17 Documentaries You Should Watch During Black Music Month

June is Black Music Month (shout out to legendary radio maven Dyana Williams for making sure this became an annual celebration AND to the fact that it’s celebrating 40 years!!!) and it’s during this month there’s a larger concentration on what Black culture has contributed to the international canon. There will be music festivals (The Roots Picnic and Queen City Jazz Festival to name a few), television specials (PBS is honoring Prince Rogers Nelson in celebration of his birthday), and radio will pay special attention to play more of your oldies favorites like MJJ and Luther Vandross. Good, good times.

However, for those of us that like to take deeper cuts and really sink our teeth into material that not only celebrates our music icons but also explains them and their journeys to greatness, there is a large swath of documentaries currently airing or soon to be airing during the month of June. With closer looks at Hip-Hop acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan, musicians like Jimi HendrixNina Simone, and John Coltrane, and singers like Aretha FranklinSam Cooke and Whitney Houston, this Black Music Month is sure to have something that all of us can enjoy. 

Below is a list of 17 DOCUMENTARIES YOU SHOULD WATCH DURING BLACK MUSIC MONTH 2019. Take a look… and enjoy!


QUINCY

(2018, NETFLIX)

This documentary profiles music and cultural icon Quincy Jones, offering unprecedented access to his private life and stories from his unparalleled career.

There’s so much to explore when it comes to Sir Q’s life, this two hour window into his existence doesn’t seem like enough. Produced by his daughter Rashida Jones, the doc takes us on Quincy’s journey from playing trumpet for scraps in Seattle to composing a theme song about selling scraps in LA. So necessary. So, so good. (Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes)


TEDDY PENDERGRASS: IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME

(2019, SHOWTIME)

This documentary explores the rise of Teddy Pendergrass, the first male African American artist to record five consecutive platinum albums against the backdrop of 1960s America, and his comeback after a life-changing accident.

There’s so much you might not know about Teddy, like how he was treated by Harold Melvin, or just how much of an impact he had on the ladies, or what it took for him to sing following his tragic one-car accident. This documentary will tell you all of that, and then some. If you didn’t know him before, you will after watching. (Running time: 105 minutes)


AMAZING GRACE

(2018, IN THEATERS)

Singer Aretha Franklin performs gospel songs at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972.

What makes Amazing Grace a must-see is, of course, the fact that we just lost the Queen of Soul last year, but also the fact that it’s a concert film. Right. Just young Aretha and that angelic voice, singing the genre of music she was born to sing. DIrected by Syndey Pollack, It’s a master class from one of the world’s greatest singers, who might just be the reason Black Music Month came to exist. Rest well, Ms. Franklin. (Running time: 87 minutes)


REMASTERED: THE TWO KILLINGS OF SAM COOKE

(2018, NETFLIX)

While Sam Cooke rose to stardom as a soul singer, his outspoken views on civil rights drew attention that may have contributed to his death at 33.

Listen. There’s no way Sam Cooke’s life should’ve been taken from him at such a young age. He was already a formidable soul singer with history on his mind. There’s no telling what his career would’ve looked like if he were allowed to grow into the activist/artist he was destined to become. This is one of the best documentaries made about his life. Just be prepared to shed a thug tear or two. Yeah. It’s like that. (Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes)


WHITNEY

(2018, AMAZON PRIME)

Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald examines the life and career of singer Whitney Houston. Features never-before-seen archival footage, exclusive recordings, rare performances and interviews with the people who knew her best.

There are so many things I feel we may have conveniently forgotten about the late, great Whitney Houston, like how she was octracized by Black folks for not singing “Black enough,” or how her relationship with her father became estranged. This documentary covers it all, from how Rev. Al Sharpton went from boycotting the otherworldly diva to speaking at her funeral. It’s a lot. Be prepared. (Running time: 122 minutes)


WU-TANG CLAN: OF MICS AND MEN

(2019, SHOWTIME)

This limited docuseries looks back on the group’s career, combining intimate and reflective interviews from each of the nine living members with never-before-seen archival footage and performances. Their ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit brought them together to overcome the poverty, violence and oppression of their New York neighborhoods. But it was music and their shared lyrical genius that allowed them to form the most recognized musical movement in the world, all while walking the tightrope that links business with brotherhood.

There’s so much genius in this four-aprt series and if we’re being honest, not all of it was captured here. Like, there could be a four-part series on each individual member and it would be as enthralling as this is. However, if we’re gonna throw the word genius around, I’ll give that title to RZA, who formed and led this collective with an unmatched precision. Well, until he didn’t. This is something you need to see. For the culture. (Running time: four episodes)


MISS SHARON JONES!

(2015, STARZ!)

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple follows rhythm and blues singer Sharon Jones as she tries to hold her band together while battling pancreatic cancer.

There are a variety of things a person cannot do while battling any type of cancer. I would’ve thought that holding a band together while touring internationally would top that list. And I’d be wrong. This documentary will make you cry for sure, but it will also help you to see what an extraordinary woman Sharon Jones really was. And why her legacy, along with her voice, will live on forever. My goodness. (Running time: 93 minutes)


MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL

(2016, SHOWTIME)

The story of the rise of the future pop icon soon after leaving Motown and his brothers, chronicling the making of his first solo album, 1979’s Off The Wall.

This is honestly one of my favorite documentaries if only because it tells the story of the making of one of my favorite albums. It’s filled with archived footage and interviews with the Jackson brothers, Quincy Jones, and Michael himself, giving a firsthand testimony to how the album was made. It even tells the story of the handwritten note 21-year old Michael wrote to himself about his aspirations for the future. Some include him changing his name to simply MJ and letting the world know that they “should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC’ or ‘I Want You Back.'” So, there it is. (Running time: 110 minutes)


BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST

(2011, AMAZON PRIME)

Actor Michael Rapaport examines the music of the 1990s hip-hop group as well as the conflicts that drove the band members apart.

You might have known that tension existed between ATCQ members before the documentary aired, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for just how much. And for how the band members, even after years apart, didn’t totally handle and squash whatever beefs remained. It’s half trip down memory lane, half master class as we see Tip make beats out of album covers (not really, but almost) and Phife create iconic verses even when he didn’t really want to be in the studio. They were magic separately. Legendary together. RIP Phife Dawg. (Running time: 97 minutes)


CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY

(2016, NETFLIX)

Set against the social, political and cultural landscape of the times, CHASING TRANE brings John Coltrane to life as a fully dimensional being, inviting the audience to engage with Coltrane the man, Coltrane the artist.

There’s something to be said for almost all of our legendary musicians and artists leaving this Earth early. John Coltrane died at 40 years old, but not before changing the face of Jazz. Twice. The documentary is full of great stories that chronicle his life, but even if you just tuned in for the part that documented his creation of “A Love Supreme,” you’d be satisfied. Promise. So, so good. (Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes)


MARLEY

(2012, MAGNOLIA PICTURES)

Bob Marley’s universal appeal, impact on music history, and role as a social and political prophet is both unique and unparalleled. MARLEY is the definitive life story of the musician, revolutionary, legend, and the man, from his early days to his rise to international superstardom. Made with the support of the Marley family, the film features rare footage, never before seen performances, previously unreleased music, and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best. (Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes)


HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCÉ

(2019, NETFLIX)

This intimate, in-depth look at Beyoncé’s celebrated 2018 Coachella performance reveals the emotional road from creative concept to cultural movement.

There are many words I could write to try and entice you to go check out this year’s dopest concert documentary, but honestly do I need to? I mean, it’s the 2018 Coachella performance by former Destiny’s Child member and now global entertainer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Go. Watch. Now. You’re welcome. (Running time: 137 minutes)


NAT ‘KING’ COLE: AFRAID OF THE DARK

(2014, NETFLIX)

Poignant insights into the musician’s personal and public life, including how he dealt with racial tension in the U.S.

I was surprised how much I remembered about Nat ‘King’ Cole while watching this documentary. And let me be clear: it’s what I knew about HIM. This doc will give you so much more information about his family, including his daughters and son, as well as what the legendary singer went through during a career that should’ve been so much more. Oh, also… two words: White. Face. Ugh. (Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes)


JIMI HENDRIX: VOODOO CHILD

(2010, NETFLIX)

Vintage concert footage, personal artifacts and his intimate musings reveal the private side of the life and career of the rock-guitar god.

What makes this documentary stand out is that Hendrix tells his story in his own words, even though it made its debut three years after his untimely death. Such a great tribute to the man, the genius, the legend. (Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes)


MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN

(2014, NETFLIX)

This biographical documentary examines the early life and career of musical icon James Brown, from abandoned, impoverished child to Godfather of Soul.

Some of our heroes are problematic. That’s how I’d describe James Brown, who was simultaneously a musical icon and a woman abuser. It’s a hard reckoning for all of us who love his music and his status as the saintly Godfather of Soul, and still understand the need to hold him accountable for his sins. This documentary tells of his rise to stardom. And is well done. (Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes)


WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

(2015, NETFLIX)

Classically trained pianist, dive-bar chanteuse, Black power icon and legendary recording artist Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius, and tortured melancholy.

Full disclosure: I watch this documentary whenever I need a dose of Black execellence. While it’s true that Miss Simone lived a complicated life, there’s no greater truth than the fact that she was a master piano player and genius songwriter. One of my music heroes. (Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes)


THE BLACK GODFATHER: THE CLARENCE AVANT STORY

(2019, NETFLIX)

The documentary chronicles Avant’s life, from fighting his way through Jim Crow America to eventually having an impact on luminaries as diverse as Quincy Jones, Muhammad Ali and Bill Clinton.

Can’t wait for this. It debuts this month and is sure to be one of the most comprehensive docs Netflix has ever released. Word to Reggie Hudlin. (Running time: TBA)


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