Black History Month: Documentaries and factual TV shows to watch for learning and educating yourself on race and racism

Our pick of the best documentaries and TV shows to watch on iPlayer and All4 on race, Black Lives Matter and privilege in Black History Month.

By Alex Fletcher Updated: 2 October 2020 - 11.20am
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CBeebies celebrates Black History Month with a Bedtime Story

This October's Black History Month is an opportunity for celebration, remembrance and bold new visions for the future.

BBC, ITV and Channel 4 among the broadcasters airing new series and streaming classic programming to mark the occasion.

Black History Month must-watch shows

Alison Hammond ITV

All the broadcasters have a fantastic depth of archive, popular and new programming to mark Black History Month in 2020.

BHM provides an important opportunity to reflect, celebrate and consider again what has been achieved and how much more we, as a society have to do redress the balance of storytelling.

Coming up on ITV in October is IRL with Team Charlene, where news presenter Charlene White helps break down major issues such as Black Lives Matter and racism for children.

Daytime TV icon Alison Hammond has her own series Back To School, where she travels across the country and uncovers overlooked pages of British history and black figures throughout the ages who have been ignored in school lessons.

Sorry I Didn’t Know ITV

Sorry I Didn’t Know is later night panel show hosted by Jimmy Akingbola, which will be a riotous showcase of the hottest comedians from diverse backgrounds

Craig & Danny: Funny & Black is a mixture of archive footage and interviews  which travels through the comedy years and celebrates genre defining shows from Black Comedy Legends.

From Charlie Williams to Desmond’s and The Real McCoy, it will highlight the pioneering stars who left a comedy legacy for today’s generation of black comedians.

Channel 4 also have a new Black History Month shows including Mo Gilligan’s Black British and Funny, a taboo busting documentary Black Hair, and an investigation from Dr Ronx into the pandemic with Is Covid Racist?

Mo Gilligan on Channel 4 Channel 4
Mo Gilligan, Black, British And Funny

On the BBC, the highly anticipated Steve McQueen anthology series Small Axe – five original films telling different stories involving the West Indian community set from the later 1960s to the mid-1980s.

The title is derived from an African proverb, which has resonance throughout the Caribbean, “if you are the big tree, we are the small axe”. This was made popular by Bob Marley in The Wailers song Small Axe from the album Burnin.

One the films looks back at the Mangrove protests, where protestors from West Indian, African and South Asian heritage in Notting Hill, West London marched to local police stations in protest of police harassment in their communities including the Mangrove restaurant.

Small Axe BBC
Steve McQueen's Mangrove

Nine protest leaders were arrested and charged with incitement to riot: Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett. The group later became known as the Mangrove 9.

Alongside educational content on Black History Month on CBBC shows such as Newsround and Blue Peter, CBeebies are also celebrating with a special Bedtime Story read by Professor David Olusoga.

The historian will read Coming to England, the inspiring true story of Baroness Floella Benjamin.

It follows ten-year-old Floella as she and her family set sail from the Caribbean to a new life in London in 1960. The optimistic and very personal story shows how courage and determination can often overcome adversity.

David said: “I am delighted to take part in CBeebies Bedtime Stories. After reading Coming to England to my daughter earlier this month, I knew this was a very important and special book that needed to be shared widely.

"Not only does the story encourage empathy from children at a very young age but also a greater understanding of the Windrush generation. It explains at an elementary level what it means to be a British person with black Caribbean heritage, a background that deserves to be celebrated and learned about.

"Stories are the bridge to opening up minds and personal stories like Baroness Floella Benjamin's deserve to be heard.”

Shows to educate yourself on race and racism

The worldwide protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd have inspired many of us to better educate ourselves on the subject of race, the history of racism and our understanding of privilege.

The TV industry is often guilty of ignoring and doing the bare minimum when it comes to telling the stories of Black people and issues they face.

However, recent events have given most broadcasters an urgency to promote and publicise the programming the historical documentaries, factual series and investigative journalism exploring these subjects.

Here are just a small sample of the must-watch documentaries, TV shows and specials that are essential viewing for anyone looking to dig a little deeper into racial injustice and Black history.

Watch now on BBC iPlayer

Anthony

Toheeb Jimoh as Anthony - Available now on BBC iPlayer BBC

Anthony Walker was a Liverpool teenager with a devout Christian faith and a love of basketball.

Known to his family and friends for his humour, intelligence and compassion, Anthony was halfway through college with dreams of visiting America and studying Law at university.

In July 2005 in Huyton, Merseyside, Anthony was murdered in a racist attack. He was 18 years old.

Inspired by conversations with Gee Walker, Anthony's mother, about the boy Anthony was and the man he was to become, this is the story of the life he could have lived.

Explaining how he came to make the drama, the legendary writer Jimmy McGovern said: "How could I, an old white man, tell the story of Anthony Walker, a young black man? I couldn’t. I shouldn’t.

"But Gee Walker, Anthony’s mum, had asked me to do it and nobody in Liverpool says no to Gee Walker. I knew I had to do it.

"I’d been thinking about the First World War, about how the powers-that-be kept everybody fighting right up to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

"Even though everyone knew the war was over they kept on fighting and between dawn and eleven o’clock on the eleventh day, thousands died. I would argue that every single death in the First World War was pointless but those that occurred on that final day were the most pointless of all.

"I kept asking myself, 'How many of those men who died that day would have achieved great things had they lived? Discovered a cure for a virus perhaps, written a great book, painted a beautiful picture?'

"That got me thinking about Anthony’s hopes and dreams. Had he lived, would he have achieved them? That question lies at the very heart of this drama."

Black and British: A Forgotten History

Presenter David Olusoga BBC
David Olusoga

This series first aired on the BBC in 2016, but had been repeated and returned to iPlayer this summer.

The charismatic historian David Olusoga reveals how Black British history has been whitewashed and goes about correcting many false preconceptions and commemorating forgotten communities.

From the African Romans who guarded Hadrian's Wall in the 3rd century AD to the Black trumpeter of the Tudor courts, Olusoga uncovers a history that is as surprising as it is revealing.

Black Hollywood

It still feels like we’ve got a long way to go in reaching some level of equality in the movie and TV industry, but this three-part series does allow for reflection on how far we’ve come.

The series starts with the Best Picture Oscar victory for Moonlight, and then takes viewers on the near century struggle to reach that moment.

Covering significant moments such as Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar victory for Gone with the Wind to the career of Sidney Poitier and the trailblazing work of Spike Lee, the series hears from an impressive list of contributors including Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, David Oyelowo, John Boyega, David Harewood and Whoopi Goldberg,

Sitting In Limbo

Patrick Robinson in Sitting In Limbo BBC
Sitting In Limbo

This one-off drama about one man’s ordeal during the Windrush scandal deserves recognition when the TV awards season comes around.

Patrick Robinson plays Anthony Bryan in this upsetting, quietly powerful and dramatic memoir, about the real impact of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment policy’ on immigration.

The heartbreaking and shocking treatment of Bryan, who arrived in the UK aged 8 in 1965, is uncompromising and tough viewing.

As he loses his job, home, right to use the NHS and is told to return to Jamaica, the full horror of the Windrush scandal is revealed and the real life impact of a hostile approach to immigration leaves a lasting impact on viewers.

Black is the New Black

Sir Lenny Henry BBC

Naomi Campbell, Sir Trevor McDonald, Thandie Newton, Baroness Scotland, musicians Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, Dizzie Rascal, Sir Lenny Henry and writer Gary Younge are just of the few Black Britons who appear in this four-part series exploring what it really means to be Black and British.

Each contributor tells their own personal stories and reveals their own experiences with prejudice, abuse and violence, revealing the journeys they’ve taken and hurdles they’ve navigated to reach where they are today.

Probably the most pressing theme across the series is the shocking truth that Black Britons have to work twice as hard, be twice as good and overcome so much more to get their voice heard.

Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?

Actor David Harewood BBC

Another film from the BBC’s 2016 Black and British season, which has been revisited four years on, this documentary is presented by Hollywood actor David Harewood.

The Homeland and Supergirl actor blends statistical analysis with real life conversations as he runs through the numerous obstacles in the way of Black Britons and positions of power and influence.

Although the central Prime Minister premise is the intriguing hook, the real message of the film is that its same blockers and glass ceilings across all the UK’s biggest institutions that are holding the country back.

Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved the NHS

Many viewers who caught this documentary on BBC Four questioned why it had been tucked away on the BBC’s least publicised and watched channel.

The story of the Caribbean and African women who answered the UK’s urgent call 70 years ago is rarely told and often ignored.

Saving an ailing service that was on its knees, the women who stood up in a nation’s hour of need have struggled to get any sort of recognition down the years. And on top of that, this film highlights the racism, abuse and career prejudice they’ve always come up against.

Watch now on All 4

The School That Tried To End Racism

Students from The School That Tried To End Racism Channel 4
The School That Tried To End Racism

A clear contender for one the best factual TV shows of 2020, this series felt incredibly timely.

The Channel 4 series manages to deliver a fairly brutal message about the arrogance and ignorance that exists on white privilege, but does it with such a brilliant cast of young school kids, there is a sense of optimism and potential for change at the end.

Taking a new US programme on unconscious racial bias into Glenthorne high school in south London, the series pushes a diverse class of students to question their racial identity and witness how society stacks the odds against many parts of society.

The children are the stars of the show as their exuberance and matter of fact tone (“Feels like a very racist sports day”) brings a dry humour. Their warm embrace and openness on the questions they tackle also suggests that bringing this into the education system nationally could be the quickest and best way to make a lasting impact.

Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes

This documentary from Labour’s Tottenham MP David Lammy first aired in 2019 and was an enraging reminder of how much of British history is ignored and how our commemorations and days of remembrance are often very blinkered.

The shocking story of how 100,000 or more Africans who died in their own continent serving Britain during World War I were denied the honour of an individual grave reveals how racism and colonialism still impacts the UK’s view of history and actions today.

Lammy is a passionate and engaging guide, who unearths a hidden scandal as its revealed how gravestones for those who died that weren’t white European was considered “a waste of public money”.

Justice For Joy

This documentary from 1995 on Channel 4, examining the death of Joy Gardner in 1993, and the subsequent Old Bailey trial and public campaign, is a well worth revisiting as a reminder of how the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t an American issue.

Campaigners believe that Gardner’s death, after being detained during a police immigration raid on her home in Crouch End, still deserves answers and a full public inquiry.

25 years on, this films makes a strong case that justice still hasn’t been delivered – and that must change.