwar America's most segregated cities to confront issues like police brutality and substandard housing, they called themselves the Rainbow Coalition.

Trailer | Always In Season

"Always In Season" follows the tragedy of African American teenager Lennon Lacy, who in August 2014, was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. His death was ruled a suicide, but Lennon’s mother and family believe he was lynched. The film chronicles her quest to learn the truth and takes a closer look at the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans.

Always in Season

“Always in Season” follows the tragedy of African American teenager Lennon Lacy, who in August 2014, was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. His death was ruled a suicide, but Lennon’s mother and family believe he was lynched. The film chronicles her quest to learn the truth and takes a closer look at the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans.

Trailer: Charm City

Filmed over a violent three-year period in Baltimore, "Charm City" profiles a group of police, citizens, community leaders and government officials who, with grit and compassion, survive in and work to improve the vibrant neighborhoods they call home.

Charm City

In Baltimore, the murder rate is high and trust in law enforcement is low—meet the engaged citizens reversing those trends. Filmed over a violent three-year period in Baltimore, “Charm City” profiles a group of police, citizens, community leaders and government officials who, with grit and compassion, survive in and work to improve the vibrant neighborhoods they call home.

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