The Other Columbus: The Eternal Black History Month of the Streaming Mind
How are streaming services faring when it comes to their Black History Month offerings?
In this final installment of my purely accidental series of columns on Black History Month, I’ll be critiquing the Black offerings of popular streaming services most of us use every day. Honestly, it was a lot easier to figure out what Black movies were streaming at the beginning of the month. Everybody wants to show they care out the gate. Yet I find it’s a lot easier to test a company’s true commitment to representation (because equity is still too much to ask of any of these platforms) once you get past the ribbon cutting.
An admission against a pure control experiment: Thanks to algorithms and an unhealthy daily regimen of horror films, some services may offer things to me that they may not to the casual viewer. That said, I tested these services with varying profiles and they came out roughly the same.
In recent years, Netflix has packed itself with as much in-house original content as possible, which hamstrung the service a bit when it came to Black History Month. I had better luck finding related content under “Because you watched ‘Girlfriends’” than I did under the established yet hard to find “Black History is American History” section. The Black catalog is the epitome of the debate about whether or not representation is the equal of agency (it isn’t), but then Netflix is the heir apparent to Karl Marx’s mantra “opium of the people.” Adjust your syllabus accordingly.
Hulu has the least amount of Black content of all these channels, but what it has is strong. The service even has a small but mighty category for Black LGBTQ interests. With its “Into the Dark” series, Hulu has released an original horror movie based on whatever holiday was on deck: “Pilgrim” for Thanksgiving, “All That We Destroy” for Mothers’ Day, “The Current Occupant” for Independence Day and so on. While Hulu cast Black leads in previous entries, it never released a Black History Month flick. Let me be clear: This is 100 percent acceptable. Whoever was in those pitch meetings saying, “Eh, let’s not do that,” is the real MVP.
Amazon sells or rents 90 percent of the films ever made. The company has deep pockets when it comes to Black films and it knows it. The service even called its section “Black History Month,” which no other major service did. You may have to rent, buy or subscribe to get what you want, but chances are — like with everything else you’ve been doom-buying — Amazon has it. Some of the connections under the BHM banner are tenuous: “The Expanse” has a pretty diverse cast but I don’t know if a sci-fi series about the political machinations of space colonizers is a solid Black history offering. Is the fifth reinvention of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character Black history because Wendell Pierce co-stars in the latest series? And seriously, I need more of these Black recommendations to be free Prime watches. Call it digital reparations.
HBO is the king of the documentary, Black or otherwise, and has a generation-long head start on every other platform. Not to mention HBO Max is killing the game right now by having “Judas and the Black Messiah” for free. Spike Lee's best documentaries were HBO affairs, and HBO has done original movies or documentaries on the Tuskegee Airmen, the Tuskegee experiments, the Birmingham church bombing, Hurricane Katrina, Henrietta Lacks, Dorothy Dandridge and more sports docs than you can throw a pigskin at. The company even made a movie out of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World and Me.” This Black History Month section actually feels historical.
I was fully prepared to write Disney+ off based on how few Black characters populate Walt's magical kingdom, but it managed to carve out a little corner for February outside of all the Marvel and Star Wars stuff. It ain't much, and there's a good chance you've seen 80 percent of what it has, but at least it tried. And if you want to put to rest the question about whether or not Sinbad ever portrayed a genie in a movie, Disney has “Kazaam.”