Header image description: A large, off-white banner held aloft on a city street, which reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in all-caps, black bold text.
So, the race war is finally poppin off. In moments like this, people turn to pop culture to understand what’s going on. Twitter has noted that The Help is trending on Netflix in the US. This is disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising. White people love feel-good movies about race; however, the point of this moment isn’t to feel good. The ultimate goal is a revolution of not only the massive, overarching structures that impact our lives, but a revolution of how we treat each other.
I’d like to emphasize that all Black lives matter, especially Black women, Black queer and trans people, fat Black people, disabled, mentally ill, and chronically ill Black people, Black immigrants, Black indigenous people, and Black Latinx folks. People who fall into one or more of these groups – including myself – are oppressed not only as a result of our Blackness but as a result of other identities. We are left out of dialogues about Blackness, womanhood, queerness, transness, body positivity, disability, mental health, illness, immigration, indigeneity, and Latinidad.
I would like to remind the rest of y’all – cishet Black men, non-Black women, White Gays™ (and white lesbians and trans folks), non-Black body positivity influencers, white disabled people, non-Black immigrants, non-Black indigenous and Latinx folks, and everyone else – that none of y’all would have the rights you have today without the Black people in your demographics, and none of y’all will ever be free unless you fight with us for our liberation, too. Abolition means killing the cop in your head and in your heart – that requires challenging and unlearning the anti-Blackness in yourself (and in your family, friend group, and wherever you notice it).
Below is a list of movies that can help you make sense of anti-Black racism and many of the ways it manifests, both overtly and covertly. Not every movie about race is gonna help you understand why Black people are so damn frustrated, so I’ve made a list of movies that won’t help you understand this critical moment. I’ve also included some movies to watch with caution – meaning they aren’t terrible for right now, but you should probably do some extra research around their topics.
I’ve listed where you can watch these films online, but check if your local library has Overdrive or your school/institution gives you access to Kanopy – you can likely find them for free there as well!
Films You Should Definitely Watch
- Do the Right Thing (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)
This Spike Lee classic demonstrates that just because you work with Black people or have Black friends doesn’t mean you can’t commit anti-Black violence. The film artfully shows how tensions boil over in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood in the late 80s on the hottest day of the year. In a time where Black people’s frustrations are leading to actions some people call “counterintuitive” or “violent”, this film makes it easy to see how seemingly small acts of antagonism come to a head.
- The Watermelon Woman (free on Criterion Channel, or free with Amazon Prime)
This film by Cheryl Dunye follows a budding Black lesbian filmmaker in the 90s who is trying to track down information about “The Watermelon Woman”, an early Black film actress. It tackles sexual fetishism of Black people, Black queer (specifically, lesbian) erasure, and stereotypes of Black people in American film. Like Do the Right Thing, it shows that being in relationship with Black people – yes, even sexual or romantic relationships – does not automatically make one anti-racist.
- Get Out (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is about a Black man who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be super racist; it’s how they go about their racism is the surprise. This film shows how professed liberals (the girlfriend’s dad says he “would’ve voted for Obama a third term” if he could) can still have a visceral, deep-seated hatred of Black people and Blackness. This film also shows how non-Black people of color maintain anti-Blackness: an Asian man is shown participating in what viewers later realize is a modern-day slave auction.
- Fruitvale Station (free on Tubi, or rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)
Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed Black man killed by police on January 1, 2009 in the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The film, starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant, follows him going about the Bay Area on the last day of his life and how a series of happenstances led to his brutal killing (though of course, all blame lies with the cops who participated, as well as the inherent anti-Black racism of policing).
- I Am Not Your Negro (free with Amazon Prime)
This documentary is a filmographic take on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript tentatively titled “Remember This House”. Inspired by letters and notes from the author’s life in the mid-70s and featuring archival video material, it connects the Civil Rights Movement to issues Black people face in America today. It reminds us that no matter how far we’ve come in the last fifty years, we still have a lot of work left to do.
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (free to everyone on Amazon Prime Video)
This documentary, shot by Swedish journalists, shows the timeline of the Black Power movement in America over the titular years. It contains footage of many significant figures in the fight for racial justice, such as Angela Davis, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Huey P. Newton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, and others. The film tackles issues relevant to these people and their respective groups, including the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, and the burgeoning War on Drugs.
Films You Shouldn’t Watch (at least, not for any helpful information)
Do I even need to explain why you shouldn’t watch a period drama about subservient Black people to understand why Black people today are fed all the way up? The “mammy” archetype of Black women who are loyal caretakers/domestic servants to white families has gone on far too long. If you want to learn more about the mammy archetype and see pictures of actual women who were in this position, check out Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders exhibit Framing Shadows.
The Blind Side
The Blind Side, which fictionalizes the story of professional football player Michael Oher, is the epitome of the “white savior” trope. It tells the story of his childhood in poverty and subsequent adoption by a well-to-do southern white family. This trope consists of poor Black people with no agency to help themselves who are rescued from their misfortune by nice white people. We don’t need white people to save us, y’all; we can liberate ourselves.
Here we go with another white savior film. The title is inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book, a historical guidebook for Black travellers that listed hotels, restaurants, and other establishments across the country that wouldn’t refuse them service on the basis of their Blackness. In this movie, Don Shirley, a Black musician, takes his copy of the Green Book and his white chauffeur on a tour of the Deep South and Midwest. The film portrays Shirley and the chauffeur as close friends and confidantes. The film was notably objected to by the real-life Don Shirley’s family, saying that it misrepresented and made overly sanguine the relationship between Shirley and his chauffeur.
This Spike Lee film dramatizes the story of Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective in a small Colorado town in the 70s. Stallworth attempts to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the KKK along with one of his white coworkers. This movie is straight-up copaganda – media that tries to make us feel sympathy for or kinship with police officers and tells us that ultimately, they’re trying to do good and keep society safe. I’d like to reiterate that policing, police departments, and individual officers are inherently anti-Black, and that all cops – even the Black ones – are bad.
Y’all really can’t let Ms. Tubman rest in peace, can you? I don’t care whether or not this movie was good – the fact that Cynthia Erivo, who not only is not a descendant of slaves, but also has a history of mocking Black Americans, plays the legendary Harriet Tubman is reason enough not to watch it.
Films You Should Watch with Caution
The Hate U Give (rent/buy on YouTube)
This movie is based on a YA novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, which was pretty good for being the first major YA book about police brutality, but wasn’t amazing overall. Its conversation around respectability politics needs a bit more nuance, and it has copaganda (the protagonist’s uncle is a cop, though he is critiqued). However, the movie falls into typical Hollywood colorism in their casting of Amandla Stenberg (above) as the protagonist Starr, when the original book cover depicts Starr as an dark-skinned Black girl with a ‘fro. I think it serves as an entry point for young people into the conversation about police brutality and anti-Blackness, but it needs to be paired with further conversations and readings about how these systems of oppression play out in real life.
13th (available on Netflix)
Ava Duvernay’s documentary explains how mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex came to be as a result of a loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution – the amendment that abolished slavery. Featuring interviews with Angela Davis and Bryan Stevenson, it challenges us to think about why we consider such egregious restrictions in freedom to be a normal part of our society. Unfortunately, the film does not take an abolitionist stance; however, I think it’s important to understand the history that led to such violations of human rights being legal.