7 Docs To Stream During Black History Month

Soul on Ice

By Madeline Lines

It’s the beginning of Black History Month and there’s plenty to read and watch to work towards a better understanding of Black history and culture. We’ve gathered some films to kickstart your watchlist with docs that highlight the Black Canadian experiences. You’ll find a variety of short and feature length films, from BHM staples to lesser known gems. Looking beyond the images of police brutality that dominated the previous year, these are the stories of communities, individuals, filmmakers, athletes, and artists fighting for change and bringing overlooked aspects of history to light.

Remember Africville (1991)

Streaming on: NFB.ca

Remember Africville offers a starting place to help develop a deeper understanding of the history of distinct Black communities in Canada. The film charts the plight of a vibrant Black community in Halifax, which was threatened and eventually displaced, by discriminatory city planning. Under the guise of human rights, the city of Halifax bulldozed the neighbourhood of Africville and scattered the tight-knit community through a series of half-baked and ill-planned projects that left community members vulnerable, disconnected, and at a disadvantage. A community lost their homes, local businesses, and neighbourhood, but their legacy prevails in this film that allows them and their descendants to speak truth to power.

Remember Africville, Shelagh Mackenzie, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Haircut (2018)

Streaming on: CBC Gem

A daughter’s tribute to her father and his hair captures the challenges of being Black in predominantly white spaces. Growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s, director Maya Annick Bedward’s father Marvin found himself as one of the few Black faces in most places, including the barber shop. White hairdressers didn’t know how to handle Black hair, leaving Marvin wary of haircuts for years. The film documents the journey to his next haircut.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Streaming on: TVO

An unfinished James Baldwin manuscript comes to life in this highly acclaimed, searing doc about race in America. In I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck uses Baldwin’s poetic gaze and eloquence to illustrate the civil rights movement and its leaders, as well as the iconic writer and activist himself. Samuel L. Jackson brings Baldwin’s words off the page with grace, but the most poignant moments may be the interview clips in which Baldwin speaks for himself. His analysis of the roots and reasoning of racism in America flew over the heads of white audiences and panelists at the time, but rings true with biting clarity today.

John Ware Reclaimed (2020)

Streaming on: NFB.ca beginning Feb. 8.

Discover a little-known corner of Black history in the Prairies in this film about a pioneering Albertan cowboy. John Ware was a historical figure that was missing from textbooks in Alberta and beyond, and yet what little record of him there is glosses over parts of his legacy. In John Ware Reclaimed, director Cheryl Foggo, a Black Albertan herself, strives to tell the full story of the groundbreaking rancher. “Regardless if one is a bearded Black rancher in spurs or a Black child living in the suburbs, navigating predominately white spaces has always been challenging,” writes Courtney Small in a recent review for POV.

John Ware Reclaimed, Cheryl Foggo, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Tongues Untied (1989)

Streaming on: Kanopy and Criterion Channel

Tongues Untied is a poignant doc that asserts the Black, gay experience through a mishmash of dance, poetry, music, rap, and personal histories. The film was bold and explicit about the lives of men living at the intersection of being gay and Black, at a time when doing so triggered a backlash of public pearl-clutching. Today it stands out as both a masterful work of experimental art and as a historical milestone in reflecting BIPOC and LGBTQ communities on screen.

Soul on Ice (2015)

Streaming on: CBC Gem

If you shed a tear watching Willie at Hot Docs, you can delve deeper into the history of Black trailblazers in hockey with Soul on Ice. The film, which borrows its name from a memoir by Elridge Cleaver, witnesses the enduring whiteness of the sport and highlights the Black players who defied the odds to become a part of it. It’s another testament to the often overlooked history of Black people in so many cornerstones of Canadian culture.

Unarmed Verses (2017)

Streaming on: NFB.ca

Follow along with twelve-year-old Francine as she navigates life in a neighbourhood of Toronto that is threatened by gentrification. The film shadows the young Black girl as she comes into her own as a young poet and grapples with the world around her. The film introduces the communities that are being pushed out by the looming condo developments of the big city in intimate detail. In a POV review, Pat Mullen writes that, “Unarmed Verses invites us to witness Francine’s growth as a poet and artist during a short period of time, it teaches us the essential role of community in shaping a city’s future.”

Unarmed Verses, Charles Officer, provided by the National Film Board of Canada