10 Films About Black Music That Turn Household Names into Household Stories

Music has always played a crucial part in Black communities, and these films, ranging from personal documentaries to powerful dramas, represent a celebration of that connection, as well as some of its biggest stars.

by | February 1, 2024 | Comments


Black history and music have always gone together like Blue Ivy and her love for her mom’s song, “Diva”. It was an escape in our darkest of times, a celebration in our best of times. The last few years have brought us some of the best movies and documentaries celebrating several legends in the world of Black music. The list is full of nothing but icons, but how well do we know our heroes? How much do we know their lore? So let’s celebrate and learn and recognize them together, and by the end of it all, we should have successfully turned these household names into household stories.

98% The Greatest Night in Pop (2024)

There’s about an 86% chance that if someone came up to you out of the blue and sang, “We are the worrrrrrld!” you could finish the line with an almost-as-sweet, “We are the childrennnn!” You just might not know why you know that song. On Jan. 28, 1985, more than 40 of the United States’ most famous musicians, led by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, gathered in secret to record a charity song to raise money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia. The Greatest Night in Pop is a Netflix documentary that details just how the eighth highest-selling single of all time came to be, in just one night.

Bob Marley: One Love (2024)

If you Google “basketball,” the first person you will likely see is Michael Jordan, or maybe LeBron, or maybe Kobe, or maybe Steph. If you Google “reggae,” the first person you will definitely see is Bob Marley. He was not just the most famous artist to ever come out of Jamaica, but some have called him the most impactful musician of all time. He was a global ambassador of peace and love with lyrics that mirrored the message, and it’s stunning there hasn’t been a major film dramatizing his life until now. Bob Marley: One Love brings us the largely unknown story of his rise to fame to his untimely passing at the age of 36. You know the music; do you know the message?

81% The Color Purple (2023)

If any film on this list is the embodiment of Black History Month, it’s this story of resilience in the face of trauma. The Color Purple has been telling this story since Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was released. Blitz Bazawule’s 2023 adaptation of The Color Purple brings us a fresh new take on a familiar story for a whole new generation. If the star power of names like Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Louis Gossett Jr., Ciara, Jon Batiste, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, or Fantasia Barrino don’t convince you to check this out, maybe the 15 nominations between the Academy, the Golden Globes, and the NAACP Image Awards will pique your interest.

94% Black Is King (2020)

Pretty soon, Beyoncé will be able to fill a top 10 black music films list by herself and I don’t think anyone would be mad about it. But among all of her excellent work in film, many people regard Black is King as her magnum opus. Based on the music of The Lion King: The Gift (which was curated by Beyonce for the 2019 live-action version of The Lion King), each song has a visual companion in Black Is King. And when we say visuals, we mean visuals. The story of The Lion King is one of the most popular of all time (even though it’ll always be too soon to talk about Mufasa’s death). Here we get a reimaging of that story in a light we’ve never seen before. Beyoncé herself said that Black Is King aims to shift “the global perception of the word ‘Black'” and show that “Black is regal and rich in history, in purpose and in lineage.”

Thriller 40 (2023)

It’s the best-selling album of all time. That’s it. That’s the tweet. (That’s the X? Ugh.) But if it’s the best-selling album of all time, why is Thriller on this list? Everyone knows it, right? That might be true, but did you know that the inspiration for the album was born out of spite? In 1979, Michael Jackson released Off the Wall, his first major solo album, but even with 20 million in worldwide record sales, not only did Mike not win Song of the Year, Record of the Year, or Album of the Year at the 1980 Grammy’s, but he wasn’t even nominated. How did he respond? Thriller. And now it’s 40 years old, so let’s celebrate.

99% Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, The Brady Bunch premiered on ABC, the Woodstock Music Festival brought 400,000 people to Bethel, N.Y., and “Black Woodstock” (the Harlem Cultural Festival) brought 300,000 people to Harlem. Questlove’s directorial debut Summer of Soul examines the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the unsung highlight of that enormous summer, which took place at what is now Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Utilizing professional footage of the festival that was filmed as it happened, stock news footage, and modern-day interviews with attendees, musicians, and other commentators, he helps provide historical background and social context on just why this didn’t receive the coverage it deserved. Lucky for us, the revolution can now be streamed.

99% Amazing Grace (2018)

Los Angeles, 1972. Aretha Franklin is recording her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which would go on to become the highest-selling gospel album of all time. There was over 20 hours of raw footage of the whole process, but it somehow ended up in a vault until 2007. After many failed attempts to get this film made, it wasn’t until after Franklin’s death that her family agreed to release it, offering us all a chance to take a deeper look into the artist at least one prominent figure proclaimed “helped define the American experience.” (It was Obama. The prominent figure was Obama.)

92% Tina (2021)

This year marks the first Black History Month since we lost Tina Turner. What a gift, then, to have the Emmy-nominated film Tina, which follows the life and career of “The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And what an even bigger gift to know that she got to be a part of it before she passed; nobody can tell Tina’s story like Tina, after all. Filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were able to include Turner in the film along with names like Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey. She’s one of the most successful musicians of all time, selling over 100 million records, and this Black History Month, we celebrate this legend who embodied perseverance.

94% American Symphony (2023)

It’s OK to cry, both in life and when you watch American Symphony. The 2023 documentary takes a look into the life and love of Jon Batiste, the multi-talented Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer. Batiste met his wife, best-selling author Suleika Jaouad, when they were teenagers in band camp, and American Symphony not only explores his music career, but also his wife’s battle with leukemia. The Grammys chose to nominate Batiste for 11 awards in 2022; the same day those nominations were announced was his wife’s first day of chemo. If you only recognize Jon Batiste as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, take some time to learn more about the husband, the son, the activist, the man.

94% Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023)

You thought Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? No worries; it’s a common misconception. That title probably should belong to Little Richard, although his other nickname as the “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is maybe more fitting. Either way, he is one of the pioneers who is long overdue a delivery of flowers. Richard possessed a complex identity to say the least, growing up in the church and grappling with his own sexuality, but no matter how you look at it, he was still a queer icon. Little Richard: I am Everything might be the most apropos title on this list; he truly was everything, and this film will help you understand just exactly what that means. Maybe Little Richard himself said it best: “Elvis may be the King of Rock and Roll, but I am the Queen.”

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