As news of police brutality spreads and protests erupt in the United States of America, we are once again reminded of the dark and deeply saddening meaning of belonging to a minority community in that, and many other parts of the world. The death of George Floyd is not an incident existing in isolation, but a part of systemic racism that has often been captured by a lens through the turmoil of complex and real characters on celluloid. We, as consumers of popular culture, have the unique disposition of being able to see these compelling portraits of racial issues and social injustices that some of the best and biggest filmmakers have created. While this list cannot possibly do justice to all those stories, here’s a capsule of titles that you can stream online to be more educated and more empathetic.
Based on an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave is the journey of a man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. For twelve long and gruelling years, Solomon is unable to escape his predicament and is forced into working for a series of slave owners, enduring physical and psychological violence at their hands as well. Not only is this film a true account of slavery in the 1800s but is also an interesting look at how racism-based exploitation began.
The Hate U Give (2019)
Amandla Stenberg leads a truly outstanding cast in The Hate U Give, an adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestselling novel. Stenberg plays Starr, one of the few black students in her private high school, who witnesses the police shoot her friend in an incident that becomes a national flashpoint. The film has a great deal to say and no apologies to make about its outspoken message, even as it presents itself as a straightforward family drama. But The Hate U Give strikes a perfect balance between coming-of-age story and social drama. And in never sacrificing either of those two interests, it becomes a strong example of both.
True accounts of Black American people in the 60s have very rarely painted a bright and uplifting picture of joy and achievement, but Hidden Figures turns all of that around on its head. When Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson used their science and maths skills to launch the space programme at NASA in 1961, it wasn’t a cakewalk. They had to endure all the bigotry that existed in the organised infrastructure of such an esteemed institution. But with their drive, vision, will and humour, they became an indelible part of America’s scientific history.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck put together a documentary about American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin, his life and his writing a few years ago in what turned out to be a forceful voice in the cultural canon of Black American history. Why? Because it is based entirely on Baldwin’s vision - a memoir through his notes and observations. Interspersed with news clips of civil unrest during Baldwin’s era, it is the story of how a great thinker saw the movement as much as being a part of it.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
A follow up to his 2017 film Moonlight (also featured on this list), director Barry Jenkins affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is as beautiful as it is riddled in despair. A young black couple’s faith in their love is tested in the 1970s when the man is accused of a horrific crime. A period piece but still very contemporary in its ethos, If Beale Street Could Talk explores how social inequality has existed within the country’s judicial system with bigotry often taking precedence over facts.
Malcolm X (1992)
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A tribute to the controversial black activist and leader of the struggle for black liberation. He hit bottom during his imprisonment in the '50s, he became a Black Muslim and then a leader in the Nation of Islam. His assassination in 1965 left a legacy of self-determination and racial pride.
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Moonlight, American dramatic film, released in 2016, that unexpectedly won the Academy Award for best picture. The director and co-writer, Barry Jenkins, won praise for his empathetic depiction of complex characters. Based on the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it tells the story of a young black man coming to grips with his homosexual feelings. It was the first film with an entirely African American cast and the first with a homosexual main character to win the top Oscar.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, Mudbound is a very special Netflix original film. Based on the Hillary Jordan novel about two World War II veteran families - one black, and one white - who return home to their jointly-owned land, this film is a stunning epic drama which deals with poverty, classism and racism in war-ridden America. A proper ensemble piece, it is as much about how sensitivity is imperative to change as much as it is a piece of truth that change doesn’t happen as quickly as we envision.
The awe-inspiring life story of a legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles is considered as one of the best-loved movies of film buffs for its electrifying theme of dreams and will power. The story projects his achievements as a musician that is preceded by his not-so-good young boy's life as he loses his eyesight at the age of 7. Apart from the commendable writing, Jammie Fox’s spellbinding performance makes ‘Ray’, an admirable film.
Marshall (2017) – YouTube & Google Play
This stunningly made inspiring film is based on the life of Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer in the 1940s, who became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. The film’s premise revolves around the most challenging phase of his life, where he has to prove the innocence of an African-American driver, who is accused of sexually assaulting a white woman... The film keeps you engrossed thoroughly for the excellent performance of artistes and thought-provoking dialogues.
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