The Best Films and Documentaries to Watch on Social Justice
Following the grisly death of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, where do we go from here?
Most of us will never know the plight of a black individual. Social injustice and racial bias seep in their everyday lives, from “small” encounters with everyday Amy Coopers to brutal accounts with bigoted police officers, which eventually lead to imprisonment or worse, death. The heart-wrenching realities of racial discrimination and exploitation are still real in America, the supposed “land of the free”—even when African American slavery has been abolished centuries ago.
Black Lives Matter is not just a trendy hashtag; it’s a global movement created in 2013, which originated in the African American community, “campaigning against violence and systemic racism towards black people” to bring healing and redemption.
After violent protests ensue following George Floyd’s wrongful murder at the hands of a white police officer, we can no longer be indifferent; being silent is complicit. This starts with educating ourselves with history. Where to start? Stream these award-winning films and limited docuseries.
When They See Us
The Exonerated Five—then young teenagers of color in 1989—are wrongfully charged with the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park, New York. After years of incarceration, they receive redemption. Know their names: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Ava DuVernay co-writes and directs the limited series. A companion special, Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, includes a table discussion with the real-life five and cast with DuVernay spearheaded by the celebrated talk show host and advocate.
Stream When They See Us on Netflix.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the United States makes up about 21% of the world’s prisoners. At this rate, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. Another DuVernay classic documentary is 13th, where she examines the relationship between mass incarceration and slavery, which still define the criminal justice system. The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, officially abolished slavery but remnants of it obviously still exist today.
College Behind Bars
The limited four-part docuseries explores the life-changing effect of a college degree for the countless prisoners who have been failed by the endless cycle of poverty, inequality and racial bias. The Bard Prison Initiative, a program of Bard College spread across six interconnected prisons in New York State, provides quality college education for incarcerated men and women as educators prepare them for life after prison. They made headlines in 2015 when their debate team won against Harvard University.
Stream College Behind Bars on Netflix.
Based on a true story, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Alabama, which works to “end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial inequality.” They provide legal representation to prisoners, mostly impoverished, who may be wrongfully convicted of crimes. As a bright-eyed Harvard graduate, he meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man sentenced to die for the rape of a girl, which he didn’t commit.
Rent Just Mercy for free on Amazon Prime Video.
12 Years a Slave
Throughout the 400 merciless years of African American slavery, Solomon Northup’s story echoes the plight of the black man. Based on his 1853 slave memoir 12 Years a Slave, the New York State-born free man is kidnapped by two conmen in 1840 and sold into slavery. The star-studded 2013 biographical period drama film directed by Steve McQueen received three Academy Award wins and was regarded as the best film of the year by critics.
Stream 12 Years a Slave on Netflix.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is the American revisionist, Western revenge film, which centers on Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave freed by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). They join forces to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Stream Django Unchained on Netflix.
In the late 1970s, Ron Stallworth became the first African American police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He infiltrates the ranks of the despicable Ku Klux Klan—a notorious American white supremacist hate group—by pretending to be one of them. The 2018 American biographical black comedy crime film by director Spike Lee (Malcolm X) is based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman.
Stream BlacKkKlansman on HBO GO.
Actor-director Jordan Peele’s pièce de résistance Get Out centers around Chris, a young African American man visiting his girlfriend’s family—and cult-like community of mostly whites—for a weekend getaway. The satirical horror film and social commentary highlight the marginalization of blacks on a daily basis. It won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 2018. He followed up with Us and the much-awaited classic remake of Candyman.
Rent Get Out on Amazon Prime Video.
Art Alexandra Lara