Here's what to watch this Black History Month

Quinta Brunson (center) in a still from "Abbott Elementary." (Courtesy Liliane Lathan/ABC)
Quinta Brunson (center) in a still from "Abbott Elementary." (Courtesy Liliane Lathan/ABC)

From the indulgent revenge of a Black Western nodding to the real lives of Stagecoach Mary, Nat Love, Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill to the latest slow-burn horror series starring fresh, Black talent, there is a bounty of new film and television to stream this Black History Month. Those seeking reflective interiority will find deft explorations of the color line in Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” while microbudget independent projects (“African America” and “Daughters of Eve”) tackle the challenges Black women face when trying to define themselves and their faith. Levity comes in droves through Quinta Bronson’s new hit, “Abbott Elementary,” delivering can’t-breathe-laughs with its packed cast of talent. There’s something for all us in this streaming guide: the Black horror nerds, the dads that love Van Cleef/Eastwood showdowns, the indie cinephiles and more.

'The Harder They Fall' (2021)

The revisionist Western by singer-songwriter-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (known musically as The Bullitts) is an indulgent carousel of violent retribution. After witnessing the brutal murder of his parents, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) becomes a remorseless outlaw hellbent on avenging their deaths. Like the best of Western heroes, Love is dripping with a gritty chivalry and cunning which earns him the loyalty of the Nat Love Gang (Delroy Lindo, Danielle Deadwyler, RJ Cyler and Edi Gathegi). As the gang rides to confront their rivals (Idris Elba, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield), we’re treated to an explosive chase of honor that pays homage to the real life figures the film’s characters are based on. The best parts of the Western are all here: slick-tonged outlaws, tragically magnetic lovers, loyal packs of marauders. Yet Samuel’s revision recalibrates the capitalist imperialism and masculinist ambition that defines the genre to produce a decadent, speculative history of forgotten Black cowboys, deputies and saloon-owners of the late 19th century. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

'African America' (2021)

Chasing Broadway dreams, a South African woman deserts her fiancé, travels to New York and toils with the stark reality she finds. Written by and starring Phumelele Mthembu, the microbudget indie offers a sober clash between the dreamy naiveté of Nompumelelo (Mthembu) and the grim political landscape of Trump’s America. While Nompumelelo grapples with her rash choices, her escalating distress and nagging self-doubt nip at the dreams which once guided her. Mthembu’s debut feature dares to portray an imperfect, impetuous woman with the gall to leave behind a career and husband in search of a dream stolen. The film is nominated for an NAACP 2022 Image Award. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

'Passing' (2021)

Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel gets arthouse treatment in Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of the New Negro novella. Hall, who draws from her own family history, brings the story to life. Larsen’s quiet exploration of racial passing underscored the unrelenting boundaries of color and belonging that plagued the “tragic mullata.” Hall’s film meets Larsen’s tonal anguish and amplifies the distress of two Black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who stand on opposite sides of an arbitrary – yet consequential – color line. Hall’s employ of black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio is fitting for a story that deals in gradients and constriction. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

'Daughters of Eve' (2021)

A documentary by independent filmmaker, producer and writer Zanah Thirus dismantles the misogynistic (mis)readings of biblical texts and the impact these false teachings pose on the empowerment and spiritual curiosity of women. Thirus, who grounds herself in the doc, was raised in the church but never satisfied with the answers she received when pushing back against the teachings of female subservience and purity that are so embedded in evangelistic religious cultures. Thirus interviews female preachers, reverends and theologians to trace the imprecise biblical translations that birth thwarted interpretations of a subservient Eve. Thirus manages to interrogate the work of false messengers along the way who obfuscate biblical context in the name of power while remaining respectful of the faith and those that wish to use their curiosity to grow in it. (Available for rental on Vimeo.)

'Harlem' (2021)

A cure for “Insecure” withdrawals, this 10-episode series is a savory comedy about a Harlem friend group created by Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip,” “Awkward Black Girl”). An adjunct anthropology professor, rising tech star, anguished fashion designer, and Broadway hopeful coalesce in a synergetic boom (Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers, and Shoniqua Shandai) as they sift through their careers and love lives. As many of us continue to (rightfully) rail against the cancellation of “High Fidelity,” the strength and dimensionality of this series feels especially important to underscore. The series leans into the gnawing pressures of proving yourself as a young Black person — be it to yourself, your parents or your peers. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

'Abbott Elementary' (2021—)

Few things are as exciting as Quinta Brunson’s meteoric rise in the comedy space, as proven by the new ABC comedy modeled on the likes of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Brunson writes and stars as Janine Teagues, a second-grade teacher at a grossly under-resourced Philadelphia elementary school who is motivated by an unrelenting belief in her students. A symbiotically hilarious central cast (Janelle James, Tyler James Williams, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Chris Perfetti and Lisa Ann Walter) are buoyed by even funnier students who roast their teachers and drive them to gambling pools. Brunson’s comedy showcases the lengths teachers will go for their students. (Episodes air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on ABC and are available to stream on Hulu after airing.)

'We Need to Talk About Cosby' (2022—)

Emmy-nominated documentarian and comedian W. Kamau Bell dares to do the messy work of dissecting the legacy and fall of Bill Cosby. Bell goes so far as to pronounce himself a child of Bill Cosby – reminding us of the deep ways Cosby’s ethos and television programs were imbricated in our childhood and understanding of family and community. Bell’s four-part docuseries contends with the dark shadow left by a pillar in the Black community whose influence extended from children to adults. The series screened at Sundance. (New episodes air on Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime.)

'Archive 81' (2022)

Based on a found-footage horror podcast of the same name, “Archive 81” stars Mamoudou Athie: a meticulous film archivist enticed into restoring a bunker-full of damaged footage from a suspicious fire. While working, Dan Turner (Athie) discovers a history of occult secrets in a Manhattan building. Where the podcast deals in a Lovecraftian supernaturalism, this television adaptation pivots to a heady web of cult worship. Among the most enrapturing elements of the series is Athie himself; chillingly transmuting terror as he uncovers secrets woven into his understanding of his own mental sanity. Having filmed during the height of the pandemic and the racial protests in Summer of 2020, Athie has noted in interviews the dread and isolation of that moment which he imbued into this leading role. Athie’s magnetic performance continues to defy the belief that, in horror, the Black characters always die first. The show spent days in the number one spot on Netflix’s top 10 list and burns slowly. (Now streaming on Netflix.)



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