To actually combat racial injustice in our country, it's not enough to just "not be racist" — one must become actively "anti-racist." But how can you educate yourself on this topic? Storytelling has always been an excellent tool for learning to see the world through the eyes of others, and these movies that tackle systemic racism in America against Black Americans are a first step in working towards learning to be anti-racist.
It is vital to understand racism is baked deep into the fabric of our country. There is a force of structural racism in our society, that permeates all interaction. It's the default assumption of white that makes J.K. Rowling never think to mention the color of Hermione's skin. But over the years, there have been films that challenge this paradigm, giving audiences the chance to see the world from a Black perspective.
The following films, which range from 1949 to 2019, are a selection of stories to help explore how our country has and hasn't been able to move forward. The historical perspective they provide is a reminder that today's protests aren't new, and neither are the issues that sparked them. To break the cycle will require tackling the problem from an active stance moving forward.
1. 'The Hate U Give'
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, The Hate U Give is a lesson in how racism isn't just the purview of adults — it affects everyone, including children and teens. The story follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) as she goes from living a bifurcated life in a black neighborhood and a white prep school to turning activism when her childhood friend is murdered in front of her.
This is an excellent story for high school teens who are looking to understand police brutality, and how anyone can make change happen, no matter who they are.
2. 'Do The Right Thing'
Spike Lee's seminal classic from 1989, Do The Right Thing, is one of the film world's modern masterpieces. The story stars an ensemble cast, tracing how one neighborhood's racial tension explodes and how police brutality escalates the problem.
That it's now a period piece only serves as a further reminder that the issues facing us today have long roots in history. It's a must-watch for those looking to understand how long these issues have been bubbling to the surface.
3. 'Get Out'
Jordan Peele's debut as a director, which won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, is a doozy of a race parable, disguised as a horror movie. Or perhaps it would be better to say a racism parable correctly framed as a horror movie.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, who discovers his girlfriend's wealthy white family's treatment of Black people is far more horrifying than one could imagine. On the surface, it's a fantasy. However, by discussing racism as a parable, Peele can dig deeper into liberal ignorance and hubris about race than he might have by directly coming at the issue.
August Wilson's Fences was initially written for the stage in 1985, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and became a feature film, with Washington and Davis reprising their roles.
The story is set in the 1950s and is one of generation oppression. Troy, a would-have-been baseball player who was shut out of the MLB due to color, refuses to let his son accept a college football scholarship, for fear of him having the same experience. The story is a reminder of how the mindset of living a life defined by injustice is passed down from parent to child.
5. 'If Beale Street Could Talk'
Like Fences, If Beale Street Could Talk is based on the work of another significant Black artist, in this case, James Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name. The story traces the relationship between Tish and Fonny, whose lives are ruined when Fonny is falsely charged for a crime he didn't do.
The film follows Fonny's odyssey through the criminal justice system, highlighting all the forms racial injustice takes in America in the court system. How these two manage in the face of Fonny's mistreatment is as uplifting as watching the system grind them down is heartbreaking.
6. 'The Color Purple'
The movie adaptation of Alice Walker's 1983 novel, The Color Purple is probably best known for its star turn by Oprah Winfrey early in her career. Set in the 1930s, it highlights the social conditions of Black women in Georgia during the depression.
Though the story is violent, with an unflinching depiction of the abuse these characters suffer, it's also a compelling story about the bonds between women. It also emphasizes the power of imagining a better life and a better world is one of the keys to overcoming a world designed to keep you oppressed.
7. 'Fruitvale Station'
The docudrama that put Ryan Coogler on the map, Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, killed by BART police when he was kneed in the head by a cop. Michael B. Jordan plays Grant in his first collaboration with Coogler.
But Coogler doesn't make this story about the aftermath of Grant's death and the protests that followed. Instead, he's interested in the beforemath, as it were. It's a story of hope cut short, giving audiences all the possibilities of Grant's life to come up until a fateful moment when a white cop thoughtlessly snatched it away.
8. 'Intruder In The Dust'
Intruder in the Dust is a film from 1949, based on William Faulkner's whodunit of the same name. Think of it as your alternative to the far more famous white-savior-complex-focused To Kill A Mockingbird.
Intruder in the Dust is about Lucas Beauchamp, a wealthy Black man unjustly accused of murdering white farmer Vincent Gowrie. Unlike Mockingbird, where the black defendant is more of an object, Beauchamp, played by Juano Hernandez, is an active protagonist in his own story. Hernandez's performance in it is considered groundbreaking for Black actors in Hollywood. As such, this is a must-watch for film history buffs as it is for how long these stories have happened in our society.
Ava DuVernay's Selma is a docudrama focused on one of the hardest subjects of all to cover well: Martin Luther King Jr. The man has become mythologized since his assassination in 1968, and his speeches are shorthand for every white person attempting to ask if we can't just all get along.
But DuVernay's film does what almost seems impossible. She and actor David Oyelowo take the historical legend back down into a man, a flawed, human man, and focus on the reality of organizing an entire country to live by the ideals on which they claim to be founded. It's a remarkable achievement.