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As much as I appreciate the influx of Martin Luther King quotes on my Instagram feed, they only scratch the surface in terms of what Black History Month represents. Aside from celebrating the contributions of famous heroes like Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm, we also get to highlight the ripple effects of their legacy, whether it’s the uptick in book sales by Black authors, the success of Black-owned businesses or, best of all, the increase in Black representation on our screens.
Pioneers like Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson reshaped TV history and paved the way for a host of compelling Black shows to follow suit. So, to honor these greats, I compiled a definitive list of 20 must-watch shows that depict the Black experience, from ’90s classics to thought-provoking period dramas.
1. ‘Lovecraft Country’
The groundbreaking period drama/horror is easily one of the best shows on HBO right now. Set during the 1950s, it centers on a Black man named Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), who embarks on a wild journey to find his missing father with the help of Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance). But along the way, they encounter magical creatures and racist horrors that reflect the real-life struggles of Black people throughout American history.
2. ‘Queen Sugar’
Ava DuVernay hit the jackpot with this OWN drama, which follows three estranged siblings—Nova (Rutina Wesley), Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner)—who reunite to run their late father’s sugar cane farm after his sudden death. Not only does it explore themes like racial profiling and America’s flawed criminal justice system, but it also depicts the everyday challenges of being Black in the South with searing accuracy.
3. ‘The Underground Railroad’
During the 19th century, the “Underground Railroad" was established in the U.S. as a network of hidden routes and safe houses, which slaves used to escape to freedom. In this adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel, however, that system is reimagined as a literal railroad that’s located below ground. Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), a runaway slave, finds that her journey to freedom is at risk when a slave tracker decides to hunt her down. It’s worth noting that this series isn’t for the fainthearted (expect plenty of graphic violence and nudity), but it does a solid job of exposing how Black people were dehumanized at the time.
4. ‘I May Destroy You’
Michaela Coel stars as Arabella, a young Black writer and social media star who copes with the aftermath of a traumatizing assault, with the help of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). The show brilliantly tackles an uncomfortable subject matter with smart humor, and Coel’s performance is worthy of all the awards. But most importantly, it centers on a multifaceted character who breaks common stereotypes about Black women.
What Damon Lindelof managed to do with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel is nothing short of remarkable. Not only did the show feature a Black woman as the caped crusader, but it also incorporated real-life events from American history, addressing key issues like white supremacy and police brutality. Regina King shines as Sister Night, who leads a double life as a Tulsa Police detective slash vigilante.
Leave it to Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) to educate Americans about the Black struggle. In 30-minute episodes, this sitcom tackles social and racial issues head-on, expertly balancing dark themes with playful humor. It’s almost impossible to watch without wishing you were part of this gloriously dysfunctional family.
7. ‘A Different World’
Whitley’s Southern twang and Walter’s silly antics are just a few things that make this classic so special. From interracial dating to HIV stigmas, A Different World was way ahead of its time during the '80s and '90s, all thanks to the iconic Debbie Allen. Bringing her own knowledge and experiences as an HBCU alum, the producer featured authentic depictions of Black college life—something that was rarely portrayed during the show’s run.
8. ‘Dear White People’
When the series made its debut, the title sparked controversy because of its “anti-white rhetoric.” But even if you’re put off by the name, it’s worth watching if you want to learn more about the complexity of racism. The comedy drama follows a group of Black students as they navigate a predominantly white Ivy League school, exploring themes that range from colorism to cultural appropriation.
9. ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show’
It's incredibly smart, it's raunchy and it's sure to have you giggling non-stop within the first five minutes. Helmed by comedian Robin Thede, the series consists of sketches performed by a cast of Black women, including Thede, Gabrielle Dennis and Ashley Nicole Black. From the “Bad B*tch Support Group” to the “Black Lady Courtroom” (*clap clap*), it often speaks to the unique experiences of Black ladies—but not without challenging misconceptions about gender and race.
10. ‘Living Single’
From Synclaire’s (Kim Coles) obsession with Troll dolls to Max (Erika Alexander) and Kyle’s (TC Carson) laugh-worthy spats, Living Single remains one of the most iconic (and progressive) Black sitcoms of all time. Revisit the tight-knit group as they support each other through the ups and downs of their careers and relationships.
Loosely inspired by Lena Waithe’s life, the BET series follows Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), a queer Black girl and in her 20s, and her two straight best friends as they chase their dreams in Los Angeles. It brilliantly captures how complicated adulthood can be, while also exploring themes of race and sexuality.
12. ‘All American’
It may look like another predictable teen drama on the surface, but trust me, there’s more to this show than meets the eye. Inspired by the life of pro football player Spencer Paysinger, the sports drama follows the story of Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a talented young athlete who struggles to balance family drama with football, school and his other relationships. Aside from the usual teen angst, expect to see some commentary on racial inequities in America.
13. ‘South Side’
There's never a dull moment when it comes to this quirky comedy. It follows the misadventures of Simon (Sultan Salahuddin) and Kareme (Kareme Young), two community college grads who work as street entrepreneurs and employees at a furniture rental store in Southside of Chicago. It’s witty, it’s fast-paced and it paints a beautiful portrait of the neighborhood’s Black community.
Anyone else wish they could join Issa (Issa Rae) and the gang for an impromptu girl’s night out? The HBO series became a huge hit for the simple fact that it highlighted well-rounded Black characters being “basic”—but that's not the only thing it did well. It tackled several relevant themes, including sexism, toxic masculinity and the fetishization of Black bodies.
Donald Glover gives a solid performance as Earnest "Earn" Marks, a 30-something college dropout who tries to get his cousin’s rapping career off the ground. It includes sharp commentary on issues like poverty, gentrification, celebrity culture and parenthood, which are often tackled with smart humor. (Psst, mark your calendar because season three is set to premiere on March 24.)
16. ‘When They See Us’
It's one of those titles that’ll send your emotions on a rollercoaster, as it depicts the harrowing true story of the Central Park Five, one of the most publicized cases of the ’80s. The five-episode miniseries follows five Black and Latino teens who are wrongfully convicted of a crime. But the truth doesn’t come out until more than a decade later.
17. ‘She's Gotta Have It’
If you love Spike Lee’s work, then I highly recommend you clear your calendar and check out this series. Inspired by his movie of the same title, She's Gotta Have It follows the free-spirited Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) as she juggles not three, but four love interests. In typical fashion, Lee incorporates layers of political and social commentary, speaking directly to gender, race and Black sexuality.
18. ‘Key and Peele’
Key and Peele is the only place where you'll find a laugh-worthy sketch about Dr. Martin Luther King's awkward follow-up speaker or former president Barack Obama's anger translator. Created by MAD TV alums Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the sketch show creatively tackles hot-button issues with silly humor, touching on themes like racism, ethnic stereotyping and homophobia.
19. ‘The Chi’
This coming-of-age drama offers an intimate look at the Black community in the South Side of Chicago, which happens to be one of the toughest neighborhoods in the Windy City. It speaks to a number of important issues, like mental health, racism and police brutality.
20. ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’
We know it as the iconic, insanely quotable sitcom that catapulted Will Smith to fame. But its greatest strength lies in its smart approach with issues like ageism, drug abuse and gun violence. It follows the life of 16-year-old Will, whose life gets flipped-turned upside down, and… Well, you know the rest.