Black Lives Matter: Black America Represented in Film
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Movies have always been a way to experience something that one may never be able to in real life. The art form extends to all continents, to all genres, to all ways of life. It's an opportunity to step into someone else's shoes and feel their emotions for a little while. It's a chance to understand their values, and what motivates them to guard those close to heart. It's an exercise in perspective, and one that is very necessary for demonstrating compassion. Without movies, and given the circumstances in which I grew up, I fear that my overall scope of diversity would be slight.
Usually, international movies provide the majority of my outsider context. However, it is not lost on me that I can be a stranger to the scenarios depicted in films of my home country as well.
I am a citizen of the United States. I am white. I am well off, in the socio-economic respect. I rarely feel insecure about my place in society or worry that my dreams may not come true as a result of the color of my skin. I feel relaxed around figures of authority because I am convinced that they are looking out for my well-being. I am almost incessantly at an advantage. I am privileged.
The "race" conversation is one that our country's leaders have struggled to have since its founding. It sneaks around, popping up in policy here and there, the word itself rarely being explicitly mentioned. There were periods of revival, a chance to address the neglected topic – Reconstruction, the Double V Campaign, a large reckoning with the Civil Rights Movement. And in those times the problem was admitted with some degree of surrender. But the underlying issues remained. The selfish sought to profit. Those who challenged the status quo were tracked down and, often, removed.
It is an honor and a disgrace to live through history. This week has been one of the most formidable examples of hope for positive change blossoming from great sorrow.
I would not be able to appreciate this movement fully had I not the assistance of some spectacular films that expanded my comprehension of the African American experience. While I acknowledge that movies do not merely replace the reality of the numerous black stories that were not put to film, I do feel as though anything learned is something gained. Empathy makes the world go round.*
*I do not claim to be an expert. The following are suggestions based on my personal takeaways from films and the hope that someone else might benefit similarly or even more from them. This is intended to be a constantly growing list. If you, the reader, feel as though a movie is being omitted, let me know and I will aim to include it upon editing.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Streaming on: Netflix
This is a quite brilliant analysis of the evolution of the prison system in the U.S. and how it's been rigged since the 13th amendment to pander to incriminating black Americans. It brings together various intellectuals and civil rights leader such as Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and Michelle Alexander to explain the history of the racial divide and its consequences on how the country is dictated today. There's a fascinating muckraking bit about ALEC, a company that ties major corporations to U.S. lawmakers, as well as the infamous "Law and Order" declarations that hold even more relevance when observing the administration's recent reactions to the movement. It's a thoroughly engrossing film that utterly transformed the way in which I understood how the country is run. It riled me up considerably, and I came out feeling all the more educated. Keep reading into these professionals- I've already ordered a couple of their books.
Director: Carlos Lopez Estrada
Streaming on: HBO Max, HBO Now, HBO Go
Daveed Diggs of clipping. and Hamilton fame co-wrote and co-starred in this film about a man and his childhood friend in Oakland trying to avoid getting in trouble while on his last couple days of probation. When a black man is shot by a police officer, it triggers a response in him that makes him reevaluate his identity and his relationship with his friend.
It's been a couple of years since I've seen this film, but I still think of it often. Witnessing terrible acts, trying to find meaning in them. Being on thin ice and living with that constant fear of you being next. When will justice be served?
It's not a subtle movie, but it doesn't need to be. The friendship between Collin and Miles is very genuine, but their points of contention, often involving the differences in how they're treated, are just as visceral. Sometimes, a deliberate culmination of devastating events is just what's necessary to get a point across. The rap scene at the end is legitimately breath-taking.
If you want to skip the movie, at least watch this:
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Director: Spike Lee
What would this compilation be without a Spike Lee joint present? Lee has made it his mission to look at race relations, poverty, and other topical subjects throughout his long-standing career. I anticipate to watch more of his movies in the time to come in seeing how each is an expression of his own personal ideas, without much outside interference. He's a legend to many. (Malcolm X watch TBD)
Do the Right Thing is, quite simply, quintessential viewing. It's a hot day in Brooklyn, and tensions begin to arise between the Italian-owned pizzeria workers and the mostly black inhabitants. The colorful slew of characters go about their business in seemingly separate ways until hard feelings manifest and eventually, yes, a riot ensues. This film has quite a lot of personality, Even in its darkest moments, there's an element of impartial nonchalance that totally catches you off guard. It engages you as a viewer to put yourself there and to think like a neighborhood resident. What WOULD you do in that situation?
As an occasionally non-confrontational person, I feel like this film awoke something in me to be present in reality. I can't save my own skin in every situation. Community is put at the forefront of the discussion topics as sectionalism develops. Tough decisions have to be made. Basically, do the right thing.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Streaming on: Hulu
This movie, in its depiction of 1960s Harlem, is equal parts lovely and heartbreaking. KiKi Layne and Stephan James play Tish and Fonny, two young lovers who are tragically separated after Fonny is falsely imprisoned for rape. Tish and her mother then seek to prove his innocence.
Jenkins, of Moonlight fame, adds a certain regalness to this movie in the soft colors and soothing soundtrack. There's so much innocence and hope in Tish that you can't help but feel that twinge of aspiration along with her even as one considers the dire reality of the circumstances. The warm home of the Rivers' is a comfort, even as the situation spirals and justice seems just that far away. A painstakingly gorgeous movie.
Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
The unlikely hero of racial satire that hits just a little bit too close to home is this 2017 Academy Award Winner for Best Screenplay. Peele, previously known for his sketch comedy work on Mad TV and Key and Peele, shook the world with this all-too-creepy horror commentary about a white woman who brings her black boyfriend home to meet her family at their estate. Thriving at first on awkwardness, subtle references, and blink-and-you-miss-it camera tricks (suggesting the subdued racism that tinges and permeates even our most everyday scenarios) the film quickly turns into something more blatantly conniving.
Although most can agree that the original ending is the preferred conclusion, with TSA Rob being a highlight throughout, I’d like to draw particular attention to the alternate ending available on YouTube. This is a dark, uncompromising finale related to the initial perspective of Chris’s circumstances through the eyes of the police. Peele resisted from putting it in the final product, given the accumulation of frustration surrounding the deaths of innocent black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. According to Collider, “he wanted to position the ending with Chris as a hero rather than a victim.”
There’s your warning. Here’s the link.
This movie is a deliberately uncomfortable watch, but a critical one for observing the still tense relationships between black and white Americans in a scary but still eerily cogent fashion. I could watch it a hundred times and still get something new out of it with each watch.
Strong Island (2017)
Director: Yance Ford
This Netflix original documentary aimed at investigating the death of director Yance's Ford's brother is anything but enthusiastic. The sobering account of the life of William Ford prior to his untimely shooting is incredibly personal and at times hard to bare, considering the lack of closure. Ford reexamined the facts of William's murder as a way to reconcile the loss and make it make sense to him. The judicial system's lack of persistence in faithfully delivering justice to their family is a brutal and heavy weight to carry for twenty-some years. As harrowing and grounded as they get, this documentary is also uniquely atmospheric in how it showcases the setting and geography of their home as playing into the ultimate result.
This movie is hard to swallow at times, because it lacks typical intrigue; it's not the kind with twists and turns that make it impossible to look away from. It's the humanity. Not every tragedy in life is meant for a Hollywood-style interpretation. Sometimes, all movies require of you is to get to know the characters, empathize with their struggles, and support their cause.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Director: Raoul Peck
Streaming on: Amazon Prime
I knew very little about James Baldwin going into this. In fact, I knew nothing. Seeing his philosophies come to life through his interviews, his pictures, his unpublished words (as narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) was significantly more meaningful than if I were to discover him through a Wikipedia page.
The part essay part memoir flows on like poetry, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next, elaborating on the Black experience in America. He worked and lived a long life and saw the fruits of his labor both heard and ignored. He puts himself up there among contemporaries Malcolm X and MLK, searching for a way to rationalize the root of racism, the root of hatred, the root of the American affliction. It's a musing slow burn that doesn't turn up any concrete conclusions but nonetheless brings the viewer that much closer to being aware of their own personal instincts. It doesn't dwell in the facts as much as the big picture concepts. Progress will come, should the majority be so benevolent to have the courage to initiate it.
"No other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible, and so dead."
"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Talk about built-up dread. Arguably the most directly correlating of mentioned films is Coogler's (Creed, Black Panther) day-in-the-life look at Oscar Grant, a young African American man who was shot by a policeman at a subway station in Oakland.
Coincidentally, I find it most difficult to articulate exactly why this film will speak to viewers. Maybe because it just seems so simple.
An innocent man is killed by another man whose job is to protect him. It's not fair. It's in no way justifiable. It's wretched and infuriating.
And it feels like you knew him, and so it makes sense. You see that black citizens are the targets of suspicion and brutality, and that, for no apparent reason other than unchecked bias and a lack of concern for the loss of life, they can die by dangerous hands.
I intend to continue to go back and add to this list as we move forward. Please continue to share information and stay informed (please inform me, as well, if I have made any mistakes).