Unlike any other art form, film allows storytellers to convey a lived experience to a wide audience across time, ethnicity, and geography. It’s the power of the best films to open our minds and hearts, teach and motivate us to take action, that makes them so powerful. The following works by African-American directors all have this potency. They are only a few of the numerous films depicting Black life and institutional racism in America, but here are some must-sees for those who want to learn more about these issues.
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From the perspective of a Black feminist who is fighting for her husband’s release from jail, Garrett Bradley’s documentary exposes the emotional side of the prison industrial complex, presenting the tale of Sibil Fox Richardson as she tries to secure the release of her husband, Rob. At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Bradley made history by becoming the first black woman to win a directing award in the US documentary competition. She told Bradley that “You can’t just watch 13th; you have to watch Time… in order to understand this film.” … I don’t think you’ll be able to justify this system’s existence after watching both films.”
2. Queen & Slim
Beyoncé video-director Melina Moutsakas makes her feature directorial debut with a breathtaking story of two strangers (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) who are forced to leave when a police officer is shot in self-defense.
3. Do the Right Thing
In spite of its age, Spike Lee’s masterwork about a Brooklyn enclave from 1989 remains one of the director’s most revered works. The film follows a Brooklyn neighborhood as it copes with the increasing racial tensions that are threatening the city. In addition to Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, the picture features Spike Lee. Toward the end of Do the Right Thing, there is a tribute to the victims of police brutality. Both the Academy Awards and the National Film Registry recognized the film.
When it comes to the mass incarceration crisis in the United States, Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a must-see Netflix documentary. With its comparison of the U.S. prison industrial complex to American slavery, DuVernay’s film exposes the for-profit institutions that have corrupted correctional facilities around the country. The film has been widely praised by critics, having received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
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I Am Not Your Negro is the narrative of a conversation James Baldwin never had the chance to conclude, one that he dedicated his life to initiating. To address racism in America through his recollections of Medgar and Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin would have completed Remember This House. I Am Not Your Negro imagines what the final text might have looked like, integrating letters written by Baldwin himself. narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
August Wilson’s plays remain some of the most important depictions of African-American life ever made, even after his death in 2005. After dedicating himself to the legacy of August Wilson in recent years, Denzel Washington has starred in and developed versions of Wilson’s play Fences, which depicted the Maxson family’s struggle to survive in the post-World War II Hill District area of Pittsburgh.
7. Fruitvale Station
Almost a decade ago, BART police officers kneed Oscar Grant in the head when they responded to a complaint of a train fight. Later in the day, he passed away. Coogler’s directorial debut and first collaboration with Michael B. Jordan showed Grant’s heartbreaking story, giving us all of the promise his life had and all he did on New Year’s 2011, leading up to another unjust death of a black man by white police officers.
8. 12 Years a Slave
On the basis of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 book, Chiwitel Ejiofor portrays Northrup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in this Best Picture winner. Slavery in the South is depicted in the film through the eyes of Northrup, who worked on a plantation for twelve years until finally escaping. For its realistic portrayal at the cruelty and abuse that black Americans like Northrup were forced to on plantations, 12 Years a Slave was hailed as one of the best films of the year by critics.
9. Get Out
Jordan Peele’s debut as a director is remarkable because he exploits horror film conventions to expose prejudice. Actor Daniel Kaluuya portrays Chris, a black man who discovers a frightening secret while accompanying his white girlfriend on a trip home to meet her parents. Get Out ushered in a new era of storytelling about the ills of racism with its combination of humor and terror.
10. If Beale Street Could Talk
In If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish and Fonny, a Harlem couple whose future is shattered when Fonny is incarcerated for a crime that was never committed, tell the story of their harrowing ordeal. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins shows how Fonny’s incarceration impacts Tish’s unplanned pregnancy, which her family believes is “doomed” because she and Fonny can’t marry while he is in prison. Despite a dysfunctional system, Jenkins illustrates the development of love in this very touching picture.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis and others led the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, which Ava DuVernay directs as a historical drama. As their historic marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge near their conclusion, Ava DuVernay dramatizes the efforts of King and Lewis to keep African-Americans from losing their voting rights. That Lewis is still fighting for the rights of African-Americans in the House of Representatives is a powerful reminder of how little has changed in the past half-century.
12. The Hate U Give
Based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling young adult novel, The Hate U Give focuses on the impact of racism and police brutality on the lives of black children and teenagers across the United States. For 16-year-old Starr Carter, everything changes when her childhood buddy is killed in front of her eyes during a routine traffic check at a predominately white prep school. The murder of her classmate thrusts Starr into the national spotlight, despite her efforts to keep her home and school personas distinct. The film then follows her as she develops into a fledgling activist for racial equality, experiencing both highs and lows along the way. A screening of The Hate U Give is a great way to teach teens and pre-teens about racism and police violence.