Never too far from my mind is the famous quote from critic Roger Ebert, telling us that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” The best of them allow viewers to see the world through another’s eyes, if only for a brief time.
As America teeters on the brink, brought here by the centuries of abuse, violence, and discrimination that black and brown people have faced since before the country’s founding, that empathy is absolutely critical to any hope of finding a way forward through this.
CITY has compiled a list of 25 films and miniseries focusing on race in America. Their often painful narratives both reflect the times in which they were made and speak to the current moment in which we find ourselves. This list is by no means comprehensive, but each of these works offers a bit of insight into how exactly we reached this point.
Of course, watching films isn’t enough. It remains crucial to take direct action: give your support, donate, march, listen to a community that’s hurting, learn from those experiences, and amplify their voices as much as possible.
“4 Little Girls”
(1997): Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary focuses on the infamous September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls who were inside attending Sunday school. Lee’s film seeks to put a human face to the children who became martyrs, while examining a defining moment in the history of the civil rights movement.
(2016): Ava DuVernay has become an essential filmmaking voice in recent years (which is probably why I ended up including two more of her works on this list). Her clear-eyed, impeccably edited look at the country’s prison system draws a direct line from America’s legacy of slavery to the systemic mass incarceration of black citizens today.
(1968): Filmed in Oakland, California during the 1967 protests against the imprisonment of Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, Agnès Varda’s short documentary offers a furious firsthand account of American activism in the face of injustice.
(2018): Director Carlos López Estrada brings a light touch to a film that swings confidently between comedy and pulsating anger in telling the story of two best friends (played by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal) grappling with identity and the differing realities they face in their rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood.
(2019): Alfre Woodard gives a powerhouse performance as a prison warden grappling with the emotional and psychological toll of carrying out death row executions in Chinonye Chukwu’s thoughtful drama that asks viewers to consider the true cost of extinguishing a human life.
“Dear White People”
(2014): Justin Simien’s satire follows the lives of four black students at an Ivy League college that erupts into chaos when a white frat decides to throw an “African-American” themed party. It’s also the film that definitively proved Tessa Thompson deserves star-status.
“Do Not Resist”
(2016): While it’s not about race specifically (though it certainly plays a large role), Craig Atkinson’s anger-inducing documentary charts the dismayingly rapid militarization of America’s police forces.
“Do the Right Thing”
(1989): Made over 30 years ago, Spike Lee’s blisteringly powerful third feature tragically remains as timely as ever. Charting a single day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film observes as tensions among the residents begin to rise over the course of one sweltering summer day, before an act of violence by the police pushes those tempers over the edge.
(2013): Before “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan worked together on this heartbreaking small-scale drama inspired by the true story of Oscar Grant, following him through the last day of his life before he became the victim of a police shooting on an Oakland subway platform in 2009. Jordan is fantastic in the role.
(2017): Jordan Peele’s horror-thriller probes modern day race relations through the story of a young black man who goes to meet his liberal white girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and finds himself in a deadly fight for survival. The rare case when it’s not hyperbole to call a film an “instant classic.”
“The Hate U Give”
(2018): Based on the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas about 16-year-old Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who’s caught between two worlds: the black neighborhood where she lives, and the predominantly white prep school she attends. When she witnesses the murder of her unarmed childhood friend at the hands of a police officer, those worlds collide as she fights to do what’s right. The film serves as an effective way to kickstart those difficult conversations with the tweens and grade schoolers in your life.
(2020): For something just a bit escapist, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries on Netflix offers up an alternate history of Golden Age Hollywood, creating a soapy and surprisingly touching fantasy of what might have been if the industry had started fighting back then to include diverse voices.
“Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror”
(2019): This brisk, enlightening doc interviews filmmakers, scholars, and performers as it chronicles the evolution of Black Horror on film, and the ways the genre reflects and connects with Black History. A fascinating reminder that art is always political.
“I Am Not Your Negro”
(2016): With an incisive urgency, filmmaker Raoul Peck uses the text of novelist, playwright, and activist James Baldwin’s unfinished final novel as an anchor to explore Black identity in America. If nothing else, a film that will make you long for a full-on biographical film about Baldwin’s life.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
(2018): Making for an excellent double feature with the previous film, director Barry Jenkins’ lyrical and lovely adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about young and in love Harlem couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), whose lives together are jeopardized when Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
(2019): Destin Daniel Cretton’s stirring drama tells the true story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) who traveled to Alabama to defend inmates on death row. One of his first was Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who in 1987 was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence that proved him innocent of the crime. Warner Bros has made the film available for free through many digital platforms for the month of June.
(2006): Local filmmaker and activist Carvin Eison chronicles the race riots that rocked Rochester
over three nights in the summer of 1964, resulting in the National Guard being deployed to a northern city for the first time during the civil rights era. An essential piece of local history. A virtual screening and discussion
will take place on Sunday, June 7.
(2017): Using entirely archival footage, T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay’s documentary gives viewers a gripping and immersive history of the protests and violence that were sparked in Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney King trial.
(1992): Led by Denzel Washington’s commanding performance, Spike Lee’s sprawling biopic of the influential civil rights leader is epic in every sense.
“The Murder of Fred Hampton”
(1971): With vérité style, Howard Alk’s film documents the life of the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and his murder at the hands of the city’s police department. Infuriating and sadly still relevant.
(2014): Ava DuVernay dramatizes the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and others to organize a historic march from Selma to Montgomery in segregated Alabama, as President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberates whether or not to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Powerful and distressing in how it illustrates that those in power have barely had to change their tactics through the decades.
“Trigger Warning With Killer Mike” (
2019): This six-episode Netflix semi-satirical series finds Grammy-winning rapper and activist Killer Mike exploring issues that affect the black community in America through various social experiments (Example: in the first episode, "Living Black," he tries living off of only black-owned businesses). Entertaining and provocative.
“When They See Us”
(2019): An extraordinary four-part Netflix miniseries from Ana DuVernay about the Central Park Five, a group of Black teens from Harlem who were falsely accused of a brutal attack on a white woman in Central Park. An ensemble of outstanding performances anchor its searing indictment of the justice system.
“Within Our Gates”
(1920): This masterful silent film from pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux was a direct response to the racism of D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The non-linear plot follows an African-American woman and her efforts to raise money for a school for poor black children in the Deep South, shedding a light on the complex relationships between different races and classes in the Jim Crow era.
(2017): Sabaah Folayan’s documentary gives a vital ground-level account of how the tragic killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown inspired the black community of Ferguson, Missouri to stand up and fight back. Incredibly moving, furiously angry, and deeply humane.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to CITY's arts & entertainment editor, Rebecca Rafferty, at [email protected].