8 Must-See Documentaries on Black Art

Discover a range of films chronicling the extraordinary creative feats of some of America’s greatest Black artists from both past and present.

T his week, in celebration of Black History Month, HBO premiered the groundbreaking documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light. The film shares the stories of Black artists in America – an absolute must-see for any art lover. In honor of its premiere, we’re rounding up the decade’s best films on Black art – from A Ballerina’s Tale, a documentary that showcases the delicate artistry of Misty Copeland, to Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a film that explores the art of the contemporary titan. Sit back and discover the remarkable artists that forever changed art history.


1. Black Art: In the Absence of Light (2021)

Inspired by David Driskell’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, the new HBO documentary Black Art: In the Absence of Light tells the story of how Black artists have long shaped American art history. This highly talked-about film, directed by Sam Pollard, includes insights and interviews from scholars, historians, curators and contemporary artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Theaster Gates, Amy Sherald and Carrie Mae Weems. Black Art: In the Absence of Light premiered on 9 February and is available to watch on HBO and HBO Max.

2. A Ballerina’s Tale (2015)

Discover A Ballerina’s Tale, the story of Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be named a principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. In the company’s 75-year history, Copeland broke racial barriers by rising to its highest rank, shattering stereotypes and redefining the future of ballet. This inspiring documentary film examines Copeland’s perseverance, triumph and love for the art form, while also addressing the absence of women of color at major ballet companies. A Ballerina’s Tale, directed by Nelson George, is available to watch through Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.

3. Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014)

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People presents fascinating, striking and thought-provoking photographs captured by professional and unknown Black photographers alike – opening a window into the lives of Black families throughout American history. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, the film is the first documentary to explore the role of photography in the Black community; historically, the medium was embraced to shape communal identity and subvert stereotypes. Through a Lens Darkly is inspired by the book Reflections in Black by photo historian Deborah Willis and features the work of artists Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Coco Fusco, Clarissa Sligh, James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks and many more. You can find the full documentary on YouTube.

4. Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2018)

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat follows Basquiat’s formative years as a struggling teenager before his art brought him fame and international recognition. Directed by Sara Driver, the documentary film captures the gritty vibrancy of New York City in the 1970s, the cultural and social movements taking hold and the people Basquiat encountered – all which helped to shape Basquiat’s transcendent artistic journey. The celebrated American artist left a legacy that defined the genre of street art and influenced generations of artists after him. Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is available to watch on Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.

5. Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (2014)

Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace showcases the art of Kehinde Wiley – an artist renowned for his exuberant reinterpretations of classical portraits to feature Black subjects. Directed by Jeff Dupre, the film documents Wiley undertaking his series An Economy of Grace, which exclusively depicts Black women. The portrait-sitters were cast from the streets of New York, and their poses reflect the portraits of Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, among others at the Louvre. The film can be viewed online at PBS.org, Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.

6. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is an intimate look at the life, work and art of the legendary, beloved American author. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the film doesn’t just tell Morrison’s story – it dives deep into the making of several of the author’s greatest works and explores the motivations that pushed Morrison, from a young age, to fight for her voice to be heard. The documentary is available to rent from iTunes, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and through several cable networks.

7. Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart (2017)

A Raisin in the Sun may be one of the best-known plays of the 20th-century, but how much do you know about its author, Lorraine Hansberry? A gifted playwright, journalist, and activist, Hansberry was an inspiring vanguard who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart, directed by Tracy Heather Strain, is an important review of Hansberry’s life and legacy, as told through interviews with her sister and contemporary playwrights, alongside narrations of Hansberry’s own letters. The documentary examines Hansberry’s work and life both in and beyond the theater, exploring her friendships with important Civil Rights activists and her outsize force as a fixture of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. The documentary is available to rent or buy from Amazon Prime, or can be viewed with a PBS THIRTEEN Passport membership.

8. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2017)

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, produced by American Masters for PBS and directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, is the first film ever made about the venerable Maya Angelou, and it’s acclaimed – earning a Peabody award in 2017. Drawing on interviews with Angelou’s collaborators, friends and family, along with captivating archival footage of the writer herself, the documentary follows Angelou’s life – from her childhood in Arkansas and early years as a singer and performer, up through her work as one of the greatest writers and activists in American history. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is available to rent or buy from Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.

Header image: Artist Kehinde Wiley’s hand-painted and stained-glass triptych called “Go," is displayed inside the Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan on January 04, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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