Educate yourself on the dark themes behind the Black Lives Matter Movement by watching these 10 enlightening films by award-winning directors.
On a sunny May afternoon, Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, took the life of an African-American man named George Floyd. Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd was handcuffed on the ground, begging for his life and protesting that he couldn't breathe. Chauvin was assisted by three officers who prevented bystanders from interfering. This tragedy, a stark and grim reminder of many similar instances of African Americans suffering aggressions, big and small, from police throughout the United States has catalyzed the Black Lives Matter Movement and sparked global protests that are still going on as of this writing.
Here are 10 very important films to watch in order to better appreciate the context for the current calls for reform and the deep sense of grievance that African Americans feel today.
10. 13th (2016)
Three of the films on this list were directed by Ava DuVernay. This documentary film is a deep dive into the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and tracks its use over time as a tool for extending the mechanisms of slavery through the penal system.
As soon as slavery was abolished, African-Americans found themselves increasingly incarcerated and working without pay. Why does America have the largest prison population in the world, along with the highest incarceration rate? Netflix has just released it for free on YouTube. 13th earned DuVernay an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
9. When They See Us (2019)
The four episodes of Ava DuVernay's true-crime Netflix original mini-series constitute a heart-breaking inside look at the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five young black teens from Harlem were convicted of raping and leaving for dead a young white woman in Central Park. This was the first time the nation heard the term, "wilding." DuVernay subtly and movingly walks us through the coerced confessions, the logical gymnastics required by the NYPD to fulfill their myopic obsession to pin the rape on five innocent minors, and the impact the convictions had on the children and their families both during and after their eventual release.
All five were fully exonerated after the true perpetrator confessed to the crime over a decade later. DuVernay skilfully weaves in myriad detail the many injustices, great and small done to these men by a criminal justice system that does everything to get them ensconced in it and nothing to help them get out of it. The series was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards.
8. Selma (2014)
This is the film that made Ava DuVernay a household name. Selma tracks the choices made by Martin Luther King Jr. (beautifully portrayed by David Oyelowo) and his advisors that led to a planned protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1964.
Facing feral discrimination and very real physical danger, DuVernay manages to capture the fear and tension as King and his followers pressed forward across the Selma bridge, confident that they will be savagely beaten by the police as they had been in previous encounters. This was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and led to then-President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Based on the powerful novel by one of America's authorial treasures, James Baldwin, this multiple award-winning film tracks a young black couple, deeply in love and struggling to make their way together in New York City in the 1970s.
By contrasting deep romantic passion with systemic injustice, the film asks profound questions: how do you maintain dignity, how do you hold on to love, how do you raise children, all in an environment that is working to remind African-Americans that suppression and oppression are alive and well despite recently won Civil Rights battles. The protagonist couple are forced to develop tools to deal with trauma as an accusation of rape lands an innocent man in prison.
6. The Hate U Give (2018)
Unapologetically, The Hate U Give begins with "The Talk." This is the conversation that takes place in all black and mixed-race families at some point, where children are taught how and why to not give any police officer any excuse to take an encounter to a violent and potentially lethal level.
The film places police violence at its epicenter and traces its aftershocks through the surrounding community.
5. Get Out (2017)
Get Out is the only horror film on this list, but it well earns its place on it. Written and directed by Jordan Peele (best known as half of the comedy improv duo Key and Peele), he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Since this is a horror film, it would be unfair to give away any surprises to those who have not seen it yet, but thematically, the film is about human trafficking and slavery at a deep level.
The horrors in the film are not perpetrated by obvious, stereotypical horror bad-guy characters, but rather by your white, middle-class liberal neighbors.
4. I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
This documentary is the striking result of a posthumous collaboration of sorts. Director Raoul Peck took a very sparse unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin that he started in 1979 and left unfinished by his death in 1987 called Remember This House and envisions how the book may have played out past its 30 pages.
Baldwin had intended to write, at length, about three close friends of his whose lives were all cut short through assassination: NAACP Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film becomes a chronicle of Baldwin's life within the Civil Rights Movement. Peck relies on Samuel L. Jackson to deliver much of Baldwin's writings, and those writings continue to illuminate the African American lived experience today. If viewing If Beale Street Could Talk doesn't already convince you of the genius of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro surely will.
3. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Roger Ebert famously said, “I have been given only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw Do the Right Thing. Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul.” The most important character of this film is the setting itself, the multi-racial, multi-generational Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on a scorching hot summer day. Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing is still admirable for the way it attempts to capture the complexities and tensions around race.
2. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Based on a true story, this film is about the last day in the life of 22-year old Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed on New Year's Eve by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in Oakland in 2009.
Michael B. Jordan delivers a powerful performance that begs the question: why do police so often get a pass if they kill someone with a criminal past?
1. Just Mercy (2019)
Also featuring Michael B. Jordan and also based on a true story, Just Mercy follows a lawyer defending Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a black man convicted of rape waiting out his time on death row.
The false charge and imprisonment of black men raping white women has historically been used often enough to seem cliché and explains its frequent appearance as a theme on this list.