After several days of protests and clashes with the police, Mayor Muriel Bowser has lifted the nightly curfew in Washington, DC. There were thousands of peaceful protestors on the streets on Wednesday night, and not a single arrest. While these marches and protests were partly sparked by members of the Minneapolis Police Department killing George Floyd, an unarmed black man, this outrage is the culmination of centuries of institutional racism and brutality. The mix of outrage and desperation can be bewildering, even overwhelming, and sometimes we are at a loss about what we can do beyond taking to the streets and donating what we can. Education is important to that end – so is mental health – and in that spirit we offer this movie guide.
These films are meant to illuminate, educate, and (sometimes) entertain. They are about the African American experience in this country, and America’s original sin of slavery. They are about how the past informs our present, and what we can do to change our future. They are about the modern police state, and what effect that has on urban communities. Maybe these films tell what you already know. Maybe you’re new to this outrage, and want to learn a little bit more. Maybe you want to protest, but you’re worried about your health. Maybe you’re curious about the origins of the rhetoric that’s flooding your social media feed. Either way, it is OK to unwind with a film every now and again. At least with these, you’ll learn a little bit more about our historic week, and maybe a little about yourself, too.
13th – available on Netflix
Directed by Ava DuVernay, the documentary 13th looks at how our 13th amendment – the one that abolished slavery – informs modern institutional racism. DuVernay connects the dots masterfully, weaving archival footage and thoughtful talking heads until a single narrative emerges. Here’s Soraya Nadia McDonald in The Undefeated:
Even if you’ve seen, read, and listened to all of these things, it’s not necessarily easy to see how they are related, aside from a simple duh: racism. The efficacy of 13th lies in DuVernay’s ability to marshal these instances under one umbrella, then illustrate how they are part of a continuous effort of deliberate subjugation fueled by white fear, rather than fits and starts of accidental racism.
Ballast – available on VOD platforms
This forgotten, dreamy drama is about a poor black family in the Deep South. Tragedy befalls them, leaving them reeling in ways they cannot fully comprehend, yet it strikes a note as the family finds some measure of resolution. It has only a few characters, and serves as a powerful reminder of what steps ordinary people must take when their country has little room for them. Here’s Wesley Morris at The Boston Globe:
It’s right about there that Ballast began to break my heart. Life has just gotten too hard to live. Lawrence honestly believes he’s better off dead. No one tells us any of this. [The director] just shows us. The forlorn look on Smith’s face is just about the saddest you’ll see in an American movie. But the triumph of the filmmaking is how unforced and unsentimental it is… What these vividly imperfect people discover together – about each other and themselves – is hardly dramatic by conventional movie standards, but you can feel the earth move as they adjust the weight of the world on their shoulders.
The Battle of Algiers – available on The Criterion Channel
This is a film so provocative and intense it was banned in France for years, and the Pentagon screened in 2003 because they wanted to learn how to contain an armed insurrection. It is an involving, violent film about how the Algerian people mounted a guerrilla campaign against the French government in 1956. Their liberty was threatened, so they resorted to extreme tactics. When you see the film, you will not believe that every image in the film was staged. Here’s what we said about the 2016 restoration:
The Battle of Algiers is narratively and thematically as claustrophobic and suffocating as its shots of tense crowds and winding alleys. Its focus on the mechanics of asymmetric warfare, its uncompromising and deeply humane view of the costs of that kind of struggle, have been rightly lauded through the years. But its admittedly spellbinding storytelling unwinds towards the film’s conclusion, whose coda feels inexplicable in light of solely what precedes it. The Battle of Algiers is, yes, a classic. It’s also genuinely thrilling and fascinating for most of its two hours. Whether its glaring lack of context or so many of the trappings of traditional cinematic storytelling reveal weaknesses in it, or weaknesses in us, is an open question.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution – available on Amazon Prime
This straightforward, fascinating documentary looks at the origins and consequences of the militant black group that was borne out of the unrest of the 1960s. If you are unfamiliar with their history, this is a great place to start (their interest in firearms was so frightening to white American it effectively jump-started the second amendment movement as we know it today). Here’s Candice Frederick in Reel Talk Online:
A benefit of [the director’s] objectivity is that it allows the film to breathe on its own. We get to hear from people like co-founder Bobby Seale, whose late-career run as mayor of Oakland, CA, made headlines, leader Huey P. Newton whose imprisonment launched its own new movement, spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver ,whose unpredictable moves led to a divide among the Panthers. From navigating often fatal police raids to providing insight into what it was truly like to be a part of a group that was revolutionary yet unwelcome, the interviews underscore a message that is now its own hashtag: black lives matter.
Chi-Raq – available on Amazon Prime
Spike Lee’s return to form is more than just a modern update of Lysistrata. It is a compassionate, angry film about urban violence that happens to be very funny. It is Lee at his most polemic, arguably even more than BlacKkKlansman, and the ancient source material does not lessen the sting of the arguments he makes. Here’s Aisha Harris in Slate:
[Angela Basset’s] Helen mentions how she was forced to leave the Cabrini-Green projects due to gentrification (a favorite Spike topic), tosses off a comment about how the U.S. spends tons of money to help “rebuild” Iraq and Afghanistan but leaves its inner cities poor, and muses that if the white children of Sandy Hook didn’t make people care about gun control, concern for black bodies certainly won’t. Elsewhere, Samuel L. Jackson, as the narrator/Greek chorus Dolmedes, draws a direct comparison between the predominantly white police force and a black gang member, with one representative flanking either side of him: Black America, and Chicagoans in particular, are equally terrified by both, he says.
The Hate U Give – available on Hulu
The kids and fans of YA know that “young adult” is misnomer. These movies and books are serious as hell, and The Hate U Give might be most demanding. It is about a young black woman who witnesses the death of her friend at the hands of white police officer, and how she handles that aftermath. It contains the hallmarks of YA fiction, like a stringent school hierarchy and romance, but it also unearths deeper sources of pain. Here’s Courtney Small at Cinema Axis:
The idea of being invisible to those in the world around you really hits home when the film points out how often police are given the benefit of the doubt, especially in white communities, when they shoot an unarmed person who is black. The hypocrisy of supposed allies who only want to adopt black culture on their terms is not lost on [the main character] or the viewers.
I Am Not Your Negro – available on Amazon Prime
This documentary is a loose adaptation of James Baldwin’s unfinished book “Remember This House,” but it’s so much more than that. Director Raoul Peck, along with Samuel L. Jackson in an unparalleled vocal performance, contextualize Baldwin’s ideas in our current political moment. Here’s what I wrote in my original review:
Baldwin looked at every part of the American experience, distilling them into questions whose asking will necessarily undermine our pretense of moral authority. These questions are mostly for white America, since the stain of racism is more psychologically devastating for perpetrators, not victims. I Am Not Your Negro does not lay blame, nor is it unfair. Peck and Baldwin expect more from conscientious Americans, and by the end of the film, we are close to thinking to thinking at their level, and to fixing the path before an misshapen orange boulder gets in the way.
If Beale Street Could Talk – available on Hulu
More than any other film, perhaps this one best reflects our current uncertain moment. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel is a love story set against the backdrop of twentieth century racism, with a young man falsely accused of rape just after he finds out his partner is pregnant. It is a gentle, grim, ultimately hopeful reminder that even among all this unrest, people must find a way to live their lives. Here’s Hannah Giorgis over at The Atlantic:
Baldwin didn’t champion a quixotic vision of love so much as he insisted that white supremacy’s far-reaching harm heightened its stakes. Racism seeps into the most intimate corners of his black characters’ lives. Amid its dire effects, the care these individuals show one another must be more than powerful enough to serve as a kind of sustenance. It becomes an exhortation and a privilege. Or, as the author’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, said at the film’s New York City premiere in Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater,“The act of loving while black is a revolutionary act. It’s an act of resistance to love under the conditions with which we live, to raise children, to maintain family, and just continue the resistance and stay strong.”
Les Misérables – available on Amazon Prime
This French film was recently nominated for an Academy Award, but its depiction of racial tension has universal resonance. It follows a Paris police unit throughout their day, as they brutalize and abuse their power in an immigrant community of color. Director Ladj Ly shifts his attention to the kids running amok, showing each tragic step that leads to their violent, desperate rebellion. Here’s Rumaan Alam at The New Republic:
Victor Hugo’s novel is not source material so much as touchstone. In that work, students erect barricades in the streets of Paris, an abortive attempt at revolution. The violence we’re anticipating throughout the film finally arrives—a band of boys attacks the police—and it feels bigger than revenge. Ly’s violence is random, messy, improvised, animal. It’s abrupt, and perfect.
Whose Streets? – available on Hulu
The town of Ferguson, Missouri elected its first African American Mayor this week. Her name is Ella Jones, and she is also the first woman mayor of Ferguson. This could feel like progress from the unrest that happened over the death of Michael Brown back in 2014, but there is so much to go. That time might as well feel like ancient history, but the searing documentary Whose Streets? shows that anger never really went away. Here’s Alan Scherstuhl over at The Village Voice:
Here’s what you didn’t see if you aren’t from there. Here are the voices you didn’t hear if you didn’t go there. Here’s the pain you can’t fully comprehend if you’re white, as I am, if you’re just watching on TV, if life has taught you that just saying sir and following directions when the police roll means your ass will be fine. Here’s what you didn’t know, or willfully ignored, if you sputtered a “but” or two the first time you heard “Black Lives Matter” and then insisted on expanding the statement, making it about all lives or blue lives or your life. Here at last, onscreen, is the pain and fury and resolute courage of the African Americans of Ferguson, Missouri, presented without the tsk-tsk-ing mediation of news anchors, without the let’s-hear-both-sides water-muddying that the powers worth fighting count on to obscure hard truths.