Film & Television

Black Lives Matter:
Films That Can Start Conversations

Last week, my small New England — and predominantly white — town held a “march, vigil, and lament” in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black men and women who have been murdered at the hands of police and racists. The event was sponsored by the local Racial Justice Team and included clergy from multiple houses of worship. Around 1,000 people participated, masked, social-distanced, and often driven to tears by the stories we heard.

The evening underscored three important messages. First, that there is a difference between being not racist and being anti-racist. One is the passive position that if you’re not part of the problem, you don’t have to do anything about that problem. The other is accepting responsibility for effecting change. Second, that you can use your white privilege to help others in the moment. As a white person, you can step in and challenge someone (a salesperson, a neighbor, even a police officer) if you see him or her committing a racist act. And third, that we need to listen to, believe, and learn from the experiences of people of color.

We all need to have more conversations about race, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. We need to acknowledge what we don’t know and learn from each other. And art can play an informative (and emotive) role in our learning. Today, you can find documentaries, miniseries, and narrative films that help illuminate what the Black Lives Matter movement is about and why it’s so important. Here are several available to rent or stream.

 

Selma (2014)
Although Selma was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, director Ava DuVernay was passed over for a Best Director nod. Whether this was a reflection of her gender or her race is anyone’s guess — neither female nor black directors have fared well at the Academy Awards. Selma dramatizes the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in the year leading up to 1965’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Oprah Winfrey served as a producer and also plays the supporting role of Annie Lee Cooper, a real-life activist who punched Selma’s sheriff in the face. “Having people look at you and not see you as a human being — she just got tired of it,” Winfrey explains. 

Selma is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.

 

13th (2016)
Released two years after Selma, DuVernay’s documentary take its name from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which 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.” The director deftly connects the dots between the nation’s history of slavery and current mass incarceration trends. African Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP. It’s easy — and heartbreaking — to see how one system of racial subjugation has replaced another.

13th is available on Netflix.

 

When They See Us (2019)

DuVernay’s powerful miniseries When They See Us tells the story of the so-called “Central Park Five,” the teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted in 1989’s infamous assault and rape of a young white investment banker. The four installments follow the boys from the night of the attack through their vilification in the media, their trials, imprisonment, and eventual exoneration. When They See Us, which won two Emmy Awards and was nominated for fourteen more, is difficult to watch, but an important exposé of a shameless chapter in modern justice.

When They See Us is available on Netflix.

 

Do the Right Thing (1989)
It’s hard to believe that Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing was released more than thirty years ago; the story is so timely right now. Taking place on a single scorching summer day in a neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film dramatizes racial tensions at a local pizzeria until they reach a rage-filled crescendo and inevitable tragedy. Including a horrific scene of police brutality, Do the Right Thing still shocks us. But, that’s no doubt what Lee, who was just 32 when he directed and dedicated it to victims of racial violence, wanted to do. His message is painfully still on point.

Do The Right Thing is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.

 

Loving (2016)
Loving is based on the true case of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were persecuted and imprisoned in segregated 1960s Virginia. Jeff Nichols’s touching film focuses on one of our nation’s most significant Supreme Court cases, Loving v. Virginia, that ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Yet the movie spends virtually no time in the courtroom itself. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on one family’s everyday life and intimate, personal story. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton shine as the couple fighting for the chance to love whom they love.

Loving is available on HBO through Hulu or Amazon.

 

Queen & Slim (2019) 
At one point in Melina Matsoukas’s feature film debut, Queen and Slim are referred to as “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” However, the two are accidental outlaws, running from a fatal late night encounter with a racist cop. With a provocative script by Lena Waithe and tremendous performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim takes the themes of desperation and injustice to mythic proportion. As hopeless as the story is, it is also hauntingly beautiful. Its heroes — and heartbreak — will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Queen & Slim is available on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.

 

These other titles — ranging from fiction and fantasy to historical drama and sobering documentaries — may be of interest at this time too.

Get Out (2017)
Whose Streets? (2017)
The Hate U Give (2018)
Fruitvale Station (2013)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Hidden Figures (2017)
Just Mercy (2019)
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
BlacKKKlansman (2018)
Step (2017)
Clemency (2019)
Strong Island (2017)
Fences (2017)
Seven Seconds (2018)
Stay Woke (2016)
The First Purge (2018)
Harriet (2019)

The conversations around Black Lives Matter can be difficult and painful. But they will and should continue. And watching one (or many) of these films may give you a place to start. 

 

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  • Marcia June 9, 2020 at 10:14 am

    An older film, The Long Walk Home, is also a good one to watch at this time. Sissy Spacek and Whoppi Goldberg are excellent in this movie.

    Reply