10 Must See Documentaries on African-American Art

by Yvonne Bynoe

It can be overwhelming to know where to begin when you want to learn more about African-American art, so here is a list of 10 must see documentaries that you can view in the comfort of your home.

1. Five African-American Artists (1971)

Five African-American Artists is a short documentary featuring Barbara Chase-Riboud, Charles White, Betty Blayton-Taylor, Richard Hunt, and Romare Bearden. Each artist discusses his or her creative process and influences within the backdrop of the social, cultural, and political changes occurring in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although all of the names may not be familiar to new art enthusiasts, these artists nevertheless are important contributors to American art history.

Chase-Riboud was not only a celebrated sculptor but also the author of the best-selling novel, Sally Hemings, about the enslaved woman who bore children for U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.

Charles White is a significant American artist whose work is focused on social issues impacting Black Americans. White also taught at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1965 ’til his death in 1979. Among his students were David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall. 

Artist and educator, Betty Blayton-Taylor was the founding director of the Children’s Art Carnival in Harlem, a community arts organization and a founding member of the Studio Museum In Harlem. 

Richard Hunt was the first Black American sculptor to have a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. Hunt has created over 150 public sculpture commissions, most recently The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument in Chicago, Illinois. 

Romare Bearden gained international acclaim for his collages. However, he was also a co-founder of the Cinque Galley, which exhibited the works of artists of color who were being excluded from White-owned galleries, and SPIRAL, an artists’ collective convened to discuss Black artists’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement.

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com

2. Colored Frames (2007)

Colored Frames is an extremely candid and thought-provoking documentary featuring a host of artists, including Benny Andrews, Howardena Pindell, Ed Clark, Ann Tanksley, TAFA, and Wangechi Mutu, along with gallerist, June Kelly and art historian, Mary Schimdt Campbell who discuss how racism and racial stereotypes in the United States impacted Black artists from the 1950s through the present day. 

The artists provide their experiences on a range of topics, including having their work excluded or marginalized by galleries and museums, not being able to rent gallery space to exhibit “Black art,” and receiving poor grades in art classes for painting Black people. The documentary also demonstrates how the public, including Black Americans, have accepted a narrow view on what constitutes “Black art.” This restricted perspective continues to not only limit artists of African descent but also perpetuate stereotypes.

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com

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 was inspired by the book Reflections in Black by photo historian Deborah Willis. It features the work of artists Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Gordon Parks, Hank Willis Thomas, James Van der Zee, and Coco Fusco.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, the documentary examines the history of photographic depictions of Black Americans from the period of enslavement to current day. It is also the first documentary to explore how Black Americans have historically used the medium to shape their own identities and counteract racial stereotypes. 

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com 

4. Black is the Color: A History of African-American Art (2017)

Black Is The Color is a useful introductory survey of Black American art history. The documentary opens with Edmonia Lewis’ sculpture Forever Free (1867) and swiftly moves through significant works from subsequent eras, closing with a discussion about the importance of Kerry James Marshall’s work to art history. Black American art historians, including David Driskell and Richard Powell, along with collectors, artists, and curators contextualize the works by explaining their specific historical and cultural relevance. 

The documentary addresses the exclusion of Black artists from White-owned galleries and museums until the latter part of the 20th century. This resulted in innumerable works by Black Americans not being widely exhibited or studied as part of American art history. In 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, Harlem on My Mind, excluded Black American artists, igniting controversy and protests which only slightly pried museum doors to Black American artists.

In the documentary, Black American, Walter Evans, who began collecting works by artists of African descent in the 1970s, says, “I was doing the work of the museums.”

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com 


5. Soul of a Nation: Black Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 at the Broad

Soul of a Nation: Black Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 at the Broad is about the traveling exhibit of Black art produced at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and throughout the Black Power Movement that followed. Among the artists that are represented are Norman Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Emma Amos, Barkley Hendricks, Charles White, and others.

Technically this film is not a documentary but a video commentary by Badier McCleary of how The Broad Museum in Los Angeles mounted the exhibit. McCleary not only discusses the messages and importance of the artwork, he’s also critiquing the curatorial choices of The Broad Museum. Majority White curatorial teams continue to be criticized for how they curate exhibits of work by artists of African descent. The pieces that a museum selects for an exhibit, as well as how they decide to display and describe the works, craft a narrative which may or may not be accurate. McCleary speaks in plain English and is often funny. More importantly, he asks good questions and makes astute observations. He also intersperses outside images to allow the viewer to understand his question or concern.

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com 

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

Black Art is inspired by David Driskell’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, hosted by the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA). The late David Driskell was a noted artist, art historian, and curator. He stated that his 1976 exhibit was “the first major modern exhibition which brought the Black subject, period, to the American (U.S.) public.”

The documentary concurrently explores the challenges that most Black artists continue to face in having their works exhibited in major, White-owned galleries and museums, and the importance of their artwork in the narrative of American art history. The film takes an unflinching look at the critical role that exhibitions, curators, and collectors play in both perpetuating biases and in breaking boundaries. The documentary 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. 

The full documentary can be viewed on HBO and HBO Max.

7. Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child (2010)

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child begins with Langston Hughes’ poem, “Genius Child,” which focuses on the despair and isolation of the young genius. The poem states that killing the individual in order to free his potential is the best option. The poem is disturbingly prescient since Basquiat’s quick rise to fame also contributed to his early death. 

In 1983, filmmaker Tamra Davis, then working at a Los Angeles art gallery, struck up an acquaintance with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Subsequently, they became friends, and, in 1985, she shot a lengthy interview with him. Her interview shows an intelligent and witty young man painting. Initially, Davis didn’t release her interview footage out of grief and her desire not to be seen as profiting from her friend’s death. She eventually decided to produce a documentary and spent years tracking down archival materials and the numerous people who knew Basquiat before his drug-related death at 27 years old in 1988. Davis released the full-length version of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary reveals how Basquiat dealt with being a Black artist in a largely White field. The film also explores Basquiat’s rise in the art world, which led to a close relationship with Andy Warhol. One of the myths about Basquiat that Davis wanted to debunk was that he was an idiot savant who sprung up homeless in New York. In reality, Basquiat was raised in a middle-class family in Brooklyn with a Haitian father who was an accountant and a Puerto Rican mother. Basquiat had a rich cultural background that informed his work and worldview.

The full documentary is available on YouTube.com for a fee.

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

Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace showcases the art of Kehinde Wiley who gained international celebrity when he painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama in 2016. Wiley is renowned for his exuberant reinterpretations of classical portraits that feature Black men. In Economy of Grace, Wiley turns his artistic sights to a new body of work featuring Black women. The portrait-sitters were cast from the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem in New York, and their poses reflect the portraits of Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Singer Sargent, among others at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. 

According to Wiley, “The phrase ‘an economy of grace’ speaks directly to the ways in which we manufacture and value grace and honor, the people that we choose to bestow that honor upon, and the ways in which grace is at once an ideal that we strive for and something that is considered to be a natural right.”

The full documentary can be viewed for a fee at PBS.org (DVD), Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.com 

 9. Eric Edwards: The Great African Art Collector (2013)

Photo by Brooklyn Magazine

Eric Edwards: The Great African Art Collector is a fascinating documentary exploring Edwards’ private collection of African artifacts worth more than $10 million dollars that are housed in his Brooklyn, New York home. Edwards is a native of Brooklyn and a former AT&T executive. There are 3000 pieces in his collection, and some of Edwards’ pieces are more than 2,000 years old. Each African country is represented in his collection. Edwards credits his father for sparking his interest in African culture.

Although Edwards acknowledges the beauty of the art in his collection, he prefers to call the works artifacts because people used them in their daily lives. Some pieces served utilitarian purposes such as weapons or tools. Other pieces were used for religious, funerary, healing, and/or cultural ceremonies within families or communities. Edwards is a self-taught scholar who also has an extensive African art library that explains the historical and cultural context of the artifacts. He discusses the dearth of Black collections at African art auctions and the importance of people of African descent investing in and learning about African artifacts.

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com

10. Samella Lewis: Pioneering Visual Artist and Educator (2016)

Samella Lewis, a native of New Orleans, is often called “The Godmother of African-American Art” for her contributions as an artist, art historian, collector, and educator. In this short documentary, Lewis discusses her childhood, her art practice, adventures, and friendship with acclaimed artist, Elizabeth Catlett was Lewis’ teacher and mentor when she was an undergraduate at Dillard University. In 1951, Lewis became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in Art History and Fine Arts from Ohio State University. 

In 1952, she became the Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University. Five years later Lewis was teaching at The State University of New York-Plattsburg where she developed an interest in Chinese language and art history. Subsequently, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study Chinese language and art history in Taiwan.

She was a professor for 15 years at Scripps College of the Claremont Colleges in California and was the institution’s first tenured Black American professor. In 1975, she created a journal called The International Review of African-American Art and helped found the Museum of African American Art.

The full documentary can be viewed on YouTube.com 

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YvonneYvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.

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