19 Films and Series to Watch For Juneteenth
At long last, Juneteenth became an official federal holiday this year. June 19 commemorates the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in America, a holiday that celebrates arguably the most important moment in US history. In light of the country’s racial reckoning in the last few years, it’s more important than ever to celebrate Juneteenth and reflect on what it represents. If you’re looking to celebrate by lifting up Black creators, actors, and stories, we’re proud to highlight the stories below, which are either created by Black filmmakers, amplify Black voices, or look our racist history in the eye. Here are 19 stories to watch for your Juneteenth celebrations.
This is not the New Orleans you know. From visionary director duo Coodie & Chike, “Soul City” is a horror anthology that explores the sinister side of the Big Easy, where a child’s imagination has shocking powers, some nightmares you don’t wake up from, and the jazz abruptly stops. Look out for Coodie & Chike’s upcoming Kanye West documentary, releasing on Netflix sometime this year.
NFL running back Marshawn Lynch is known for dodging reporter questions and being “about that action.” But his unwillingness to talk has been twisted by the American sports-media complex as insolent and going against what’s expected of athletes, especially Black athletes. “Lynch: A History” foregoes conventional documentary format and stitches together more than 700 clips to reveal how one man’s personal ethos became a powerful form of resistance against a system complicit in racial oppression.
Based on real students, “Silent Rose” is an uber-realistic portrait of a group of teens in a typical modern American high school. The issues that they are faced with on a regular basis — lockdown drills, disinformation campaigns, and racial injustice — are reflective of an increasingly divided country and a social climate that’s fraught with tension, disillusionment, and outright anger. Still reeling from the murder of Trayvon Martin and President Trump’s election win, these kids fight to be heard in a society that often leaves them out of the discussion. “Silent Rose” is a timely reminder of the power of Gen Z.
When it comes to hip-hop, these two are the pinnacle. They are legends. Filmmaker Nick Broomfield put his own safety at risk to dig deeper into the deaths of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, who were both shot down at the heights of their respective careers. While Biggie represented the East Coast and 2Pac repped the West, both were unparalleled in their lyricism and the two effectively defined hip-hop in the ‘90s. The documentary sheds light on how they both fell victim to the gangster lifestyle they rapped about. If you don’t know, now you know.
In 1946, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a Black man named Bill Spann and got away with it. This injustice becomes the impetus for his documentary and investigation into the case and the social climate that allowed for it to happen. The haunting doc explores how a community, and by extension the whole South, and by further extension the entire country, could be complicit in a man’s murder.
This four-part documentary focuses on a group known as “the Loving Generation,” who were born to one white parent and one Black parent. Through their stories, we learn about how they’ve grappled with their multiracial identities, what privilege means to them, and what their parents experienced in country that has only legalized interracial marriage 50 years ago.
This is extraordinary, personified. Deep in the Florida Everglades, situated in one of the state’s poorest towns, is Pahokee High School, where 91% of the students qualify for free lunch, yet over 90% graduate each year and more than 40 students have made it into the NFL. In this fly-on-the-wall documentary, four teens spend a life-changing senior year defying the limitations created by their environment in order to find their place in the world after high school. They’ve had every odd stacked against them, but for these Pahokee High students, it’s a rite of passage to shatter expectations and reach for greatness.
On May 7, 2000, in Jacksonville, Florida, 65-year-old Mary Ann Stephens is shot in the head before her husband’s eyes. Ninety minutes later, 15-year-old Brenton Butler is arrested. But is he guilty or just an easy scapegoat? Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Film, the story follows the murder case of a Black teen that everyone—from officers to the media—was eager to condemn. But when his defense lawyer joins the case, everything changes. What seems like an open-and-shut case is exposed to be a grievous miscarriage of justice. How broken and racist is our legal system if it’s that alarmingly easy to persecute an innocent child?
You’ve never seen a family reunion like this. “Passing” sees filmmaker and comedian Robin Cloud tracking down a group of relatives who broke off from the family tree to live their lives as white folks. She meets with one of their kids, Becky Jo, now well into her 60s, who had no idea what her parents had done and is just now learning about her true identity. It’s illuminating to see how she becomes the bridge between these white-passing relatives and their family heritage stemming from the South. Cloud’s six-episode doc proves that family will always be family, despite decades of estrangement or even racial identity.
Some photos tell stories, some define history. Each episode of this five-part documentary focuses on one photojournalist and their defining photograph. In New Orleans, Alysia Burton Moore captured the racial oppression in America’s response to Hurricane Katrina. In Flint, Michigan, Regina H. Boone captured a young boy covered in skin rashes, a striking image that helped bring public attention to the Flint Water Crisis. In Boston, Stanley Forman snapped a disturbing photo of a white anti-desegregation protester weaponizing the American flag against Black civil rights activist Ted Landsmark.
Wanna see star power in the making? Meet J Bambii, Christian JaLon, Akenya, and Jean Deaux, four Black women musicians from Chicago poised for meteoric rises. Created by Somali-American director and poet Ladan Osman, the series not only showcases their jaw-dropping talent, but also examines the common struggles shared by all women, particularly women of color, in the male-dominated music industry.
In 1969, when a group of Black football players at the University of Wyoming decided to stand up to racism, they were not commended or supported, but instead punished. Executive produced by Spike Lee, “Black 14” is a disheartening example of how often history has sided against those who speak up and demand change. But on the other hand, stories like this also revealed the resilience and resolve of the human spirit, because those who want change don’t let university coaches, legal injustices, or systemic oppression stop their fight.
By night he fights neighborhood crime as his vigilante alter ego, the Viceroy, but by day Wyatt Cenac faces a far more serious atrocity: gentrification. In “aka Wyatt Cenac,” the comedian plays a version of himself who is constantly at odds with strollers, chatty yoga class attendants, and artisanal mustard shops (but seriously though, how do those places stay in business?). If Cenac looks familiar to you, it’s because you’ve probably seen him on “The Daily Show,” where he was a writer and correspondent for four years, in his own Netflix stand-up special, “Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn,” or in the TBS series “People of Earth.”
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Stop” is a glimpse into one of America’s most troubling traditions: racial profiling. On his way home from baseball practice, a Black teen named Xavier is stopped by police for no apparent reason. Powerless, he stands by and watches as the people who are supposed to protect him search through his backpack with no explanation. These searches may end as abruptly as they begin, but the trauma lasts far longer.
In 1965, producer Frank De Felitta interviewed Booker Wright, a Black waiter working at a whites-only restaurant in Mississippi, for a documentary that would appear on network TV. Wright decided to speak openly about racism, segregation, and his treatment at his place of work, and he did so with an eloquence that startled audiences at the time. As a result, he faced catastrophic consequences. Nearly 50 years later, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, returned to the town to interview folks who lived in the community and examine the repercussions of Wright’s fateful interview.
Before Humans of New York, there was Jamel Shabazz. In the ‘80s, Shabazz took to the streets and subways of New York City to document urban and hip-hop culture. His snapshots formed what is now considered the picture bible of hip-hop’s heyday: his photography book “Back in the Days.” He was also one of the first photographers to capture the vibrant energy of riding the subway, calling it his “gallery.” “There’s never a dull moment on the subway.” Those of us who live in New York can attest that that is absolutely true.
It’s painful to watch at times, but you won’t be able to look away. That’s exactly how performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili wants the audience to feel. Inspired by her childhood growing up in the Bronx, Okpokwasili’s one-woman show is about two 12-year-old Black girls growing up in the 1980s. Putting her body through physically challenging choreography, she reflects on Black girlhood and Black pain in a world that privileges white bodies.
Nas is hands down one of the most talented and razor-sharp hip-hop artists of all time. In “Nas: Time Is Illmatic,” fans will get to know the rapper’s early life and the story behind his debut album, “Illmatic,” which is widely considered to be one of the most important and defining albums in hip-hop history. Anyone who has ever worked in the genre, from Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar, will likely cite “Illmatic” as a major influence. The documentary does not skim on other big-name artists who look up to Nas, and features interviews with Alicia Keys, Pharrell Williams, Q-Tip, and Busta Rhymes.
The 12 O’Clock Boys are a notorious urban dirt bike pack in Baltimore known for poppin’ wheelies, daredevil antics, and evading the police. In Lotfy Nathan’s pulse-racing documentary (three years in the making), we follow the bike pack through the eyes of a young adolescent boy named Pug. Growing up in a combative neighborhood, Pug finds escape in idolizing the 12 O’Clock Boys and will do anything to join their ranks.