Andra Day and Kevin Hanchard in "The United States vs. Billie Holiday." Credit: Hulu/Takashi Seida
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.)
A band marches on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma in this scene from "Goin' Back to T-Town," which premieres February 8, 2021 on PBS' "American Experience." Credit: Greenwood Cultural Center
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.)
Amy Sherald in HBO's "Black Art: In the Absence of Light" debuting February 9. Credit: HBO
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.)
Main Contributor "Deb" Debra Antney in FX's "Hip Hop Uncovered." Credit: FX
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.)
"The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song" premieres February 16 and 23, 2021 on PBS. Credit: McGee Media
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.