The trauma of George Floyd's murder is one that many of us are sharing right now, and though it is an all too familiar heartbreak, I'm heartened by the volume of people reaching out to say a version of, "I'm ashamed it’s taken me this long, but what should I be watching?" This list of five films is by no means a comprehensive or even "best of" list, but instead represents a good place to start or continue the necessary self-education these times require of all of us.
As with much of her work, Ava DuVernay seeks here to recover a buried history. Meticulous and engrossing, the film powerfully lays out how slavery was never truly abolished in America, but is allowed by the 13th Amendment to live on through the criminal justice system as well as the mechanisms of capitalism. The filmmaking is bravura and for those who fail to see the connection between slavery and our present-day condition, this is an excellent place to start an urgently needed personal education.
Much of Spike Lee’s oeuvre speaks brilliantly to this moment and his first masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, is rightfully quoted often as a dissection of how police brutality sows the seeds of the riots that unfold as a result of state-sanctioned oppression. Malcolm X, I contend, is also a masterpiece worthy of a rewatch right now. Scant few biopics come close to Malcolm X’s ability to express, in the language of cinema, the humanity of its central figure as well as the urgency of their message. Also rare is the film’s ability to both capture the unflinching tragedy of the American Black experience while also leaving us inspired and empowered, not traumatized. It’s a beautifully crafted reintroduction to one of America’s most important and often misunderstood civil rights leaders.
There’s a reason why so may artists and activists quote James Baldwin. He had a way of diagnosing systemic racism down to its psychological core, in words so bold, insightful and clear, they still feel revelatory some 33 years after his death. We cannot heal until we’ve properly accessed the wound and this film, directed by Raoul Peck, exquisitely unpacks some of Baldwin’s most urgent insights. It’s a profound and moving work that illuminates what still needs be done, but also inspires us to double our efforts.
Ryan Coogler’s staggering debut doesn’t bother intellectualizing the issue. The film, shot in gorgeous 16 mm, goes for the heart of the matter, bringing us into the everyday world of Oscar Grant in the events that led to the 22 year old’s murder at the hands of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. The film makes poetry of its cinéma vérité style, all in service of showcasing the humanity behind one of the many black faces often flashed before us to point out the senseless and seemingly endless victimization of Black people by state-sanctioned murder.
I’m more than a little self-conscious putting my own film on a list like this, but this moment also requires Black artists to unlearn an ingrained reluctance to take up space. The truth is Dear White People successfully breached a century-old Hollywood taboo of confronting white fragility unapologetically within a pop-culture framework. In 2014, Dear White People made popular the now ubiquitous sub-genre of satirical dramedies following an ensemble of articulate Black millennials who dare to question the blindspots in Liberal Whiteness as well as the ways in which white supremacy has subtly infiltrated Black culture. I wanted to use my love of cinema to provide a way to make room for the uncomfortable questions and difficult topics needed to expose how subversive systemic racism really is. 2015’s Dope, 2017’s Get Out, and 2018’s Sorry To Bother You (to name a few) would go on to masterfully expand upon these themes with record breaking box offices and they all deserve a revisit. Personally though, I find that so much of how I want to speak to this moment continues to be said through my first movie as well as the Netflix show that I’ve adapted from it.