Recommended movies, shows, podcasts, and more addressing systemic racism and police brutality
This story will not solve racism. Enlightenment is an evolution, not a checklist. Hundreds of years of systemic oppression can’t be undone by watching a single film, reading a single book, listening to a single podcast — or making a single list in a magazine. But daily headlines and adrenaline taper off. Social media posts slip down the timeline. For those seeking insight into what African-Americans face on a daily basis from both institutions and individuals, and how those challenges have been and continue to be depicted in the media and popular entertainment, here are a few projects, both documentary and fiction, that may facilitate a journey to a deeper understanding.
Inspired by Ava DuVernay’s recent initiative to supplement her projects tackling race and racism — beginning with educational materials adjacent to her searing Netflix miniseries When They See Us — there are additional suggestions for further watching, listening, and reading. This is not a comprehensive list by any means. For some, it is the base of an enormous mountain that is long overdue for climbing. For more resources, please visit eji.org, blacklivesmatter.com, colorofchange.org, and nmaahc.si.edu.
For the most clear, concise, and accessible rendering of the straight line that can be drawn between slavery and the lethal knee on George Floyd’s neck, this 2016 Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning Ava DuVernay documentary is a must-watch. Taking its title from the amendment that nominally abolished slavery, the 100-minute film is methodical yet elegant, truly more beautiful than the ugliness of the topic deserves. Through a series of interviews, news clippings, illustrations, and other visual devices, 13th illuminates how a small but devastatingly crucial clause in the amendment meant that many slaves were “freed” into a rigged system. That clause? Any black person duly convicted of a crime could essentially be returned to bondage. So, unsurprisingly, for communities policed by white people financially injured by emancipation, “crimes” suddenly became more copious and fluidly defined. Each segment flows naturally into the next, painting a stark portrait of the true roots of systemic racism and the criminalization of black skin. (Available to stream on Netflix) —Sarah Rodman
READ: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander; The 1619 Project (nytimes.com)
Oscar and Emmy winner Regina King gives an explosive performance in this Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) “remix” of the classic graphic novel. Taking racism and the rise of white supremacy as its focus, the nine-episode series jolts out of the gate with a provocative depiction of the horrific Tulsa massacre of 1921. The action jumps to present day — and then around in time — as cops wear masks to protect their identities from white supremacists, and descendants of racial violence like King’s Det. Angela Abar receive reparations. Unfortunately, that is not a solution, and Angela finds herself fighting the same villains her grandfather did, in a deft depiction of how trauma is passed through generations and shapes the present. (Available on HBO on Demand and HBO Max) —Chancellor Agard
READ: The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan; “The Case for Reparations,” We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
WATCH: Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings (Independent Lens/PBS)
You may have seen a clip making the rounds recently of an older, silver-haired white woman asking audience members to stand if they’d be happy to be treated like black people are in this country. Tellingly, not one person does. That woman is legendary antiracism educator Jane Elliott, who has been doing this work for more than 50 years. This classic 1985 Frontline episode chronicles her landmark “blue eyes/brown eyes” experiment in the late ’60s and early ’70s. At 53 minutes it is stuffed with stunning sequences as Elliott segregates both third graders and grown adults with strikingly similar results. While some of the language is naturally dated — particularly with regard to racial slurs — the doc is wildly, sadly revelatory in its timeliness. Pay close attention to the speed with which the “oppressed” group loses its temper. Let’s just say it’s considerably fewer than 400 years. (Available at pbs.org) —S.R.
Dear White People (Netflix)
Thanks to the open-ended nature of a TV series, creator Justin Simien has been able to adapt his 2014 film of the same name and expand on the lives of Winchester University’s black students as they grapple with education disparities, sexuality, white supremacy, and, yes, police violence. When officers are called to a campus event in a Barry Jenkins-directed season 1 episode, Reggie Green (Marque Richardson) is harassed and held at gunpoint. Luckily, he survives, but the trauma lingers. The fatal 2016 shooting of Philando Castile served as the catalyst for the episode, and the result is a smart testament to how quickly police interactions become life-or-death moments for black Americans. The series, which will return for a fourth and final season, uses humor to inspire reflection, but that makes its brutally honest episodes hit even harder. (Netflix) —Chanelle Johnson
READ: Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses by Lawrence Ross
Code Switch (NPR)
Can we talk about whiteness? That’s how NPR’s Code Switch podcast, hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, kicked things off in 2016. Since then, the series has provided nuanced conversations about race, covering a wide variety of topics from casual racism to the impact of Dora the Explorer to pronouncing people’s names correctly. Demby and Meraji are joined by guests with relevant expertise, many of whom also enrich the show with lived experience. As for its commitment to covering police brutality, Code Switch has consistently tackled the topic, starting with an episode about Philando Castile two weeks after his death in July of 2016. (Available at npr.org) —Alamin Yohannes
READ: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.
WATCH: United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell (CNN)
Pass Over (Amazon Prime Video)
What is it like to live in constant fear for your life? That’s the primary concern of Antoinette Nwandu’s tragic and existential 2017 play, inspired in part by the shooting of Trayvon Martin and in a vein reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Spike Lee’s filmed version of the 2018 Chicago production captures Danya Taymor’s staged vision, observing Kitch (Julian Parker, The Chi) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill, Elementary), two homeless black men who dream of rising up from their street corner to reach their full potential, a.k.a. “passing over.” Unfortunately, distant gunshots, a “good” white person (Ryan Hallahan), and a racist cop (Blake DeLong) threaten those aspirations, souring what little hope the pair have of escaping the shadow of death. Pass Over makes it clear that’s no way to live. (Available on Amazon Prime Video) —C.A.
READ: They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery
To help combat systemic racism, please consider donating to these organizations:
- Campaign Zero, which is dedicated to ending police brutality in America through research-based strategies.
- Color of Change, which works to move decision makers in corporations and government to be more responsive to racial disparities.
- Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal services to people who have been wrongly convicted, denied a fair trial, or abused in state jails and prisons.