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Educate Yourself: A Guide to Films Tackling Racism

As all of you should know by now, I love movies. 

At different times in my life, I’ve acted in them, filmed them, written them, watched them, studied them and – most importantly – shared them with others. Films are machines of empathy. Like no other art, they can perfectly transport you to other places and times, put you inside other bodies and help you understand and appreciate the realities of existence outside your own.

You should also know by now that I am a white man.

Right now, people around the country – myself included – are looking for ways to educate ourselves about the struggles our Black siblings face everyday. Movies are an excellent resource to help, whether they take the form of a documentary, a biopic or a fictional narrative that feels all too real. So many great films highlight the prejudice and inequality Black people face living in the United States, and many of those movies are available to stream right now.

While non-Black allies will never fully understand the pain caused by centuries of systemic oppression, and while no movie is capable of encapsulating that, we can still try our best to learn. So as a white person, here are some of the movies that have taught me the most.

“13th” (Netflix)

For anyone unfamiliar with the prejudice ingrained in the modern U.S. prison system, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” is a great place to start. Most people know the 13th Amendment for abolishing slavery, but it didn’t entirely eradicate the practice. The amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In this documentary, DuVernay and a host of civil rights advocates explore that second clause, examining how mass incarceration has become a form of modern-day slavery, as well as the explosive prison growth in the U.S. and how the “War on Drugs” targeted Black communities. If you don’t have Netflix, that’s OK, the full documentary is available for free on YouTube.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Hulu)

The latest film from Academy Award-nominated director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) was a beautifully rich and layered adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It tells the love story of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alzono “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). The relationship between the two is so well-realized by Jenkins, and the performances are wonderfully raw. Of course, life as a Black couple in 1970s New York City isn’t easy – Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Throw in a gorgeous musical score from Nicolas Britell and an Oscar-winning turn from Regina King, and the result is a deeply moving story that will infuriate and sadden viewers in equal measure.

“Moonlight” (Netflix)

Speaking of Barry Jenkins, his second feature took home three Oscars in 2017, including Best Picture. “Moonlight” follows Chiron, a queer Black man, throughout three stages of his life – childhood, teenage years and as a young adult. Through Chiron’s story, Jenkins effectively shares the pain and struggles so many queer people of color face, but are rarely seen on screen. With June marking the start of Pride Month and considering LGBTQ people of color face some of the most severe discrimination, “Moonlight” may be the most important – and timely – movie on this list.

“BlacKkKlansman” (HBO)

Also released in 2018, this Spike Lee joint was a true story that most Americans were hearing for the first time. Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s… even though he is Black. John David Washington’s breakout role as Stallworth was so good it got Christopher Nolan – one of the biggest filmmakers in the world – to cast Washington in the lead role of this summer’s “Tenet.” The film also came in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, which made it even more horrifyingly timely. Spike Lee did what he does best: make us laugh, make us cry, and hold up a mirror to America’s racism – past, present and future. Oh, and he won his first Oscar for it. 

“Do the Right Thing” (Rent)

Speaking of Spike Lee, most fans regard this as his magnum opus and one of the best American films ever made. It is easy to see why. Its depictions of race relations and police brutality are 31-years-old and, even if it is cliche to say so, they’re as relevant as ever. It is endlessly intoxicating, bathing the viewer in the beauty and warm color palette of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood in the midst of a heatwave. The wide cast of characters are frustratingly loveable and lovably frustrating all the way up to the film’s unforgettable climax.

“Malcolm X” (Netflix)

I knew a bit about Dr. Martin Luther King growing up. I celebrated the holiday that is in his name and learned about him in school during the small sliver of time spent on the Civil Rights Movement. I never heard much about Malcolm X, though. That was until I watched Spike Lee’s biopic on the Civil Rights leader who was just as prominent and influential as MLK. “Malcolm X” is a truly epic vision that watches Malcolm as he transforms from the boy Malcolm Little to the young gangster Detroit Red to the Islamic leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated performance is his very best, and the film serves as a more than fitting tribute.

“Sorry to Bother You” (Hulu)

Of all the films on this list, none of them tackle the economic struggles of Black people and the evils of capitalism more than this one. The main character is Cassius Green, or “Cash” – yes, you’re reading that right. This is Lakeith Stanfield’s biggest and arguably best role to date, and his mix of comedic timing and dramatic chops make him the perfect protagonist in writer/director Boots Riley’s surrealist dystopia. Cash manages to climb the social ladder through utilizing his “white voice” to boost his telemarketing sales; his white voice literally being the voice of actor David Cross coming out of Cash’s mouth. His rise to the top reveals corporate arms dealing, slave labor, and a sinister pharmaceutical project.  “Sorry to Bother You” is that kind of movie. 

“Selma” (Free Rentals)

This 2015 Best Picture nominee is the best theatrical recounting of the 1964 march in Selma, as well as all of the political turmoil that preceded it and ultimately made it possible, including meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson and Malcolm X. The film, directed by Ava Duvernay, also earned Oscar wins for Common and John Legend, who wrote and performed the song “Glory.” If you’re looking for a film that highlights Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, role at one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most critical moments, this is it.

“Boyz N the Hood” (Rent)

How good is this 1991 coming-of-age flick? John Singleton was nominated for Best Director when he was 24-years-old. It’s an unbelievable record that stands to this day, and for good reason. Singleton was also nominated for the screenplay, which tells the story of a young Black boy named Tre Styles. Tre is highly intelligent, but ill-tempered and rebellious, so he goes from living with his mother Reva (Angela Bassett in her first major film role) to living with his father Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) in South Central Los Angeles. Over the course of almost a decade, the film covers Tre’s life as he grows into a young man and learns what it means to be Black in a country where Black men are at risk of everything you can imagine. 

“Blindspotting” (HBO)

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote, produced and starred in this heightened, almost Shakespearean dramedy that premiered at Sundance in 2018 after years of development by the two young talents. The real-life friends play Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), a pair of buddies who grew up in Oakland. The story follows their struggle to stay on the right side of the law as they deal with police brutality, racism and gentrification. The visuals are slick, the pacing is fast-break, and the chemistry between the leads is dynamite. You’ve never seen Oakland like this before.

“Just Mercy” (Free Rentals)

Perhaps the most emotional film here, “Just Mercy” is tells a true story that tackles the rigged criminal justice system in America better than any other film on this list. Lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) looks to aid death-row inmates in Alabama during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The film’s case focuses on Stevenson trying to prove the innocence of Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx in a tear-jerking performance. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I had goosebumps at the end and immediately went to donate to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, which you can do here. Plus, Warner Bros. made “Just Mercy” free to rent for the entire month of June to help educate. There’s no excuse to skip this one. If you’re looking for extra information on Stevenson and the crooked criminal justice system, check out his book by the same name.

“The Hate U Give” (Purchase)

An unarmed, Black young man is killed by police. The murder becomes a national news story. Peaceful protests and riots ensue. Sound familiar? Despite being based on a young adult novel, “The Hate U Give” tackles seriously relevant and complex social issues through the lens of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) – the sole witness in the killing – as she is swept up in the media firestorm and court proceedings. We can only hope this story will be more fiction than reality in the years to come. Keep fighting. Keep demanding justice. Make change happen.

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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