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12 Movies to Watch to Educate Yourself About Racism and Protest History, Recommended by Experts

9 minute read

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade have once again brought the urgent need for racial justice to the forefront of conversation in America. Wide-scale protests against racism and police brutality as well as civic unrest have made it impossible for the nation (and the world) to ignore the consequences of a long history of racism and racist violence. As many people confront hard truths that black Americans have faced daily in this country, the need for education about the history of the long and ongoing fight for racial justice is critical.

While there are many worthwhile books about race and anti-racism, there are also plenty of resources to be found in other mediums, like film, with much to teach viewers about this history. Below, Ashley Clark, Director of Film Programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and his colleague Jesse Trussell, BAM’s Repertory and Specialty Film Programmer, recommend, in their own words, a dozen feature films and documentaries that help contextualize the current moment.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

“A lot of these films were works of art, but they were also very importantly used as political agitprop themselves,” says Trussell of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 historical drama drawn from the Algerian War, which screened at BAM as part of this March’s Rise Up! Portraits of Resistance program, which was co-curated by Clark and Trussell. “Revolutionaries around the world studied The Battle of Algiers almost like a textbook for how you could potentially have this armed resistance within different spaces, and that idea frequently crosses over to this moment that we’re talking about, where it’s art, it’s political, it’s both an organizing tool and a personal reflection—it’s all of these things at once. It’s a real hallmark of this revolutionary kind of cinema.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

“This documentary is about a 21-year-old Black Panther leader from Chicago who was one of the great inspiring speakers of the 20th century and was cut down in his youth by the FBI and the Chicago police department,” Trussell says. “It directly gets back to this idea of the ways that black dissent and black protest has been destroyed and bodies have been murdered and that process keeps repeating itself over and over again. The film isn’t that easy to [find], which speaks to the fact that with so much of the history of black radical cinema on-screen, it’s not always as easy as going to Netflix and queuing up five films in a row. These are frequently films that were suppressed, that have had secondary or minor distribution—and that’s a major part of the narrative of black radical cinema.”

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Films for Action

Blacks Britannica (1978)

The documentary Blacks Britannica, commissioned by PBS in Boston in 1978, examines racism through the lens of black, working-class Brits and includes interviews with several black activists. “It was American-produced, but it was heavily censored in the U.S. and banned outright in the U.K.,” explains Clark. Clark and Trussell make the point that “work that is truthful is often suppressed. The international language is often suppressed.”

Where to watch: YouTube

Handsworth Songs (1986)

“There are a bunch of films from the late ’70s and ’80s that are really important documentaries about civil unrest and police brutality in the U.K.,” Clark says. “The key one is called Handsworth Songs, directed by John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective.” The film, described when screened at BAM last year as a “freeform documentary mosaic,” uses the 1985 Handsworth riots in Birmingham, England, to examine broader racial tensions in the country.

Where to watch: YouTube

Do the Right Thing (1989)

“The film begins as a languid comedy set on the hottest day of the year, but the tensions build and it ends up in mass civil unrest, kicked off by Spike Lee himself—[Mookie], the character he plays—throwing a garbage can through the window after Radio Raheem [Bill Nunn] is choked by the cops,” Clark says of Lee’s acclaimed 1989 movie. “It’s really interesting to go back and read the responses to the film at the time, which seemed to focus more on the destruction of property than the death of Radio Raheem—and that was, ostensibly, liberal critics. It’s amazing to see those patterns repeat now, specifically in the discourse of people focusing more on the destruction of property than on lives that are lost. The film also ends with contrasting quotes on the use of violence as self-defense vs. the use of non-violence with Malcom [X] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.].”

Clark adds that Do The Right Thing is also timely “precisely because it ends on a moment of irresolvable tension, because this is not a problem that can be solved easily. That’s what I think elevates it above so many other films of its time that try to examine [the same themes], because many put a white character as a proxy—I’m thinking of things like Mississippi Burning, which came out the year before—so much of the Hollywood way was to put a white crossover character in the way to make it palatable or to force a clearly legible reading. Do the Right Thing doesn’t do that. And for that particular reason, I think it’s the ultimate film for this moment. Its relevance continues to grow, if anything.”

Where to watch: YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime

Malcolm X (1992)

“To return to Spike Lee, Malcolm X, which is a big film from 1992, integrates footage of the Rodney King beating into the main credits,” Clark says of the film, for which Denzel Washington received an Oscar nomination. “Lee is someone who has always been unafraid to integrate and intercut extremely contemporary things, which at the time can sometimes feel a little bit like he’s overdoing it or he’s too on-the-nose, but then the longer that racism goes unaddressed or gets worse, the more timely and powerful his films seem to become.” (Lee employs a similar tactic in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, which concludes with footage of the prior year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.)

Where to watch: Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime

The Glass Shield (1994)

“There’s a really great film by the great filmmaker Charles Burnett called The Glass Shield, which is about a young black man [Michael Boatman] going into the LAPD with sort of high hopes about what he can do there and then seeing, from inside, the nature of the systemic corruption and how that can even infect him as a black man inside this space,” Trussell says. He adds that the movie, made a few years after the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the four officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, addresses the concept of “policing as something that crosses all color lines within the police forces themselves.”

Where to watch: YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Clark finds Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film about Oscar Grant interesting “because it was very concerned with upending the idea of the young black man as ‘thug’ stereotype. It was a very sensitive portrait of this man on the last day of his life, and that felt like a very necessary corrective, given how black people are so often portrayed in the media. Obviously, Coogler has gone on to do great things and much bigger things [like Creed and Black Panther], but that’s a film that’s not spoken of so much. It’s a really notable attempt to breathe life back into someone who was taken—and that’s valuable.”

Where to watch: Tubi, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes

Selma (2014)

Ava DuVernay’s historical drama about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., “is obviously a period film, but something that really struck me about it was how focused it was on the process of direct action,” says Clark. “While there are a couple of big Hollywood moments, a lot of the film takes place in back rooms and churches, with people talking about how to make this happen. That was only a few years ago, but it seems strikingly relevant.”

Where to watch: Youtube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes

13th (2016)

Clark calls 13th, also by DuVernay, “a really solid documentary that got to the heart of the origins of America’s carceral state.” The briskly paced movie traces the mass incarceration of black men back to the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. In an interview with TIME at the time of its release, DuVernay explained why she crammed so much history into a brief watch: “It’s hard enough to get a national conversation in America going about race in a meaningful way, that’s not in reaction to something bad happening.”

Where to watch: Netflix

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

I Am Not Your Negro, by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, is a propulsive documentary about James Baldwin, his writings and his times,” says Clark. In her review of the film, which includes many clips of Baldwin and narration by Samuel L. Jackson, reading an unfinished book project by Baldwin, TIME’s critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “Peck’s aim seems to be to reintroduce Baldwin and his way of thinking to the world. Not that Baldwin is forgotten, but sometimes we need a bold red arrow to help us redirect our thinking, especially in a media world as cluttered and noisy as ours.”

Where to watch: Youtube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes

Whose Streets? (2017)

This documentary, says Clark, is “essentially about the Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson, a record of the demonstrations. Its filmmakers [Sabaah Foloyan and Damon Davis], who were there on the ground, fashioned a very raw, boots-on-the-ground record of activism and community building in process.” Adds Trussell: “It does an incredible job of spotlighting the women and queer people who were central organizers in that movement and making sure that their stories are not erased from the history of Black Lives Matter.”

Where to watch: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google, Vudu

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com