20 great movies for families to watch in honor of Black History Month

Sonja Haller and Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
·9-min read

Hollywood doesn't always get history right. But it has given us some exceptional movies that deal with racial prejudice and civil rights, complete with A-list names like Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Sidney Poitier and Chadwick Boseman.

If you're a fan of films, you can celebrate Black History Month by watching these 20 movies that depict the lives of African-American heroes and the ongoing quest for greater human decency, all of them appropriate for kids (in some cases, older kids) and families to watch together. Even more heartening: Many of them are recent and reflect America's current racial reckoning.

1. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

Gregory Peck, front left, stars as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters, front right,  stars as Tom Robinson in the 1962 movie version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Gregory Peck, front left, stars as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters, front right, stars as Tom Robinson in the 1962 movie version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

This timeless film stars acting great Gregory Peck and is based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Peck stars as Atticus Finch, father of the film’s narrator, Scout. Atticus defends a Black man, Tom Robinson, after he’s accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell. The accusation and trial turn the Finches’ small Depression-era Alabama town upside down. The film won three Academy Awards.

Where to watch: YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime

2. 'Hidden Figures' (2016)

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, it's the story of African-American women who served as human computers and made other vital contributions to NASA during the '50s and '60s that helped launch the space program. For ages 10 and older.

Where to watch: Disney+

3. 'A Ballerina's Tale' (2015)

The documentary shares the story of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland.
The documentary shares the story of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland.

This documentary examines race and body image in the elite ballet world with the rise of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland. She was the first principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theater. For ages 9 and older.

Where to watch: Sling TV Premium, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play

4. 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' (2013)

Robin Williams is Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker is Cecil Gaines in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Robin Williams is Dwight Eisenhower, left, and Forest Whitaker is Cecil Gaines in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

Loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, a Black man who worked at the White House for 34 years before retiring as head butler in 1986, this drama stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines. During Gaines’ tenure at the White House, he has a unique perspective on landmark social and political events such as president Dwight D. Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock Central High School in support of school desegregation and the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo and Robin Williams are among the all-star cast.

Where to watch: Netflix

5. 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' (1967)

Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1967 movie that challenged people's attitudes about an interracial relationship.
Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1967 movie that challenged people's attitudes about an interracial relationship.

Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), a 23-year-old white woman, brings home her Black fiancé (Sidney Poitier) to meet her upper-class family. Despite being liberal, Drayton’s parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have a hard time adjusting to the relationship. The comedic drama made waves when it was released as it was among the first films to depict interracial marriage in a positive light. It came out the same year that the Supreme Court issued Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage.

Where to watch: Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play

6. '42' (2013)

Chadwick Boseman is baseball great Jackie Robinson in "42."
Chadwick Boseman is baseball great Jackie Robinson in "42."

The inspiring biopic follows the two years in which Jackie Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) broke the sport's color barrier in Major League Baseball. Families can expect to hear many uses of the "N" word and the movie has serious racial themes. So it would be best for ages 11 and older.

Where to watch: fuboTV, Philo, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu

7. 'The Help' (2011)

Octavia Spencer, left, and Viola Davis star in "The Help."
Octavia Spencer, left, and Viola Davis star in "The Help."

The PG-13 movie is best suited for mature tweens as there is smoking, the "N" word, an abusive marriage and a miscarriage with blood. An aspiring writer (Emma Stone) seeks to tell the story of the struggles of the African-American maids (including Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis) who work for white families during the 1960s.

Where to watch: Netflix

8. 'Remember the Titans' (2000)

Denzel Washington stars as Coach Herman Boone in "Remember the Titans."
Denzel Washington stars as Coach Herman Boone in "Remember the Titans."

Denzel Washington stars in the true story of a new African-American high school football coach at a newly integrated school in Alexandria, Va. in 1971. The Titans are struggling to get along and play as a team, divided by racial tensions, when a major player is critically injured in a car accident. Recommended for ages 10 and older.

Where to watch: Disney+

9. 'Selma' (2014)

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma."
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma."

A critically acclaimed historical drama, "Selma" chronicles the Selma to Montgomery marches led by civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo). The marches, held over a period of 18 days, aimed to secure equal voting rights and were met with violent resistance. They contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act, considered a watershed moment in U.S. history.

Where to watch: Hulu Premium, Sling TV Premium, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime

10. 'A Raisin in the Sun' (1961)

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier star in the 1961 classic "A Raisin in the Sun," based on the Lorraine Hansberry play.
Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier star in the 1961 classic "A Raisin in the Sun," based on the Lorraine Hansberry play.

Based on the landmark play by Lorraine Hansberry and starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr., an African-American family living in Chicago works for a better way of life amid poverty and racism and disagree on how to distance themselves from both. The classic film, which was selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2005, is recommended for teens.

Where to watch: Vudu, Amazon, Apple TV, FandangoNOW

11. 'Hairspray' (2007)

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, this musical comedy manages to tackle issues of race, weight and sexism – all while keeping your foot tapping to the beat. Heavyset Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) lands a spot as a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” setting the wheels in motion for new friendships, interracial love and even a civil-rights march. As Black character Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) sings in one of our favorite songs, “I can't see why people look at me and only see the color of my face.”

Where to watch: HBO Max

12. 'Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story' (2015)

The prestigious Ballet Russe wants Janet Collins to dance for them in the 1930s. But they want her to paint her skin white. This true, animated short movie talks about the determination that led Collins to become the first African-American ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. For ages 5 and older.

Where to watch: Kanopy

13. 'Loving' (2016)

Ruth Negga (left) and Joel Edgerton star in "Loving."
Ruth Negga (left) and Joel Edgerton star in "Loving."

This is the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), whose interracial marriage would end with a historic 1967 Supreme Court decision. Because of their interracial marriage, the couple are arrested, roughed up, insulted and booted from their home. Families can expect to hear the "N" word and the word "bastard" in reference to one of their children. Recommended for ages 12 and older.

Where to watch: Netflix

14. 'March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World' (2008)

The Scholastic Storybook episode includes narrations with book images and archival photographs from four children's books. The first two focus on Martin Luther King Jr., a third looks at Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. The final one examines how a slave mailed himself to freedom. Recommended for ages 4 and older.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

15. 'The Journey of Henry Box Brown' (2005)

This is the true, inspirational story of a slave who shipped himself to freedom. The animated movie discusses basic freedom conditions and the personal sadness that Henry Brown feels at the loss of his family members. Although the subject matter is serious, children 5 and older will be uplifted by the message that unless we are all free, none of us are free.

Where to watch: Kanopy

16. 'Becoming’ (2020)

"Becoming," a documentary starring Michelle Obama, is available on Netflix.
"Becoming," a documentary starring Michelle Obama, is available on Netflix.

Michelle Obama’s brother calls her “the most popular person in the world,” and this insightful and uplifting documentary makes it easy to figure out why. The former first lady is seen as inspirational role model and super-cool woman as cameras follow her on the 34-city tour that accompanied her 2018 memoir. The best parts are the candid moments with her daughters and Secret Service agents. Includes some discussion of police violence and racism.

Where to watch: Netflix

17. ‘Black Is King’ (2020)

Beyoncé's visual album "Black Is King" is inspired by "The Lion King."
Beyoncé's visual album "Black Is King" is inspired by "The Lion King."

Beyoncé's visual album is a rich, nuanced study of identity and the beauty of Blackness, dedicated to her son and delivered as America forces itself to confront its inherent racism and brutality toward Black people. There’s an empowering message that everyone is destined for greatness, but it includes some mature themes and is rated TV-14.

Where to watch: Disney+

18. ‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’ (2020)

The life's work of congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis is chronicled in the documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble."
The life's work of congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis is chronicled in the documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble."

This documentary is a fascinating deep dive into the life of the charismatic Georgia congressman and Alabama native who was inspired by Rosa Parks and marched as a young man with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. He took vicious beatings and was arrested 40 times working to end segregation and fighting for Black people's right to vote, and continued to get in "necessary trouble" now – his phrase meaning fighting the good fight – working against voter suppression efforts. Best for older kids, because it includes archival footage of police getting violent with protesters.

Where to watch: HBO Max

19. ‘Miss Juneteenth’ (2020)

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie, left) and Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) are a mother-daughter duo with a tight bond but different pictures of the future in "Miss Juneteenth."
Turquoise (Nicole Beharie, left) and Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) are a mother-daughter duo with a tight bond but different pictures of the future in "Miss Juneteenth."

Not only is this drama a primer on the historical importance of Juneteenth, it's also a well-told story of Texas single mom Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) who grooms her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the same beauty pageant she won back in the day, as well as for a better life – though the teen would rather try out for her high school dance team. Best for teens, with profanity, drinking and smoking and use of the “N” word.

Where to watch: Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play

20. 'Safety' (2020)

Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves, center right) and his little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) get hyped before a Clemson game in the Disney+ sports drama "Safety."
Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves, center right) and his little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) get hyped before a Clemson game in the Disney+ sports drama "Safety."

A true-life story that gives you all the feels and some hard-hitting action. A Clemson freshman (Jay Reeves) risks his football scholarship by having his little brother (Thaddeus J. Mixson) secretly live on campus with him when their drug-abusing mom goes to rehab in an emotional real-life tale about the power of community. The story includes addiction and absent parents, so it’s most appropriate for older tweens.

Where to watch: Disney+

Contributing: Andrea Mandell and Kim Willis

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black History Month: 20 great movies for families to watch