An ongoing anti-racist watch list for non-Black allies
Educate yourself about systemic racism and police brutality in America, starting with these 12 films and documentaries.
Still from "Selma".
“If we were to look at the larger-scale riots that we know of in our recent history, from Rodney King in 1992, the Detroit Riot in 1967, the Newark Riot in 1967, Harlem Riot in 1964, Watts in 1965... Every single one of those riots was a result of police brutality. That is the common thread,” explains Jelani Cobb, a professor at Columbia University and staff writer for The New Yorker, on the Netflix documentary 13th.
The list is longer still, including more recent protests in Ferguson and in New York City, after Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police officers in 2014. Over the last week, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people at the hands of the police, and the movement has spread across the globe. Since then, the four police officers involved in Floyd’s murder were charged and petitions to reopen previous cases have gained momentum.
These protests are not just demonstrations against police brutality, however, but deeply rooted systemic racism in America. In order to understand what’s happening now, we have to go back and look at how racism in this country has evolved — from the institution of slavery and racial segregation in the Jim Crow South to the war on drugs, which began in the 70s and masked tactics aimed at further demonizing, controlling and imprisoning minority communities. More recent examples include President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill that disproportionately affected communities of color and resulted in mass incarceration, and the stop-and-frisk program in New York that allows police officers to temporarily detain and search civilians on the street (eighty percent of those stopped in 2019 were Black or Latinx).
It’s no wonder that every time another Black person is wrongfully killed, protests and riots break out — especially when local governments so often fail to hold police officers accountable. These films and documentaries on racial inequality in America should help to unpack and clarify how we got here.
Of all of the films in the list below, this should be the first on your watch list. It directly explains the long history of racial inequality that has led up to the crisis we find ourselves in today, and that has resulted in mass incarceration in the US. The film’s titled after the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery while upholding the judicial system’s right to incarcerate and force indentured servitude as punishment upon those duly convicted. The Ava DuVernay-directed documentary lays out how those in power have consistently fed false rhetoric to the public, depicting the Black man as a dangerous predator in order to pray on the fears of white voters — and even some Black voters who began to believe that what was said about them was true — and to maintain control. Stream this on Netflix.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Nate Parker’s film centers on the true story of Nat Turner, who led a historic slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. While other films on the topic have whitewashed some of the atrocities that faced those in servitude, as did our school curriculums, Parker plays them out in excruciating detail. Forcing oneself to witness these acts is important for understanding where this crisis began and who is responsible for it. The title is a nod to another film of the same name whose content was vastly different. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster, the first film ever to be screened in the White House, was set in the Confederate South and depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes against the terrorism of wicked freed Blacks. At the time, government suppression had all but stamped out the KKK from existence. Griffith’s powerful propaganda — he was the first to introduce the burning of crosses, for instance — galvanized the group and its supporters, making it more prevalent than ever.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington plays out key moments in the Civil Rights activist’s life, from his imprisonment in the 50s and his conversion to Islam to his assassination in 1965. During his active years a lot of misinformation was spread about Malcolm X — politicians and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover portrayed him as a violent threat to society, though his teachings were centered around the pursuit of racial justice. Stream this on HBO.
4 Little Girls (1997)
The documentary 4 Little Girls tells the story of a group of young Black girls, between the ages of 11 and 14, who died at the hands of white supremacists that planted a bomb in their church in 1963. At the time, KKK bombings were a regular occurrence in Birmingham, Alabama, though this incident drew Martin Luther King Jr. to the town to speak at the girls’ funeral and to lead a demonstration in its wake. National media covered the use of police dogs and fire hoses on the protesters young and old, before police arrested them and packed them into jails. The public outrage sparked by the coverage, and the leniency of the judicial system on the perpetrators, was pivotal for the Civil Rights Movement. Stream this on HBO.
This film follows Martin Luther King Jr. after he leaves the Birmingham protests to meet with President Lyndon Johnson, asking him to enforce the allowance of Black people to vote. In the film he says, “There have been thousands of racially motivated murders in the South, including those four girls. And you know that astounding fact that not one of these criminals who murder us, when and why they want, has ever been convicted. Not one conviction because they are protected by white officials chosen by an all-white electorate. And on the rare occasion that they face trial, they are freed by all-white juries. They’re all white because you can’t serve on a jury unless you are registered to vote.”
LBJ refuses to acquiesce and MLK leaves for Selma, where he leads protests in the heart of George Wallace’s Alabama. (Trump, of course, recently reiterated the ragingly racist governor’s famous quote: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”) Thanks to national media coverage, white America finally sees the state-sanctioned barbarity used by police forces against peaceful protesters of all ages and the outcry ties the president’s hands. The film ends with LBJ finally striking down barriers to voting at federal, state and local levels; he signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 five months later, with MLK by his side.
Set in the midst of an economic downturn and heightened racial tensions, this film plays out the true story of the 1967 Detroit Riots and the Algiers Motel incident, where a handful of the city's police riot task force tortured and murdered several civilians, including three Black teenage boys. What sparked the riot? A police raid on a speakeasy in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood, which was celebrating the recent return of Vietnam servicemen. Unfortunately, anyone could guess the outcome: despite charges of felonious assault, murder and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse, all cops involved were found not guilty.
Black Panthers: Vanguard (2015)
This is one of the more comprehensive documentaries on the highly influential revolutionary group, the Black Panther Party. It showcases the incredible oratory skills of its long list of intimidatingly intelligent leaders, as well as their many community social programs (free healthcare, legal assistance, education, meals for children...) and their ability to find comrades in other underprivileged groups. It also explains the party’s ultimate demise due to the insidious tactics of Hoover’s FBI force. Stream this on YouTube.
Fists of Freedom: The '68 Summer Games (1999)
A precursor to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, and in turn losing his career in the NFL, this documentary looks at similar actions taken by two Black American Olympic medalists, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos — and unfortunately, their corresponding fate. Stream this on HBO.
When They See Us (2019)
This recent release, directed by Ava DuVernay is a four-part narrative series based on the events surrounding the wrongful arrest and sentencing of five teenage boys known as the Central Park Five in 1989. Spanning 25 years, the story follows the lives of the boys who were accused of raping and assaulting a white woman in the New York park. Stream this on Netflix.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, Spike Lee’s fictional dramedy Do The Right Thing takes place in Bed-Stuy and centers racial tensions in the melting-pot Brooklyn neighborhood. When a conflict emerges on a hot summer day, instead of managing the situation, cops escalate it to devastating consequences.
LA ‘92 (2017)
In 1991, Rodney King was violently beaten by four Los Angeles police officers during an arrest for drunk driving. Though he initially evaded arrest, he was unarmed. In 1992, all of the officers were acquitted and riots broke out in LA, resulting in days of violence and looting. This 2017 documentary film covers this moment in history in great detail, and allows the viewer to better understand the utter inequity of our judicial system. Stream this on Netflix.
The Hate U Give (2018)
This 2018 drama tells the story of Starr Carter, a 16-year-old Black girl living in Los Angeles, who navigates life between the poor, majority Black neighborhood she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school she attends. One night on the way home from a party, her friend’s car is stopped by an aggressive police officer for failing to signal a lane change. Starr witnesses her childhood friend’s death at the hands of the officer and the film shows the effect these unjust deaths have on America’s Black youth. Stream this on Hulu.