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Black History Month: Seven great shows to watch

Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard in "The United

Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday." Credit: Hulu/Takashi Seida

Black History Month is here, and in TV terms, this is a big one.

With more specials, more documentaries and more movies than ever before in the crowded space of just a month, this bounty reflects TV's collective response to the racial traumas of a traumatic year, 2020 — and, incidentally, reflects the fact that TV itself is so much larger than ever before.

But with so much to watch, choices have to be made, and I've attempted to make some here. These seven selections demonstrate that history is alive, and manifest in the right-here-and-now. For that reason, it may be best to approach them through the lens of our present moment because together, or separately, they make the case that while much has changed, much work still remains.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: GOIN' BACK TO T-TOWN (WNET/13, Feb. 8, 9 p.m.)

Greenwood — aka "Black Wall Street'' — was a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until it was destroyed by a rampaging white mob in 1921. As many as 300 residents were killed, while a mass grave believed to be holding some of the victims was unearthed just last October. First broadcast in 1993, "AmEx '' is re-airing this because the centennial arrives in May, but what makes it so vitally important are those interviewed. Survivors, mostly children at the time, recall that long-ago night like it was yesterday — first the looting, then the burning, then the planes that flew overhead, strafing houses and people. They're elderly here, their memories undimmed, but it's their dignity that is so eloquent and moving.

BLACK ART: IN THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT (HBO, Feb. 9, 9 p.m.)

Until David Driskell came along, Black art had either been overlooked or flat-out ignored in the long tradition of American fine arts. A working artist himself and college professor in Kentucky at the time, Driskell decided to curate a 1976 exhibit called "Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which eventually ended up at the Brooklyn Museum). Two hundred works, 63 artists, no theme in particular, the light finally arrived. Featuring the work of some of these artists (including Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, Jordan Casteel and many others), perhaps most importantly, this also features Driskell who, as someone explains here, "gave us this enormous sense of the legacy of African Americans." This would also be his final interview. Driskell died last spring at 88 from the coronavirus.

HIP HOP UNCOVERED (FX, Feb. 12, 10 p.m.)

Hip hop history? Yes indeed, and a lot of it, much still hidden, as that title infers. Producer Malcolm Spellman — a writer on "Empire," now showrunner of the forthcoming Marvel-verse TV series "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" — promises some revelations in this six-parter and appears to deliver on that. The throughline at least in the opener isn't so much about the music as much as about the impresarios — Eugene "Big U'' Henley, Deb Antney, Christian "Trick Trick" Mathis, James "Bimmy'' Antney and Jacques "Haitian Jack'' Agnant. "Hip Hop'' calls them "heroes'' but they call themselves gangsters. They're tough, brutal, relentless and ruthless. (Haitian Jack was deported back to Haiti years ago). They also crafted much of this history, right up from the streets. It's hidden because they wanted it that way, but they changed the world — and that is in plain sight.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: VOICE OF FREEDOM (WNET/13, Feb. 15, 9 p.m.)

On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a concert she had not sought, but history had other plans for the great Philadelphia-born contralto (who died in 1993). A few months earlier, the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. FDR decided to avenge her honor, by staging the Lincoln Memorial concert. Of course, it would be a rousing success and an early building block of the Civil Rights movement. (The audience, incidentally, was segregated.) Moving — deeply so — "Voice of Freedom'' is about Anderson's life, but especially about how art can (and does) change the world.

THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG (WNET/13, Feb. 16, 17, 9-11 p.m.)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., moderator of this four-hour journey, calls it "the one story I've never told and it might be the most important one of all." And possibly the most engaging, too. "The Black church'' positions its vast subject as the epicenter of African American life, or in the words of this program, a world-within-a-world, where enslaved people "`merged and fused different worlds." The church was not one church but several, their common bond Christianity a faith shaped by disparate elements (including Islam). As always, calm, steady, thoughtful, Gates takes us on a tour through history, from "the Middle Passage'' to the present moment. He's got help (Oprah Winfrey, Cornel West, John Legend, presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church) but "The Black church" never drifts far from one core idea: In the church it all began — faith, music, art, freedom, identity — and here it all remains.

MR. SOUL! (WNET/13, Feb. 22, 10 p.m.)

Ellis Haizlip died in New York City in 1991 at the age of 61 but had left his mark on television, as creator and occasional moderator of the groundbreaking Ch. 13 TV series, "Soul!" Something of a cross between "Charlie Rose" and "The Tonight Show," "Soul!" (1968-73) was a weekly showcase for African American art, music, literature and politics. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin appeared, but so did Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ashford and Simpson, Al Green, Tito Puente, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Gladys Knight and many others. Sometimes serious, sometimes exuberant, Haizlip wanted to celebrate Black life and culture, especially to elevate it. (Taped at Ch. 13, where "Rose'' once was, you can catch some episodes on YouTube — notably a two-hour "conversation" between poet Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin.) Before the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, "Mr. Soul!" producer/director Melissa Haizlip — Haizlip's niece — said of her film, "I want [viewers] to be inspired to speak their truth to power [and] to know that Black has always been beautiful."

THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Hulu, Feb. 26)

In 2015, journalist Johann Hari published a book about the FBI's embryonic war on drugs in the mid-1930s, which quickly ensnared singer Billie Holiday. As Hari wrote, the agent in charge would come to see "rebels like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk [and] longed to see them all behind bars." After the Senate had failed to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937, Holiday recorded a protest song by Abel Meerpol, "Strange Fruit," which would become both a Holiday standard and anthem for a burgeoning Civil Rights movement. It also marked her: When the FBI demanded she stop singing it, she refused and was arrested on a drug charge. (Holiday was a heroin addict at the time.) Directed by Lee Daniels ("Precious") and based on a screen play by Suzan-Lori Parks, this film captures the moment, while Andra Day as Holiday captures the star. Her voice, like Holiday's, is tremulous, heartbroken, and her performance the same.

Meanwhile, a few other notable programs this month:

"Black History Always" (ESPN, Jan. 31 at 8, then ABC at a later date). Per ESPN, "hosted by 'The Undefeated's' Clinton Yates, the program will use a mix of new productions, music and other elements to show that sports are always writing Black history and what it means to be game-changing."

"Bottomless Brunch at Colman’s" (Sundance Now, Jan. 31) New season of Colman Domingo's ("Fear the Walking Dead") talk show streams Sunday, and the topic — Hollywood representation.

"Black History Is Our Month" (HBO MAX, Feb. 1). The streamer has launched a "collection [that] celebrates the visionaries amongst us, and collectively promotes and supports the telling of stories from the Black perspective." Streaming titles includes movies, HBO series, docs as well as "2020 finalists of HBO’s Short Film Competition in partnership with the American Black Film Festival."

"How We Got Here: The History of Conflict in America" (Smithsonian, Mondays at 8 p.m.) Films from the Smithsonian vaults, organized thematically, beginning with the Civil War (Feb. 1), Black Pioneers (Feb. 8), Civil Rights leaders (Feb. 15), and those who broke barriers (Feb. 22).

"Underground on OWN" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m., starting Feb. 2). OWN will air all 20 episodes of the 2016 series about the Underground Railroad, starring Jurnee Smollett and Aldis Hodge, with behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews.

"Black History Month: Marching to Matter" (News 12, Feb. 3, 7). Hosted by Brittany Miller, and billed as a look back/look forward at social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Black History Month" Hub (Discovery +). The new streaming service will pull programs from a number of Discovery-owned networks, as part of a so-called "hub" that'll run all month, including OWN's "Black Women OWN the Conversation" and "Where Do We Go From Here."

"BHM Movie Marathons" (Saturdays, 4 p.m., Aspire, Ch. 176 on Optimum.) The network will also air "Icons, Idols & Influencers" (Sundays, 6) and "Side by Side: Black Girl Magic Marathon" (Sunday, Feb. 28, 7)

"For Ahkeem" ALLBLK, (Feb. 4) The streaming service — formerly known as UMC — has this 2017 film about a Ferguson, Mo. teen, Daje Shelton, and her boyfriend, in the midst of the 2014 riots.

"Tuskegee Airmen: Legacy of Courage" (History, Feb. 10, 8 p.m.) This one-hour special, narrated and produced by Robin Roberts, looks at "the legacy and impact of America’s first Black military pilots." Per Roberts, in a statement, "My father, Colonel Lawrence E. Roberts [who died in 2004], was a Tuskegee Airman, and their service helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement."

"Judas and the Black Messiah" (Feb. 12, HBO Max) This inspried-by-true-events movie stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as William O'Neal, the informant who would betray him.

"Crooklyn," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," (Showtime, Feb. 26). This Spike Lee triple-feature will culminate a weeklong slate of special programs on Showtime, beginning Feb. 22 with "Hitsville: The Making of Motown" and on Feb. 23 "Kobe Bryant's Muse."

MOVIES FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH

From the groundbreaking performances of Sidney Poitier to the behind-the-camera styling of filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr., the contributions of Black actors and directors have enriched the motion picture industry. Their achievements will be celebrated all throughout Black History Month across several channels.

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES

Noteworthy African American Performances is the theme Wednesday nights in February on TCM starting this week at 8 p.m. with the 1952 drama “Cry, the Beloved Country” which was shot in South Africa. It’s followed by the 1961 film version of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Poitier and Ruby Dee at 10 p.m.

Other important films in the lineup include Parks' 1972 Blaxploitation hit “Super Fly” (2 a.m. Feb. 18) and two powerful Oscar-nominated dramas: “A Soldier’s Story” (10 p.m. Feb. 24) from 1984 featuring star-in-the-making Denzel Washington and 1972’s “Sounder” (3:15 a.m. Feb. 25) starring Cicely Tyson.

And while Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland are the stars in John Huston’s “In This Our Life” (midnight, Feb. 17), the standout performances belong to Ernest Anderson as a Black law student wrongfully accused of a hit and run accident and Hattie McDaniel as his mother.

TCM also salutes Poitier, who turns 94 on Feb. 20, with a birthday double feature at 8 and 10 p.m.: “Lilies of the Field” (1963) for which he became the first Black performer to win a best actor Oscar, and the 1967 dramedy “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (10 p.m.) with Poitier as the prospective son-in-law of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. -- DANIEL BUBBEO

MOVIES! (Optimum Ch. 113)

The Movies! network also pays tribute to Black performers with a daylong lineup on Feb. 1 starting at 7:30 a.m. with the John Ford 1960 western “Sergeant Rutledge” about a Black cavalry officer (Woody Strode) on trial for rape and murder.

At 9:55 a.m., Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte star in the 1953 classroom drama “Bright Road” (9:55 a.m.). It’s followed at 11:25 a.m. by “A Patch of Blue” (1965), in which Poitier falls for a blind girl (Elizabeth Hartman) living with her shrewish mother (Oscar winner Shelley Winters).

Other highlights include the 1977 Richard Pryor auto racing comedy “Greased Lightning” (3:40 p.m.) and the performing arts school musical “Fame” (8 p.m.) featuring the Oscar-winning title tune.

— DANIEL BUBBEO

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