Movie fans, moviemakers, and movie distributors are doing what they can right now to support the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. In addition to those marching in the streets and donating money, a lot of websites are recommending films to better understand the systemic racism that’s rampant in America while many streaming services are curating programs of their library titles to do the same. Some of these movies, though, have been made available to watch for free by their studios and/or streaming platforms, to lift any financial burden, decline any financial gain, and just get the films easily and directly to the viewer.
Here is a list of all the movies (and a limited series) you can watch now for free and where to watch them. Consider it a starting point for greater appreciation and awareness of Black filmmakers and stories. And an opportunity to gain understanding and solidarity with the ongoing movement toward equality and justice and against racism.
America to Me
From Hoop Dreams director Steve James (with some segments co-directed by Minding the Gap filmmaker Bing Liu) comes an important and engrossing limited docuseries following students (and their parents) and staff at a high school just outside Chicago. One of the points of the ten-episode series is to recognize the need for racial equity rather than equality, the issue being that not all individuals or groups of people should be treated the same way. Here, of course, it’s primarily applied to the education system. Starz has made the 2018 series available in its entirety.
And when I die, I won’t stay dead
Bob Kaufman is an under-appreciated but nonetheless legendary American poet and performer who was part of the Beat Generation, one of only a few African Americans associated with that movement. Following his peak as a writer, he was unnecessarily jailed and given shock treatments and later took lengthy vows of silence. Nearly thirty years after his death, he received this documentary about his life and work from Billy Woodberry, the filmmaker’s first directorial effort since his LA Rebellion classic Bless Their Little Hearts. You can hear readings of Kaufman’s poems by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in the feature, which The Criterion Channel has made available to stream for free.
Denzel Washington made his feature directorial debut with this biographical drama scripted by the titular Fisher and based on his memoir detailing the abuses he suffered growing up. He’s played by Derek Luke in an award-winning breakthrough performance while Washington portrays the psychiatrist who guides Fisher through his healing. Fox has made the movie available for free on all digital platforms, including FandangoNOW, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
Khalik Allah’s poetic collage of a documentary pays tribute to the people of Jamaica through a variety of footage shot with all kinds of film and video cameras. The subjects of his lens include sex workers and pregnant women and beggars as well as holy men. The soundtrack contains dialogues in voiceover out of sync with the images (but not out of touch with them). Black Mother is part of a collection of Allah’s films newly curated by The Criterion Channel, which has made this one free to stream.
One of a few films on this list not made by a filmmaker of color, Black Panthers is Agnes Varda’s documentary on the 1968 protests in Oakland over the arrest of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, who is interviewed while he’s behind bars. The short was produced during Varda’s period in California while her husband Jacques Demy was working on a Hollywood film and was intended mainly for audiences back home in France. The Criterion Collection has since released the film as part of a special collection and now The Criterion Channel has made it available for free.
Body and Soul
Paul Robeson stars in dual roles as twins in this 1925 silent film by Oscar Micheaux, the leading producer and writer and director of race films who had made what’s believed to have been the first feature by an all-Black cast and crew (The Homesteader) six years earlier. Body and Soul, which Micheaux adapted from his own novel, is about a criminal (Robeson) posing as a minister in an African-American community in Georgia. The Criterion Channel recently curated the film as part of its Pioneers of African American Cinema and has now made it available for free.
This biopic stars Aldis Hodge as the titular NFL linebacker who had spent time in prison after high school when he was falsely accused of rape. The movie follows his story from the time of his release as he attempts to clear his name and pursue a professional football career. Distributor Bleecker Street has made it available for free on all digital outlets, including FandangoNOW, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
Originally premiered in 1982, posthumously following the death of writer/director/producer Horace B. Jenkins, Cane River was considered lost for the next 30 years. Rediscovered in 2013, restored and debuted again in 2018 and finally re-released this year, the romantic drama follows a story of forbidden love and depicts the clash between two communities of color in Louisiana. The Criterion Channel has made the film, which involved an all-Black cast and crew, for free.
Daughters of the Dust
A groundbreaking independent film, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was the first feature directed by an African-American woman to be theatrically released in the US. The drama portrays, with award-winning cinematography, three generations of women from a family living off the coast of Georgia at the turn of the 20th century. The Criterion Channel has made the film available for free.
Down in the Delta
The only feature film directed by iconic author and poet Maya Angelou, Down in the Delta stars Alfre Woodard as a drug-addicted Chicago woman who leaves the city for Mississippi one summer with her young children. While staying with her uncle and working in his restaurant, she learns the history of their family going back to the time of slavery. The Criterion Channel has made the 1998 film available for free.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
No horror fan — or anyone at all for that matter — should be unfamiliar with the contributions to the genre made by African-Americans on screen and off, as well as the role they’ve played in horror films through the history of cinema, positively and negatively. This documentary, adapted from the book of the same name, explores that history and details a cultural study into stereotypes, tropes, and more. Shudder has made it available for free.
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, which is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, takes up the story of James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir Remember This House, which pays tribute to assassinated Black leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film also features archival interviews with Baldwin as he reflects on America and its history of racism. Magnolia Pictures will make the doc available along with a virtual post-screening discussion around the country on June 7th. PBS also has made the film available free on its website via the Independent Lens series through June 21st.
John Lewis: Get in the Way
Not to be confused with Dawn Porter’s essential new feature documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, this hour-long 2017 film shines a spotlight on the titular civil rights leader, who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and later became a US congressman, first elected to the House in 1987 and still representing Georgia’s 5th district to this day. PBS has made the documentary available for free on its website through July 5th.
Michael B. Jordan portrays legendary civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson in this biopic, which first opened theatrically late last year before its wide release in January. Co-written and directed by future Marvel movie helmer Destin Daniel Cretton, the legal drama focuses on the true case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), an African-American man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman in 1980s Alabama. Warner Bros. has made the movie available for free on all digital platforms, including FandangoNOW, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
Let the Fire Burn
Jon Osder’s extraordinary 2013 documentary chronicles the outrageous story of what happened to the black liberation group MOVE. During a standoff in 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped bombs on the organization’s headquarters and then left the building to burn, unassisted by firefighters, killing many of its members and their children. The Maysles Documentary Center has made the film available for free (though a donation is encouraged) with an introduction from documentarian Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) via their virtual cinema.
Another recently rediscovered Black film, Losing Ground was the second of two features directed by the late African-American poet, playwright, and professor Kathleen Collins. While Julie Dash is the first African-American woman to direct a feature distributed theatrically in the US with Daughters of the Dust, Collins’ films were primarily shown at festivals. This movie, about a professor and her husband spending a summer away from their city home, was finally publicly released in 2015 after being restored. The Criterion Channell has now made it available for free.
Monsters and Men
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s 2018 drama, which was likely inspired by the death of Eric Garner, follows three characters through the aftermath of a black man killed by a police officer. Anthony Ramos plays the eyewitness who captured the whole thing on his camera phone. John David Washington plays an African-American cop conflicted about the case. And Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays a teenage bystander who considers becoming an activist in the wake of what he saw. Distributor Neon has made the movie available for free via YouTube.
My Brother’s Wedding
This 1983 “tragicomedy” is writer/director Charles Burnett’s feature follow-up to his classic debut, Killer of Sheep. The indie film, which was reworked and re-released in 2007, follows a young man in South Central Los Angeles who, among other problems, isn’t happy about his lawyer brother marrying up, socially, and not interested in being the best man. The Criterion Channel has made it available for free to stream.
Portrait of Jason
Shirley Clarke’s 1967 documentary is one of the best films on LGBTQIA culture and consists solely of an interview with gay hustler and cabaret performer Jason Holliday conducted at the Chelsea Hotel. There’s really nothing like him or this film. The Criterion Channel has made it available to stream for free.
The Scar of Shame
Another silent race film, this one is directed by Frank Perugini and produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation, based in Philadelphia. The melodrama stars Harry Henderson as a musician who rescues then marries a young woman whom he witnesses being abused by her stepfather. But his bride is from a lower social status, so that makes things difficult for his own family. The Criterion Channel included the film in its Pioneers of African American Cinema curation and has now made it available to stream for free.
Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-winning historical drama (our movie of the year for 2014) stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. during his marches for equal voting rights in Alabama in 1966. Nominated for Best Picture (and snubbed in the Best Director category), Selma also features Oprah Winfrey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Niecy Nash, LaKeith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, and Carmen Ejogo playing Coretta Scott King for the second time, plus Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson. Paramount Pictures has made the movie available for free on all digital rental outlets, including FandangoNOW, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
The Secret Lives of Bees
This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel was scripted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and stars Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo opposite a young Dakota Fanning in the leading role. The coming-of-age drama, which takes place in South Carolina in 1964 and was released in 2008, has been made available as a free rental from all the digital outlets, including FandangoNOW, Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.
A short documentary from 1982 directed by Camille Billops and James Hatch, Suzanne, Suzanne is about a teenage girl — part of Billiops’ family — who was abused as a child and now abuses drugs and alcohol. The twenty-five-minute film was made available to stream for free by The Criterion Channel.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
William Greaves’ experimental meta-documentary from 1968 follows the making of a documentary about the making of a fiction film starring acting students while also presenting that dramatic film being made, too. Featuring a mix of footage shot from different angles, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One often plays out in split-screen. It is now available to stream for free via The Criterion Channel.
Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am
While currently available to Hulu subscribers, the biographical documentary Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am features the late author Toni Morrison on-screen in a late-in-life appearance telling her own story alongside testimonial interviews from such figures as Oprah Winfrey and Angela Davis. It is part of Magnolia’s month-long plan to stream select films free for everyone — with more specific info going out to their mailing list — and will be available to watch on June 21st.
The Watermelon Woman
One of the landmarks of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, this lesbian rom-com is a bit of a hybrid, as it features documentary-style interviews with real people, including the mother of filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, who also stars in the movie as a character named Cheryl who is making a documentary. However, the subject of that doc is fictional, as is the central love story pairing Dunye with a woman played by screenwriter Guinevere Turner. The Criterion Channel has made The Watermelon Woman, which was unfortunately and unfairly controversial upon its release, available to stream for free.
A Well-Spent Life
This short documentary from Les Blank, who is best known for directing Burden of Dreams, and co-director Skip Gerson was originally released in 1971 and is about legendary Blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb. The Criterion Channel has made the forty-four-minute-long film, which is also part of their essential Blank box set, available to stream for free.
Directors and activists Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis immerse us alongside the Ferguson unrest of late 2014 and early 2015, which was a significant step in the Black Lives Matter movement. The documentary, which subjectively and powerfully provides an insider’s perspective on not just the protests but also their planning, is one of Magnolia’s selection of films being made available to watch free this month — specific details of which will be shared to their mailing list. Whose Streets? will be offered on June 14th.