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Beyond Black History Month

Genius: Aretha on National Geographic
‘Genius: Aretha’ on National Geographic (Image credit: Nat Geo Channel)

As the nation continues to celebrate Black History Month, a number of television distributors are making sure that the recognition of African-American contributions to the country echo loudly on the small screen beyond February.

National Geographic on Feb. 10 said it will mark the 100th anniversary of the devastating Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre in which white racists burned down a thriving Black community in the city. The documentary, Red Summer, recounts the two-day massacre that left as many as 300 Black people dead and more than 10,000 homeless and displaced. The documentary will air in June as part of Nat Geo’s celebration of Juneteenth, when the last African-American slaves in the U.S. learned of their emancipation. 

Until recently, this dark period in the United States was all but buried in the history books. National Geographic Global Television Networks president Courteney Monroe revealed during her TCA Winter Tour opening remarks that she had only recently become aware of the incident. “This tragedy was the most visible during a period in the early 20th century when Jim Crow laws were at their height and the [Klu Klux Klan] was resurging across the nation,” she would add. 

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Nat Geo will also pay homage to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, through its March limited series Genius: Aretha. It’s the third installment of the network’s Genius franchise, built around prominent and creative historic figures, and the first featuring an African-American legend. Nat Geo will follow up Franklin with a Genius focused on Martin Luther King Jr. 

HBO in March will sing the praises of a legendary female R&B singer, Tina Turner, in Tina. The documentary charts the singer’s career of more than five decades, recounting her early fame, her personal and professional struggles, including her tumultuous marriage to Ike Turner, as well as her even more improbable resurgence as a global star in the 1980s. Also in March, Lifetime will air a movie chronicling the life of iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson — the first of four films the network will develop with Good Morning America host Robin Roberts. 

Making Awards History

African-American images and stories are teeing up history in the upcoming awards season as Black actors and projects garnered a record-setting number of nominations. For example, four of five SAG Awards best film nominations are led by people of color — three of them with predominately African-American casts: Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amazon Video’s One Night in Miami. 

Other Black historically themed shows, like HBO’s Lovecraft Country — which weaves the negative history of the 1950s Jim Crow period within an equally scary sci-fi tale — Hulu’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Judas and the Black Messiah, which focuses on the government’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, drew multiple nominations in major categories across nominations for Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Awards.

Black History Month has arguably taken on greater significance this year in light of the social justice movement ignited by the death of George Floyd last May. TV One president Michelle Rice said that the continued proliferation of content created about, by and for African-Americans will help ensure that the history, stories, images and messages resonate throughout the year. 

“Even though TV One targets black people and we feel like we get that message out to our audience every day, I think it’s also important to get that message out to consumers who are not Black,” she said. “When you talk about this whole anti-racism movement, it’s really about educating and getting people to understand that our stories are part of the fabric of this country.”