20+ Films You Need to Watch About Race in America
We are filmmakers, so when the going gets tough, we turn to...what else? Movies.
The going has certainly gotten tough in the U.S.A. lately. As summer has heated up, so has political rhetoric and devastating violence, each bringing to the fore one of our most complicated and deeply rooted national issues: race relations. Recent headlines have left many in our film community and beyond feeling sad, helpless, angry, confused, or a hot summer stew of all of them. As we discussed on a recent episode of Indie Film Weekly, no matter where you fall on these issues, it’s important to be educated on their historical context. Current events don’t exist in a bubble, and learning about their origins, as well as other people’s experiences, is the first step toward creating change.
And where does a filmmaker turn to become educated? Films, of course. Fortunately, Kino Lober is releasing the blu-ray box set Pioneers of African American Cinema, executive produced by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky). The 5-disc set will be an excellent primer on the African American experience captured in over 20 films, and spanning over 20 years of the early cinematic era.
As for me, I turned to our No Film School boards and staff, and my personal filmmaking community to ask for recommendations, and they came in droves. Out of more than 75 recommended films—from historic docs to searing narratives to animations—I’ve culled a group here for my summer playlist and maybe yours, too.
1. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
We might as well begin at the beginning. Plainly put, the African-American experience is rooted in slavery. The Oscar-winner for Best Picture in 2014, a word often used to describe this brutal depiction of one slave’s experience is “unflinching.” The film is especially poignant because it is based on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, an African-American man who was born free but then kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Another powerful take on slavery and American history can be found in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), which dramatizes another true story, this time about a mutiny by Africans being transported on a slave ship and their ensuing trial, fallout from which sowed the seeds for the Civil War.
2. A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961)
Starring some of our country’s most celebrated actors, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, this was one of the first films to get really real about how everyday racism affects black families just trying to get by in America. In this case, it’s a Chicago family who has come into some unexpected money and the obstructions they face when trying to, for example, move into a traditionally “white neighborhood.” The film’s story still resonates for many today, as evidenced by its series of sold out performances every time the play (on which the film is based) comes to Broadway.
3. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
As everyone’s favorite NFS writer, V Renée, called out, “‘Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care what's going on in the hood.’ Brilliant!!!” She was pointing out one of the many lines in Singleton’s celebrated debut that made the realities of African American life in South Central Los Angeles crystal clear, at a time when many Americans had only heard of the region through gangsta rap. Not coincidentally, one of South Central’s legendary rappers, Ice Cube has his acting debut in the film, playing one of the three central characters wrapped up in the drama of the streets. Hard to believe that this could have been true as late as the ‘90s, but Boyz also made John Singleton the first African-American to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.
4. The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)
This film, based on a true story, exhibits decades of sociopolitical change in America through the eyes of a black butler who served eight U.S. presidents in the White House. It does not shy away from the full spectrum of the African American experience, even including original footage of police violence during the Civil Rights movement. The mixed emotions and lived history that are represented in the film may be best summed up by Daniels’ own 91-year-old uncle, as Daniels described them in a CNN interview: “He was the first pediatric surgeon of color in America and when he saw this movie, I can't explain to you what it was like. He cried from the beginning to the end, and he laughed from beginning to end." (Daniels, by the way, was the second African American get the Best Director nom—18 years after Singleton—for Precious in 2009.)
5. Coonskin (Ralph Bakshi, 1975)
Perhaps the most controversial film on the list, this 1975 hybrid animation/live-action tale, rife with racially charged iconography, was originally protested as racist. However, its depiction of an African American fox, rabbit and bear who become big players in Harlem’s organized crime syndicate has since been noted as a searing indictment of the treatment of people of color in this country. In fact, a frequent commenter on our No Film School boards remarked that Coonskin is, “probably one of the most allegorical films I've ever watched about the black experience in America.” It’s worth noting that Bakshi was no stranger to controversy. By the time Coonskin was released, he had already fired up critics with 1972’s Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to receive an X rating.
6. Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)
This 2014 Sundance favorite takes a satirical approach to the issues at hand, showing that racism is alive and well, even in an era when people of color have access to our country’s most privileged institutions. Its plot centers around a biracial student at a predominantly white Ivy League university, and it uses comedy to expose the intercultural (and innercultural) tensions that she and her African-American classmates face. We will also be able to watch a 10-episode TV adaptation of the film on Netflix next year.
7. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)
Another Sundance breakout (as well as Best First Film Winner at 2013’s Cannes Un Certain Regard), this film tells of a true story that served as a devastating precursor to the rash of police killings of African American men in recent years. The movie opens with the actual footage of Oscar Grant and his friends being detained by the BART Police, who oversee the Bay Area’s public transit system. It goes on to portray the last day of Grant’s life through flashbacks, until the moment he was fatally shot in the back by those same police at Fruitvale Station in Oakland.
8. How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)
There could be an entirely separate post on excellent documentaries that tackle these pressing social issues, but this one might be especially pertinent to filmmakers. It focuses on the life of provocative black filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, and features appearances from other film mavericks like his son, Mario van Peebles, and Spike Lee. Best known for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (lauded as the most successful independent film of its time), van Peebles had an incredibly diverse career ranging from novelist to Wall St. trader, but perhaps his most significant accomplishment is the way his irreverent (and often humorous) approach to social challenges changed the national conversation. As van Peebles himself says in the film, “I didn’t see the type of things I wanted to see, so I did it myself.”
9. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
The description of this film, and its 1934 predecessor by John M. Stahl, reveal them to be way ahead of their time. Yes, the lead black character, Annie, plays housekeeper to the lead white one, Lora, but they are also both single mothers and best friends. Through their lifelong relationship, issues not only of race but of identity, female independence and interdependence, and socioeconomic realities play out. The most interesting character may be Annie’s light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, through whom we can witness society’s brutal hypocrisy (like when she is beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is black). Reading up about how the script was changed between the release of two films is an interesting study in America’s shifting social norms in and of itself.
10. In The Heat of The Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)
Another Poitier classic, and winner of 5 Oscars including Best Picture in 1968, this charged police drama follows the story of a black Philadelphia detective, played by Poitier. Intrigue ensues when he is brought on to investigate a murder in a small, bigoted Mississippi town after he himself is wrongfully accused of the crime. The film, particularly the “odd couple” relationship that develops between Poitier’s character and the white sheriff who originally accused him, inspired a popular TV series of the same name that ran from 1988-1995.
11. Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2014)
I got chills from the trailer alone of this documentary on what a courtroom testifier in the film calls “one of the most devastating days in the modern history of Philadelphia.” The found-footage documentary pieces together the events and aftermath surrounding the police action of dropping military-grade explosives onto a rowhouse occupied by members of the Black Power group MOVE, which resulted in eleven deaths (including five children) and the destruction of 61 homes. Though this incident was hardly the first time that fear of counterculture led to flagrant abuses of power, this is a powerful and thoughtful presentation, and particularly relevant amidst today’s conversations about what constitutes terrorism.
12. Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, 1991)
Nair’s breakout hit focuses on a young Indian woman, whose family settles in Mississippi after being expelled with all other Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin (because “Africa is for Africans”). In her new home, she falls in love with a black man, and, well, hotness ensues, both in the heat of their romance and boiling intercultural tensions. Their love story is entertaining but not simple; it serves as a reminder that racism and race-based misunderstandings (or worse) exist not just between black and white, and not just in America, but across international borders and among many different groups. Two other titles including our most famously-spelled state were also recommended for this list and are worthy of your consideration: Mississippi Damned (Tina Mabry, 2009) and Oscar-Winner Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 2001).
13(+). PBS miniseries ad infinitum
If any media outlet can be said to have done a noteworthy job of covering the history of race relations in America, it’s good old PBS. One miniseries to start with is The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, written and narrated by noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It gives a comprehensive and appropriately complex picture of African American history in six parts, from the transatlantic slave journeys in 1500, all the way up to Barack Obama's presidential election. It also comes with a website chock full of educational resources appropriate for a wide range of ages, like more than 100 posts written by Professor Gates himself about prominent African Americans from US history.
For a focus specifically on the civil rights movement, reach no further than the 1987 American Experience series Eyes on the Prize. This 14-hour saga was created and executive produced by celebrated documentarian Henry Hampton, and takes a deep dive into the people and acts behind the greatest social justice movement in American history.
Other recommended PBS fare to explore are African American Lives 1 & 2 (also helmed by Louis Gates, Jr.), and the Independent Lens episodes Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
14. Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of our country’s most well known and beloved figures, but rarely do we get a closeup look at the man or the movement that he inspired. This Oscar-nominated historical fiction depicts a very specific but significant period of his life, when he planned and led the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. (Although race had not technically been a barrier to voting since the 15th amendment was passed in 1870, there were still plenty of state-sponsored restrictions on voting for of people of color 100 years later, especially in the South.) Though the events culminated successfully, with President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the victory did not come without bitter, violent and even deadly opposition, displayed in the film.
15. Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)
The directorial debut of indie film hero Cassavetes, its story centers around three African American siblings living in the New York City beatnik scene. The film’s portrayal of interracial relationships is a likely inspiration to others on this list that deal with the same. Shadows is particularly notable for its realism, and the tackling of race relations during the height of popularity of sanitized portrayals of American life in shows like Leave it to Beaver.
16(+). Spike Lee's entire filmography
Even when prolific filmmaker Spike Lee’s films aren’t about race, they’re about race. I’d go as far as to say that if you were only going to choose one item on this list to get your primer on race in America, it should be this one...although it itself includes well over 20 titles. Perhaps start with an early one like Do The Right Thing (1989)—an East Coast predecessor to Boyz N The Hood—and later move into heavier fare with his depiction of outspoken black activist Malcolm X (1991). A Spike Lee joint particularly relevant to those of us making media is Bamboozled (2000). And don’t forget about his many thought-provoking documentaries, including the heart-wrenching 4 Little Girls (1997), about four children who were killed in the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.
17. The Spook Who Sat By The Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973)
On its face, this film about a militant black activist who uses his CIA training to arm African American freedom fighters might seem like the ultimate blaxploitation trope. However, the fact that the F.B.I. had a role in removing it from theaters in its original theatrical run tells us that there is more to it: a subversive and bitingly satirical message. In the words of Tim Reid, who helped resurface and release the film on DVD in 2004, “When you look back at the times...Martin Luther King was assassinated, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. Black people were really angry and frustrated; we were tired of seeing our leaders killed. What do we do? Do we have a revolution? There is nothing that comes close to this movie in terms of black radicalism.”
18. Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal , 2008)
Kanye West was always provocative, but before he was “Kimye,” he used to say some pretty relevant things. His public response to the government’s appalling lack of response to the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—which disproportionately affected poor, black residents was, "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People." Oscar-nominated for best feature documentary, this films tells the story of one family’s Katrina experience with a stunning montage of real-time footage captured by the protagonists as their neighborhood floods with water from the storm. Spike Lee also tackled Katrina and its aftermath in his TV miniseries When the Levees Broke.
19. Special mention: The Wire (TV series)
One of the vanguards of today’s cinematic TV wave, The Wire is oft-heralded as the most accurate depiction of urban issues—race and class divides chief among them—ever on the small screen. Each season of this intricately woven crime drama set in Baltimore takes on a different theme affecting city residents: drugs, the business (legal and illegal) that goes through Baltimore’s ports, the bureaucratic city government, the school system, and the local newspapers. I’ve managed to avoid the word “gritty” for this entire post, but the Wire is indeed gritty, gripping, dramatic, sometimes shocking, and even heartfelt: basically everything one might want in a binge-watch.
20. Special mention: The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker, forthcoming)
Hands-down the most discussed film coming out of Sundance 2016, this period drama portrays the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Its title is an ironic reference to one of the most racist films in history, a 1915 KKK propaganda work of the same name. Perhaps best described by Variety critic Justin Chang, the 2016 film “exists to provoke a serious debate about the necessity and limitations of empathy, the morality of retaliatory violence, and the ongoing black struggle for justice and equality in this country. It earns that debate and then some.” It was acquired by Fox Searchlight in a record-breaking deal at Sundance and is set to hit theaters this fall. Other recent festival standouts on these topics are Reinaldo Green’s Stop (which you can watch right here) and Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas.
Thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions. I’ve already started watching, and we’d love to hear from more of you. What films would you add to this list?
[Editor's Note: This post was originally written before Ava DuVernay's 13th was released. It is currently available on Netflix, and another highly recommended title. The Netflix description states: "In this thought-provoking documentary, scholars, activists and politicians analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom." We wrote about its production here.]