February 1 marks the first day of Black History Month in the U.S., celebrated since 1970. In honor of this important occasion, here are seven films that celebrate the Black queer heroes who have come before us.
In 2015, out actress Queen Latifah starred in Bessie, an HBO TV film about bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith, who made a name for herself during the 1920s and 1930s. The film garnered four Emmy Award nominations, including a win for Outstanding Television Movie and is available to watch on HBO Max and rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
If you’re like me and you still miss watching Viola Davis play bisexual badass Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder, look no further than Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which earned Davis an Oscar nomination in 2021. This Netflix film focuses on bisexual blues musician Ma Rainey and takes place during an intense recording session in 1920s Chicago. But be sure to bring your tissues because the film also stars Chadwick Boseman in his final film before he passed away in August 2020.
Miss Major is a transgender woman of color, activist, and community leader whose life is the subject of the award-winning documentary Major! This film, which is available to rent on Amazon Prime, explores the life of Miss Major, who participated in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. Miss Major also served as the original executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, a non-profit organization that works to end human rights abuses against the transgender community, with a focus on transgender women in prison.
My Name Is Pauli Murray
In 2021, My Name Is Pauli Murray premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. This documentary film explores the life of Black lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, who co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 and heavily influenced the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The documentary is available to watch for free on Amazon Prime.
Paris Is Burning
Paris is Burning walked so Pose could run. This 1990 documentary film chronicles the drag and ball culture of the 1980s, with a focus on New York City’s Black and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. The film features footage of balls and interviews with legendary drag queens, queer men, and transgender women, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Angie Xtravaganza. The documentary is available to rent on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Queer life as we know it would not be the same without activist Marsha P. Johnson, who participated in the Stonewall Uprising and later co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a Netflix documentary about her life, which investigates Johnson’s mysterious death and features interviews with Johnson, her family, her friends, and other LGBTQ+ activists.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
In 2021, Hulu debuted The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biodrama about bisexual jazz musician Billie Holiday. The film stars Andra Day as Holiday, and garnered Day a win at the Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Natasha Lyonne is also featured in the film as actress Tallulah Bankhead, who had an affair with Holiday.
While Black History Month is a great time to watch these films, it’s important to celebrate and center media with Black queer people all year round.