Every Black History Month, it’s tempting to bombard eager viewers with recommendations for films and TV shows that recount our nation’s troubling history with racism and the myriad ways Black people have tirelessly persevered to come out on top. Stories of slavery, persecution, and police brutality have become the norm, shining a light on the damaging power of unchecked white privilege and pointing out the similarities between “now” and “then.” While those tales are certainly important — if you have yet to watch Ava DuVernay’s powerful When They See Us, I implore you to drop everything and queue it up on Netflix right now — it’s equally paramount to remember that Black people should not solely be defined by our trauma. We are also human beings with complex inner lives, just trying to survive in normal ways like anyone else.
Which is why, this year, NYLON has compiled a list of eight films and TV shows that speak to the Black experience in non-traumatic terms. From groundbreaking shows like HBO’s Insecure and FX’s Atlanta to heartwarming films like Sylvie’s Love and Love & Basketball, these titles are uplifting and empowering while still being informative. Sure, many of them still touch upon the racism that runs rampant across the world. But rather than make that the primary focus, these titles dare to tell stories that put their Black characters’ real life experiences front and center.
During both years that Atlanta aired, it was my favorite show of the year. The tale of struggling rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and his ambitious college dropout cousin Earn (creator Donald Glover), Atlanta was not only refreshing in its novel approach to naturalistic storytelling about low-income Black communities, but without a doubt, it was also one of the most formally inventive shows on TV. Though its depiction of Southern Black life always felt hyper-realistic, Atlanta often found opportunities to blend in elements of the surreal. This is a world where Justin Bieber is Black, where invisible cars not only exist but can drive through people in nightclub parking lots, and where students casually show up to class in whiteface.
And that doesn’t even cover the transgressive cinematic genius that was “Teddy Perkins,” a second season episode that confronted abuse, race, and, eventually, murder. A shocking episode of television that could have easily swept awards on the festival circuit as a standalone short film, “Teddy Perkins” was a tour-de-force for the inimitable Lakeith Stanfield and a surprisingly strong showcase for creator and star Donald Glover as the creepy titular character, who so successfully faded into his role that many people didn’t even realize it was him until days later. After taking almost three years off, FX is set to air two seasons of the breakout series later this year — meaning there’s never been a more apt time to catch up than now.
Coming to America (Amazon Prime)
As a film about a clueless African prince venturing out to America in hopes of finding a wife that won’t blindly acquiesce to his every request, Coming to America was naturally silly at its heart. Starring an up-and-coming Eddie Murphy (post-Beverly Hills Cop, pre-The Nutty Professor), this John Landis-directed comedy had all the makings of a slapstick classic. But in 1988, the film also acted as something more profound: it was an exhibitor of Black wealth and power, showing a world where Black people were in charge, where they could be kings and queens in command of their own servants. In no short order, Coming to America was aspirational.
Boasting an all-star cast — in addition to Murphy, there was Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and Garcelle Beauvais, amongst others — Coming to America was a welcomed celebration of Black talent and a gentle reminder that, outside America, Blackness is not only appreciated, but uplifted. Long before Beyoncé declared that Black Is King, this uproarious comedy offered inspiring proof that people of darker skin tones could also be royals, having roses sprinkled at their feet while they cleaned their teeth with gold toothbrushes. Next month, Amazon Studios will release Coming 2 America, the long-awaited sequel to this 1988 classic (and I mean long-awaited: 33 years, to be exact). I can only hope that it’ll live up to its namesake.
Dear White People (Netflix)
Back in 2014, Justin Simien blew audiences out the water with his remarkable feature debut Dear White People, a searing satire about the myriad experiences of several Black students attending college at a predominantly white institution. Several years later, he returned with a Netflix series of the same name, keeping the same concept while switching out several actors and expanding the storyline to dive even deeper into their individual experiences. By focusing on such a diverse group of Black people, Simien has successfully managed to do what many before him have failed to do: show that Blackness is not a monolith. The life of a gay Black journalist is much different than that of a rich Black football player, who, as the son of the school’s dean, is the frequent beneficiary of blatant nepotism. The same could be said of a dark-skinned girl from a meager background, who desperately seeks approval from her white peers — of course her life is different than the light-skinned host of the titular radio show, who tries to overcompensate for being half-white by taking on every pro-Black cause that she can.
From the beginning, this Netflix series has broken barriers. Now, three seasons later (with a fourth and final one set to air later this year), Dear White People has solidified itself as one of the smartest satires currently on air, unafraid to confront uncomfortable truths about Blackness and whiteness alike. But don’t take my word for it — if this show was “controversial” enough that white people threatened to boycott Netflix for ever even greenlighting it, it has to be good, right?
I May Destroy You (HBO Max)
It’s hard to fathom the reality that the HFPA could possibly ignore what was inarguably the best TV show of 2020 in the same year that they recognized what was arguably one of its worst — and yet, here we are, living on a timeline where I May Destroy You has no Golden Globe nominations while Emily In Paris has two. Luckily, however, the HFPA’s short-sightedness has no bearing on the actual power of Michaela Coel’s riveting semi-autobiographical tale.
Of all the titles on this list, I May Destroy You, a recounting of the creator and star’s tragic experience being drugged and subsequently raped, is the one most defined by trauma. But the inherent power of this groundbreaking series has always been embedded in its refusal to be one singular thing at any given moment. So while it is indeed a harrowing reenactment of sexual assault, I May Destroy You is also a joyful buddy comedy that offers an unprecedented look at what it means to live freely in London as a young Black millennial. In between the moments of hurt and recovery, Arabella and her best friends, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Terry (Weruche Opia), gallivant around their city, simply existing. They don the finest clothes, ingest drugs, party, and have copious amounts of gratifying sex. It’s empowering to see a televised version of London that feels as diverse as that city is known to be — and for that, Coel deserves everything.
Insecure (HBO Max)
Unfortunately, HBO’s Insecure is set to air its final season this year. The news came as a bittersweet blow — particularly since its fourth season was its best yet, exhibiting clear growth for its storytelling as a whole and, more specifically, for its fascinating central character, Issa Dee (creator Issa Rae). A young Black woman who starts the show working at a nonprofit in Los Angeles, Issa’s trajectory over the past four seasons comes off as eerily realistic for many 20-somethings living through the 21st century. She twiddles her thumbs for a while — both professionally and romantically — before eventually coming to terms with the reality that her clock is ticking and then committing herself to buckling down and getting real about her future.
Alongside her friends — lawyer Molly (Yvonne Orji), accountant Kelli (scene-stealer Natasha Rothwell), and new mother Tiffany (Amanda Seales) — Issa navigates career struggles, style faux pas, and several toxic romances. Though her on-again/off-again relationship with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) can be quite frustrating, it’s hard to argue against its relatability. (Who amongst us hasn’t dated someone in spite of our better judgment?) A hilariously realistic take on what it means to be young and striving, the unapologetically Black Insecure is all set up to conclude as one of the defining comedies of our era — and what an era it’s been.
Love & Basketball (HBO Max)
Last year, the name Gina Prince-Bythewood seemed to be everywhere thanks to her phenomenal directorial work on Netflix’s Charlize Theron-starring immortal superhero flick The Old Guard. And while that praise was certainly deserved — The Old Guard was one of 2020’s best films — it was a shame that it took so long for people to wake up. In recent years, Prince-Bythewood has found steady work directing for TV (both shows and made-for-TV movies), but if there were any justice in the world, she would be commanding blockbusters.
Look no further than Love & Basketball, her 2000 feature debut, which starred a young Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as two lifelong friends-cum-lovers that have always bonded over their shared love of basketball. A beautiful film spanning decades (The Proud Family’s Kyla Pratt plays the younger version of Lathan), Love & Basketball presented an aspirational version of middle-class Black life at a time when such stories were all too rare while also turning its spotlight onto a woman that comfortably defied gender norms without any hangups. As terrifically acted as it was directed, Prince-Bythewood’s inaugural feature should have been the first of many big-screen features. (She won the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, after all.) But I’ll settle for knowing that she’s finally getting her due now.
One Night In Miami (Amazon Prime)
Despite the Golden Globes snubbing it in Best Motion Picture – Drama, the fact remains that One Night In Miami is one of the best films in recent memory. The directorial debut by Oscar-winning actress Regina King, the film is based on Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name and centers on a fictional linkup between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali (then going by his birth name Cassius Clay) following the latter’s infamous victory over fellow boxer Sonny Liston during a February 1964 match.
Though the film takes place during an incredibly fraught time in Black history, One Night In Miami succeeds partially because of its focus on four hyper-influential members of the community, all operating at or near the top of their game. The compelling film functions as a set of discussions, with each figure expressing his opinion on the state of the Black body in 1960s America, often leading to heated debate that would eventually give way to some extremely profound takeaways. Anchored by several terrific performances (particularly those by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke), One Night In Miami is every bit the actors’ showcase — but its tightly-written script and astounding direction are equally powerful.
Sylvie’s Love (Amazon Prime)
Few Black films feel as joyous as Sylvie’s Love. Directed by Eugune Ashe, this stunning piece of cinema acts as a corrective to the period romances of yore, which have all overwhelmingly centered white people. Too often, period films that do center Black people opt to focus on their strife and trauma, but in Sylvie’s Love, the Black protagonists are given the big, sweeping love story that they’ve always deserved. Starring Tessa Thompson as aspiring TV producer Sylvie Parker, the film tracks as she meets jazz saxophonist Robert Halloway (Nnamdi Asomugha) and quickly falls in love with him despite the fact that she’s already engaged to someone else.
Throughout the first act, the pair embark on a passionate romance. But when Robert’s band is whisked away to another country to tour, Sylvie returns to her husband-to-be and proceeds to live a life that fails to ever truly make her happy. Five years later, the pair are reunited by chance, sending both of their world’s spiraling in a way that is both painfully eye-opening but ultimately healing. Sylvie’s Love effectively captures the sweeping feelings that have come to define period romances. But by swapping out the usual suspects for a predominantly Black cast at the center, it feels like something both wholly familiar and refreshingly novel at the same time.