Here are some notable new and returning television programs profiling memorable people, themes and events in African-American history, in celebration of February’s Black History Month. Programs and times are subject to change; check back throughout the month for updates and additions.
Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (encore) — PBS, February (check local listings). Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans newspaperman, takes viewers on a tour of the city in what becomes a reflection on the relevance of history folded into a love letter to his storied neighborhood, Faubourg Tremé. Arguably the oldest black neighborhood in America and the birthplace of jazz, Faubourg Tremé was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South during slavery and a hotbed of political ferment. Here, black and white, free and enslaved, rich and poor, cohabitated, collaborated and clashed to create America’s first civil rights movement and a unique American culture.
Independent Lens: “When I Rise” (encore) — PBS, February (check local listings). This feature-length documentary is about Barbara Smith Conrad, a gifted University of Texas music student who found herself at the epicenter of racial controversy, struggling against the odds and ultimately ascending to the heights of international opera.
Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings (encore) — PBS, February (check local listings). At the end of the American Revolution, thousands of African-American slaves risked everything to fight for the British in exchange for a promise of freedom. John Clarkson, a young Royal Navy lieutenant, was sent to North America by British abolitionists to fulfill that promise. According to plan, each slave would be resettled in Nova Scotia. However, when that frigid, rocky terrain proved inhospitable to those who had worked the cotton fields of the Deep South, Clarkson arranged for them to be transported across the Atlantic to Sierra Leone. Using journals, diaries and autobiographical accounts, writer-narrator Simon Schama reconstructs this epic journey. Dramatizations transport viewers from the slave plantations of Georgia to the bone-chilling cold of Nova Scotia to the trim parlors of Georgian England and finally to sweltering Sierra Leone, where Clarkson’s dreams of a haven for former slaves would come to a tragic end.
Third and a Mile: The History of the Black Quarterback (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 2 at 5pm ET; Feb. 12 at 12:30pm ET; Feb. 18 at noon ET; Feb. 19 at 5pm ET. A look at the history of the black quarterback, with interviews and clips of how black QBs have progressed through the NFL despite racism and stereotypes.
Brooklyn Boheme — Showtime, Feb. 2 at 8:30pm ET/PT. Noted filmmaker, historian and author Nelson George explores the Black arts movement that exploded in the famed Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in the mid 1980s to ’90s, and launched the careers of such artists as filmmaker Spike Lee, comedian Chris Rock, musicians Branford Marsalis, Common, Erykah Badu and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), among many others. This film kicks off Showtime’s Black History Month celebration, which will include documentaries and standup specials each Thursday and Friday in February.
Independent Lens: “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” (pictured at top of page) — PBS, Feb. 2 at 10pm ET (check local listings). As a black woman who was a feminist before the term was commonplace, Daisy Bates refused to accept her assigned place in society. This film tells the story of her life and public support of nine black students who registered to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which culminated in a constitutional crisis — pitting a president against a governor and a community against itself. Unconventional, revolutionary and egotistical, Bates reaped the rewards of instant fame, but paid dearly for it.
The Black List: Volume Three (encore) HBO, Feb. 3 at 3:30pm ET/PT; Feb. 5 at 1pm ET/PT. Following the same format as The Black List: Volume One and Volume Two, this documentary focuses on over a dozen prominent African-Americans as they speak their minds about a wide range of influences and experiences in this intimate series of first-person video portraits. Introduced via simple IDs, the interviewees speak directly into the camera and share their insights into what it was like growing up black in America, how their backgrounds shaped their philosophies, and what they feel about a society where new opportunities abound, but discrimination still exists.
Dogfights: “Tuskegee Airmen” (encore) — Military History Channel, Feb. 3 at 11pm ET; Feb. 4 at 9am & 3pm ET. In the face of bigotry and ignorance, the Tuskegee Airmen — an all-black fighter squadron — shattered racist stereotypes. Their exploits became the stuff of legend during World War II. In this program, firsthand accounts, rare archival footage and computer graphics help bring to life their missions.
Chuck Cooper honoring — ESPNU, Feb. 4 at 7pm ET. During the Richmond-Duquesne men’s college basketball game tonight, Chuck Cooper — the first African-American drafted into the NBA — will be honored. Cooper, chosen by the Boston Celtics in 1950, was an All-American at Duquesne. He passed away in 1984, but members of his family will be in attendance. The team will wear 1950s-style, red throwback uniforms for the game.
The Express (encore) — BET, Feb. 4 at 7:30pm ET. Rob Brown stars in this 2008 film based on the true story of Ernie Davis, the first black football player to win the Heisman Trophy. Dubbed the “Elmira Express” for his relentless drive, Davis also lived up to his nickname off the field as he battled for racial equality. Dennis Quaid costars as Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who teaches Davis the game and in return learns much from his running back’s bold civil rights achievements.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (encore) — Centric, Feb. 5 at 9pm ET. Based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name, this is a celebratory look at the lives of two African-American sisters, Sadie (Diahann Carroll) and Bessie Delany (Ruby Dee), from North Carolina, who each lived over a century. Having encountered firsthand discrimination based on their race and sex, the two sisters recall their support for each other and the various societal changes during their lifetimes.
Classroom: “Double Victory, Part 1” — History, Feb. 6 at 6am ET/PT. Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) narrates this documentary about the training, battles and lives of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Included is original wartime footage, interspersed with the words of the Airmen.
Sing Your Song (encore) — HBO, Feb. 6 at 8am ET/PT; Feb. 20, 6am ET/PT. During the course of an inspiring life that has paralleled the American civil rights movement, artist and crusader Harry Belafonte has tirelessly used his humanitarian influence to advance causes of social justice, while forging a unique career punctuated by prestigious awards and industry firsts. Filmmaker Susanne Rostock tells the rich life story of this remarkable artist and humanitarian in this intimate, feature-length documentary.
Underground Railroad: The William Still Story — PBS, Feb. 6 at 10pm ET (check local listings). Extraordinary people risked their lives to help fugitive slaves escape via the clandestine Underground Railroad. Among them was William Still of Philadelphia, a free black man who accepted delivery of transported crates containing human “cargo.” This documentary reveals some of the dramatic, lesser-known stories behind this humanitarian enterprise, and explores key Canadian connections, including the surprising fate of former slaves who crossed the border to “Freedom’s Land.”
American Experience: “Freedom Riders” (encore) — PBS, Feb. 7 at 8pm ET (check local listings). This is a re-airing of the outstanding, Emmy-winning documentary. In 1961, segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad. That is, until an integrated band of college students — many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university — decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face-to-face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation.
Independent Lens: “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” — PBS, Feb. 9 at 10pm ET (check local listings). Combining startlingly fresh and candid 16 mm footage that had lain undiscovered in the cellar of Swedish Television for the past 30 years, with contemporary audio interviews from leading African-American artists, activists, musicians and scholars, ”Mixtape” looks at the people, society, culture and style that fueled an era of convulsive change, 1967-1975. Utilizing an innovative format that riffs on the popular 1970s mixtape format, this is a cinematic and musical journey into the black communities of America.
Black Magic (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 10 at 10pm ET; Feb. 11 at 7:30pm ET; Feb. 12 at 7:30pm ET. This ESPN original documentary offers a look at the role and impact of Historically Black Colleges on professional basketball. Part 2 follows.
The Jackie Robinson Story (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 11 at 3:30am & 8:30am ET; Feb. 18 at 10:30am & 4pm ET. Jackie Robinson plays himself in this 1950 biopic about how he became the first black major league baseball player. Ruby Dee costars.
Secret Game (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 11 at noon ET; Feb. 17 at 10pm ET; Feb. 18 at midnight, 8pm & 10pm ET; Feb. 19 at midnight, 8pm & 10pm ET. This documentary is about how, in 1944, a secret game was arranged between the all-white Duke University team and the team from N.C. College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University). For the time, the game was revolutionary, as the doors to the gym were locked, and no spectators were allowed. With the Klan being so active in Durham at the time, the game remained secret until now.
A Race Story (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 11, 1pm ET; Feb. 12 at 10am ET; Feb. 19 at 1pm ET. ESPN’s original documentary looks at Wendell Scott’s historic ride to break the color barrier and become the only African-American driver to date to win a race in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Scott endured track officials who wouldn’t let him run, drivers who wrecked him and spectators who shouted slurs at him, but through dogged determination he persevered.
Images in Black and White (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 12 at 8am ET; Feb. 18, 5am ET. This special looks at some of the most influential African-American sports personalities, through pictures.
Soul Mates: Dr. Maya Angelou and Common — BET, Feb. 12 at 11am ET. BET News brings together literary master Dr. Maya Angelou with celebrated hip-hop artist Common, and the result is exclusive access to one of the most accomplished African-American figures of our time relayed by one of today’s most popular artists.
Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed (encore) — HBO, Feb. 13 at 6am ET/PT. Joseph Louis Barrow — who became known as the “Brown Bomber” — was America’s first true crossover athlete. As the first black sports star worshipped by both black and white fans, he was respected not only for his boxing talents, but also for showing the world what a person of color could do if given the opportunity. This film underscores his importance during a critical time in America’s history. From the Great Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, Joe Louis was the poster boy for the American way of life. In 1938, when Louis defeated Germany’s Max Schmeling, his victory was interpreted as democracy’s defeat of Nazism, boosting public morale and transforming him into a true American hero.
The 2012 BET Honors — BET, Feb. 13 at 9pm ET. Actress Gabrielle Union hosts the fifth annual installment of this event that celebrates the outstanding achievements of African-American figures in music, literature, entertainment, media, service and education. This year’s honorees are poet/author Maya Angelou (Literary Arts); musician Stevie Wonder (Musical Arts); singer Mariah Carey (Entertainer); filmmaker Spike Lee (Media); World War II fighter-pilot squad the Tuskegee Airmen (Service); and coach and mentor Beverly Kearney (Education). Performances will be given by Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Cicely Tyson and Common, with appearances by Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Willow Smith.
Slavery By Another Name — PBS, Feb. 13 at 9pm ET (check local listings). A Sundance Film Festival selection for 2012 (where its director, Sam Pollard, received a nearly two-minute standing ovation after the film’s screening), this new documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Wall Street Journal senior writer Douglas A. Blackmon explores the little-known story of the post-Emancipation era and the labor practices and laws that effectively created a new form of slavery in the South that persisted well into the 20th century. Blackmon examines the concept of “neoslavery,” which sentenced African-Americans to forced labor for violating an array of laws that criminalized their everyday behavior. Actor Laurence Fishburne narrates.
Frontline: “The Interrupters” — PBS, Feb. 14 at 9pm ET (check local listings). This critically acclaimed (though snubbed by the Oscar nominating committee) documentary follows a group of former gang leaders in Chicago who try to “interrupt” shootings and protect their communities from the violence they themselves once committed. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) directs this compelling observational journey into the stubborn, persistent violence that plagues our American cities.
Independent Lens: “More Than a Month” — PBS, Feb. 16 at 10pm ET (check local listings). Shukree Hassan Tilghman, a 29-year-old African-American filmmaker, is on a cross-country campaign to end Black History Month. Through this tongue-in-cheek journey, More Than a Month investigates what the treatment of history tells us about race and equality in a “post-racial” America.
The 43rd NAACP Image Awards — NBC, Feb. 17, Live at 8pm ET. This special showcases the best achievements and performances of people of color in the arts, featuring a star-studded lineup of performers, winners and presenters. For a list of nominees and special honorees, click here.
BET Takes Hollywood — BET, Feb. 17 at 10pm ET. BET’s first Oscar special looks at this year’s nominees Viola Davis (nominated for Best Actress in The Help) and Octavia Spencer (nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Help). Veteran celebrity journalist Shaun Robinson of Access Hollywood sits down with each of the major African-American nominees of 2012 to discuss their race to the Academy Awards.
Shadow Boxing: The Journey of the African-American Fighter (encore) — ESPN Classic, Feb. 18 at 7am ET. A documentary that looks at African-American fighters who broke the color barrier in boxing.
Soul Power — Centric, Feb. 19 at 9pm ET. This legendary music festival (dubbed Zaire ’74) featured such musical luminaries as James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and a host of others. At the peak of their talents and the height of their careers, these artists were inspired by this to return to their African roots, as well as the enthusiasm of the Zairian audience, to give the performance of their lives. The concert has achieved almost mythological significance in the minds of some as the definitive Africa(n)-American musical event of the 20th century.
Phunny Business: A Black Comedy — Showtime, Feb. 23 at 8:30pm ET/PT. Writer/director/producer John Davies’ docu-comedy is a bittersweet Valentine to Chicago’s All Jokes Aside — which, for a decade, was one of the preeminent comedy clubs in the country, gave early exposure to important young comedians and was the most influential black comic showcase in America. With no comedy clubs booking minority acts on a regular basis at the time, the 300-seat venue in Chicago’s South Loop filled a void by showcasing black talent and entertaining black audiences in an upscale setting. This mostly unheralded “star factory” introduced audiences to future household names like Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Mo’Nique, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and many more. Eventually, All Jokes Aside closed, but the artists and entertainers never forgot, and several of them nostalgically share memories and relive the glory days in the film, which incorporates stills, archival performance footage and interviews.
American Masters: “Cab Calloway: Sketches” — PBS, Feb. 27 at 10pm ET; March 2, 9pm ET (check local listings). This new episode profiles Cab Calloway, the legendary jazz artist who was one of the first black musicians to tour the segregationist South and who was a regular performer at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
Independent Lens: Daisy Bates: Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal
Brooklyn Boheme: Courtesy of Showtime
William Still: Courtesy of Swarthmore College
The Interrupters: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
Phunny Business: Courtesy of Showtime
Cab Calloway: Courtesy of Artline Films/J.F. Pitet. All Rights Reserved