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10 Films You Need to Watch About Race in America

We are filmmakers, so when the going gets tough, we turn to...what else? Movies.

The going has certainly gotten tough in the U.S.A. lately. As summer has heated up, so has political rhetoric and devastating violence, each bringing to the fore one of our most complicated and deeply rooted national issues: race relations. Recent headlines have left many in our film community and beyond feeling sad, helpless, angry, confused, or a hot summer stew of all of them. As we discussed on a recent episode of Indie Film Weekly, no matter where you fall on these issues, it’s important to be educated on their historical context. Current events don’t exist in a bubble, and learning about their origins, as well as other people’s experiences, is the first step toward creating change.

And where does a filmmaker turn to become educated? Films, of course. Fortunately, Kino Lober is releasing the blu-ray box set Pioneers of African American Cinema, executive produced by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky). The 5-disc set will be an excellent primer on the African American experience captured in over 20 films, and spanning over 20 years of the early cinematic era.

As for me, I turned to our No Film School boards and staff, and my personal filmmaking community to ask for recommendations, and they came in droves. Out of more than 75 recommended films—from historic docs to searing narratives to animations—I’ve culled a group here for my summer playlist and maybe yours, too.

1. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

We might as well begin at the beginning. Plainly put, the African-American experience is rooted in slavery. The Oscar-winner for Best Picture in 2014, a word often used to describe this brutal depiction of one slave’s experience is “unflinching.” The film is especially poignant because it is based on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, an African-American man who was born free but then kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Another powerful take on slavery and American history can be found in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), which dramatizes another true story, this time about a mutiny by Africans being transported on a slave ship and their ensuing trial, fallout from which sowed the seeds for the Civil War.

2. A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961)

Starring some of our country’s most celebrated actors, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, this was one of the first films to get really real about how everyday racism affects black families just trying to get by in America. In this case, it’s a Chicago family who has come into some unexpected money and the obstructions they face when trying to, for example, move into a traditionally “white neighborhood.” The film’s story still resonates for many today, as evidenced by its series of sold out performances every time the play (on which the film is based) comes to Broadway.

3. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)

As everyone’s favorite NFS writer, V Renée, called out, “‘Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care what's going on in the hood.’ Brilliant!!!” She was pointing out one of the many lines in Singleton’s celebrated debut that made the realities of African American life in South Central Los Angeles crystal clear, at a time when many Americans had only heard of the region through gangsta rap. Not coincidentally, one of South Central’s legendary rappers, Ice Cube has his acting debut in the film, playing one of the three central characters wrapped up in the drama of the streets. Hard to believe that this could have been true as late as the ‘90s, but Boyz also made John Singleton the first African-American to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

4. The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)

This film, based on a true story, exhibits decades of sociopolitical change in America through the eyes of a black butler who served eight U.S. presidents in the White House. It does not shy away from the full spectrum of the African American experience, even including original footage of police violence during the Civil Rights movement. The mixed emotions and lived history that are represented in the film may be best summed up by Daniels’ own 91-year-old uncle, as Daniels described them in a CNN interview: “He was the first pediatric surgeon of color in America and when he saw this movie, I can't explain to you what it was like. He cried from the beginning to the end, and he laughed from beginning to end." (Daniels, by the way, was the second African American get the Best Director nom—18 years after Singleton—for Precious in 2009.)

5. Coonskin (Ralph Bakshi, 1975)

Perhaps the most controversial film on the list, this 1975 hybrid animation/live-action tale, rife with racially charged iconography, was originally protested as racist. However, its depiction of an African American fox, rabbit and bear who become big players in Harlem’s organized crime syndicate has since been noted as a searing indictment of the treatment of people of color in this country. In fact, a frequent commenter on our No Film School boards remarked thatCoonskin is, “probably one of the most allegorical films I've ever watched about the black experience in America.” It’s worth noting that Bakshi was no stranger to controversy. By the timeCoonskin was released, he had already fired up critics with 1972’s Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to receive an X rating.

6. Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

This 2014 Sundance favorite takes a satirical approach to the issues at hand, showing that racism is alive and well, even in an era when people of color have access to our country’s most privileged institutions. Its plot centers around a biracial student at a predominantly white Ivy League university, and it uses comedy to expose the intercultural (and innercultural) tensions that she and her African-American classmates face. We will also be able to watch a 10-episode TV adaptation of the film on Netflix next year.

7. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

Another Sundance breakout (as well as Best First Film Winner at 2013’s Cannes Un Certain Regard), this film tells of a true story that served as a devastating precursor to the rash of police killings of African American men in recent years. The movie opens with the actual footage of Oscar Grant and his friends being detained by the BART Police, who oversee the Bay Area’s public transit system. It goes on to portray the last day of Grant’s life through flashbacks, until the moment he was fatally shot in the back by those same police at Fruitvale Station in Oakland.

8. How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)

There could be an entirely separate post on excellent documentaries that tackle these pressing social issues, but this one might be especially pertinent to filmmakers. It focuses on the life of provocative black filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, and features appearances from other film mavericks like his son, Mario van Peebles, and Spike Lee. Best known for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (lauded as the most successful independent film of its time), van Peebles had an incredibly diverse career ranging from novelist to Wall St. trader, but perhaps his most significant accomplishment is the way his irreverent (and often humorous) approach to social challenges changed the national conversation. As van Peebles himself says in the film, “I didn’t see the type of things I wanted to see, so I did it myself.”

9. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

The description of this film, and its 1934 predecessor by John M. Stahl, reveal them to be way ahead of their time. Yes, the lead black character, Annie, plays housekeeper to the lead white one, Lora, but they are also both single mothers and best friends. Through their lifelong relationship, issues not only of race but of identity, female independence and interdependence, and socioeconomic realities play out. The most interesting character may be Annie’s light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, through whom we can witness society’s brutal hypocrisy (like when she is beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is black). Reading up about how the script was changed between the release of two films is an interesting study in America’s shifting social norms in and of itself.

10. In The Heat of The Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)

Another Poitier classic, and winner of 5 Oscars including Best Picture in 1968, this charged police drama follows the story of a black Philadelphia detective, played by Poitier. Intrigue ensues when he is brought on to investigate a murder in a small, bigoted Mississippi town after he himself is wrongfully accused of the crime. The film, particularly the “odd couple” relationship that develops between Poitier’s character and the white sheriff who originally accused him, inspired a popular TV series of the same name that ran from 1988-1995.

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