Racial justice: Five eye-opening documentaries

Why We Wrote This

Since the killing of George Floyd, there has been a concerted effort to better understand the Black experience – and documentaries can be crucial to that learning. In this column, Candace McDuffie identifies five films that chronicle injustice in the Black community, and whose messages are arguably more relevant than ever.

Dan Budnik/Magnolia Pictures
“I Am Not Your Negro” is about the life of novelist, playwright, and activist James Baldwin. “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” he states.

As the United States continues to reel in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, conversations about injustice in the Black community have permeated the zeitgeist. Close examinations of the role of white supremacy in every facet of American life, from the economy and politics to justice and education, are happening with more regularity.

In an effort to stand in solidarity with Black folks, there have been numerous calls to buy from Black businesses, read Black authors, and support Black art. As many look to media as a prominent vehicle for learning more about Black history, documentaries can be crucial in educating the public.

Over the last decade, there have been several that explore the political ramifications of anti-Blackness – and how Black people often pay with their lives. Below is a list of five powerful documentaries that bravely address the systems and institutions designed to oppress a vulnerable population.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

This critically acclaimed documentary, produced and directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, is about the life of novelist, poet, playwright, and activist James Baldwin. Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was inspired by Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.”

Baldwin’s exploration of racial tension in America is eloquent yet brutal; he plainly expresses how the history of this country is rooted in anti-Black sentiment. Through various speeches and interview footage from television appearances, he explains the importance of Black liberation. Baldwin also shares how those who aimed to achieve it – like his contemporaries Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers – were murdered because of it. “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” he states. (Rated PG-13; available on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

Netflix
Angela Davis is among those interviewed for “13th,” which explores the epidemic of mass incarceration in America. The documentary’s title references the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.

“13th”

Directed by Ava DuVernay, “13th” is a film that explores the epidemic of mass incarceration in America. Its title references the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. However, prisons are disproportionately occupied by people of color who are forced to work for the state under what many see as modern-day convict leasing – and as perpetuating slavery.

DuVernay also delves into how Black folks have been historically disenfranchised in this country, which includes everything from Jim Crow to the war on drugs targeting Black communities. This documentary focuses on a system that arguably demonizes minorities – and then uses their bodies for profit. (Rated TV-MA; available on Netflix)

“Whose Streets?”

This potent film chronicles the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, uprising following the shooting death of Black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis went to Ferguson to speak directly to those protesting police brutality shortly after Brown’s death.

“Whose Streets” addresses how Black communities are subject to overpolicing and subsequent violence. It also zeroes in on the people at the epicenter of a revolution. Told by activists standing on the front lines, it is a must-watch documentary that covers the unrest in Ferguson with honesty, candor, and care. It also shows how the Black Lives Matter movement gained more momentum during this time. (Rated R; available on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, iTunes)

“The Central Park Five”

“The Central Park Five,” directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, delves deep into the wrongful rape conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. The accused – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam – serve out their sentences in their entirety, ranging from six to 13 years, before another person confesses to the 1989 crime (DNA testing corroborated this admission).

The film examines how race and class – the victim was a white woman – publicly led to a guilty verdict long before the five were on trial. It is told from the perspective of the five men who describe how they were coerced into taking blame for a crime they didn’t commit. It also shows how the media, law enforcement, and social institutions went out of their way to persecute young boys of color.

Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” premiered in 2019 and was based on their story. (“The Central Park Five” is unrated; available on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes)

“LA 92”

The most extraordinary trait of this documentary is that there is no narration – just archival footage and images of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Although the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of four Los Angeles Police Department officers (who were acquitted of all charges despite the attack being caught on video) was the main catalyst of the uprising, there were other contributing factors: the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a convenience store owner (who served no jail time), an economic recession, the drought in California. This very much mirrors the political and social unrest of today.

Directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay let the scenes speak for themselves, tracing the events from before the King verdict to the aftermath of the violent protests. “LA 92” is now more relevant than ever. (Rated R; available on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix)

Candace McDuffie is a culture writer for the Monitor. Her work has appeared in outlets including Rolling Stone, MTV, NBC News, and Entertainment Weekly. You can follow her on Instagram @candace.mcduffie.

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