If you’re looking to better understand the world in which we’re living, specifically for matters regarding race and discrimination, the time to act is now. And, in terms of resources, there are plenty available. Many of us have a subscription to one of them.
To learn and better contextualize our culturally divided world, there are a plethora of outstanding films that shed light on the Black experience and our nation’s continuous struggles with racial injustice. Recently, Netflix has even launched a Black Lives Matter category, buttressed by a message of awareness on the company’s Twitter profile. These are films from a number of visionary writers and directors, from eras both past and present, that shine a powerful light on stories of systematic racism.
Here is a selection of titles you can watch right now. We’ll be sure to update this list as Netflix adds and removes respective films from the curation.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Director Raoul Peck’s invigorating documentary film is a chronicling of author James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. A front-row seat to a history of American racial conflict, Peck (supported by a powerful voiceover from Samuel L. Jackson) seamlessly weaves a portrait of Baldwin’s interactions with such prominent Black leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. The beating heart of the picture is Baldwin’s call-to-arms prose, just as relevant and needed today as it was nearly 50 years ago. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards and won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Stars: Samual L. Jackson, Raoul Peck, James Baldwin
Director: Raoul Peck
Runtime: 95 minutes
Fruitvale Station (2013)
The feature debut of director Ryan Coogler (who would go on to direct Marvel’s Black Panther), Fruitvale Station chronicles a single day-in-the-life odyssey of one Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), a young Black man that was murdered in 2009 by BART police officers in Oakland, California. Based on true events, we’re granted an eyewitness vantage of the tragic events through Oscar’s eyes, but not before meeting and interacting with all of those that Grant held near and dear in his life. A story of racial disparity, fatherhood, masculinity, friendship, love, and loss, Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2013.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz
Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 85 minutes
Based in part on the 2012 HBO documentary The Loving Story, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) goes for a more streamlined and air-brushed approach to the Richard and Mildred Loving civil rights debacle. Native Virginians, the interracial couple was arrested for trying to marry outside of their segregated state, sparking a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. What we get in Nichols’ vision of their hardship is a story about a family that just wants to be a family. Earnest performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga really sell the heartfelt script, making this an integral and emotional entry in our roundup.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon
Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 123 minutes
If you find that you’re missing the grace, compassion, and normalcy of the Obama administration, Becoming is a refreshing watch. A companion to Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming sheds light on her journey to become America’s first African American First Lady. While it’s not quite as personal as some might like, Becoming is nonetheless an endearing, often provocative discussion of race, hope, and connecting with those of different backgrounds and beliefs. It’s a keen reminder that leaders can inspire by positive example.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Stars: Michelle Obama, Barack Obama,
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Runtime: 100 minutes
“If you’re in the prison business, you don’t want reform. You may say you do. But you don’t.” Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening, at times harrowing, 13th is a pivotal documentary that explores the centuries-old criminalization of disenfranchised African American communities, but by way of tracing the steps of American racism to its very roots. Over the course of the film, DuVernay and many activists, lawmakers, and academics unfold decade after decade of politically-motivated legislation, and the lobbyists often behind these laws, that have led not only to the privatization of the American prison system but also to the staggeringly disproportionate incarceration of millions of African American men and women. The film can be difficult to watch, but DuVernay’s grim realizations are made to be blatant. What is also apparent is that there is still hope for fundamental change, a message echoed by the film’s ensemble of progressively minded confiders, figures both left- and right-leaning.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Melina Abdullah
Director: Ava DuVernay
Runtime: 100 minutes
All Day and a Night (2020)
In All Day and a Night, Ashton Sanders plays Jahkor Lincoln, a once-aspiring rapper serving a life sentence for murder. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of Lincoln’s troubled upbringing. An adolescence riddled with abuse and dire straits leads to petty crime, which evolves into something far more sinister when Lincoln begins offering his services to a gangster named Big Stunna. As present-day Jahkor looks back on his dark past from behind bars, an old accomplice is admitted to the same prison. This time around, though, the man is a foe, not a friend. Praised for its performances and meditative qualities, All Day and a Night is indeed a richly-textured drama. Ashton Sanders is particularly impressive as Jahkor.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Ashton Sanders, Jeffrey Wright, Isaiah John
Director: Joe Robert Cole
Runtime: 120 minutes
American Son (2019)
Kerry Washington is electric in Kenny Leon’s racially charged drama about a mother, father, and the police officers that serve as the gatekeepers to their son’s safety (or lack thereof). The film is minimalist in terms of set pieces, but the true gravitas of this 90-minute, escalating panic is in the claustrophobia of the police station, a bunker clinging to its segregated past by way of demarcated water fountains and a quiet regional disparity covered with a law book and a grin. The true joy of the film is in watching Washington claw her way through the narrative, channeling a polarity of emotions that are all backed by the all-too-relatable fear of a mother worried because her child didn’t come home. Sparse editing and an emotional score are the backbones of these three acts, each of which plays out like a theater piece, sans intermission.
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Stars: Kerry Washington, Jeremy Jordan, Steven Pasquale
Director: Kenny Leon
Runtime: 90 minutes
HOMECOMING: A Film By Beyonce (2019)
A concert film for a new generation, HOMECOMING won a Grammy for Best Musical Film. Beyoncé has become something of a musical film savant, with Lemonade, Black Is King, and HOMECOMING all earning rave reviews. It’s HOMECOMING, however, that stands uniquely as a concert film. The film takes an in-depth look at Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, revealing the incredible creative depth and cultural significance of the show.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Beyoncé Knowles
Director: Beyoncé, Ed Burke
Runtime: 137 minutes
Imperial Dreams (2014)
In co-writer/director Malik Vitthal’s Imperial Dreams, John Boyega plays Bambi, a gangster looking to put his violent past behind him. But as Bambi makes steps to leave Imperial Courts, the projects rope him right back in, against his will. Vitthal actually shoots the film at the real Imperial Courts housing projects in Watts, Los Angeles, creating a true-to-life arena for all of the film’s powerhouse performers. Every role in the ensemble is richly lived in by the respective actor, creating an honest and nuanced depiction of everyday life in the community. Visually, cinematographer Monika Lenczewska’s camera keeps everything in widescreen, with a majority of our focus on Bambi as he hovers in and out of scenes. At its heart, Imperial Dreams is a film about the redemption of a man, a sprawling odyssey that keeps two feet in reality throughout the entire film. The film has plenty to say about disparity, and it says it all quite naturally. In Dreams, the story feels just as real as the projects it’s set and shot in.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: John Boyega, Rotimi, Glenn Plummer
Director: Malik Vitthal
Runtime: 87 minutes
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Black-cinema savant and activist Spike Lee’s version of a rom-com is a whole lot more provocative than the standard Hollywood romantic drivel. Famously shot in 15 days on a budget of $175,000, She’s Gotta Have It became Lee’s coming out party, introducing him to the world as a fearless filmmaker with a unique voice and a profoundly different perspective. The film follows Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) on a familiar quest of trying to figure out what kind of man she wants to date. Indecisive, she decides to date three at once: Greer Childs, the rich, handsome narcissist; Jamie Overstreet, the stable, overprotective alpha male; and Mars Blackmon, the timid geek with a heart of gold. While she can’t make up her mind, it is very clear that Nola has gotta have it all.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Tracy Camilla, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Raye Dowell
Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 84 minutes
You might think Barack Obama is still too recently out of office to have his own biopic, but the circumstances surrounding the nation’s first Black president’s rise to power are worthy of this 2016 film. The story follows a young Barack Obama as he arrives in New York City in the fall of 1981 for his junior year at Columbia University. Echoing many of the themes expressed in his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Obama struggles to stay connected to his mother and his estranged father and build new connections with his classmates. Simultaneously, he battles an identity crisis and becomes critical of the injustices he sees in his day-to-day life, ultimately motivating him toward a career in organizing and, eventually, politics.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Stars: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ashley Judd
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Runtime: 104 minutes
LA 92 (2017)
This is as close and personal as many of us will ever get to the large-scale unrest and utter chaos of the 1992 LA riots. By means of vignetting archival footage, directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin craft a challenging and raw mosaic of this crucial moment in Civil Rights history. For those seeking knowledge and understanding, this could be one of the best places to start. As far as documentaries go, LA 92‘s pastiche approach may not be as conversation-laden as something like Ava DuVernay’s approach to 13th, but even that statement is not entirely true. LA 92 speaks its own language with fiery, vivid imagery that recalls memories and an open wound. This is education at its most unforgiving, but also its most honest, relevant, and meticulously recalled. It’s a rather graphic entry to our list, but a firm recommendation nonetheless.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Tom Bradley, Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw
Directors: Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Runtime: 114 minutes
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee’s first movie under his new Netflix deal is a modern masterpiece. Simultaneously about the stasis of the movement for Black justice and the enduring villainy of the Vietnam War, Da 5 Bloods bounces between eras to illuminate how little has changed in 40 years. The film follows four Black vets as they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and a buried treasure they vowed to one day return for. What they discover is their own “Heart of Darkness” as they battle the forces of man and nature, confronting the lasting legacy of the war and its impact on Vietnam and one another.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters
Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 135 minutes
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ richly layered opus is a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale that delicately yet defiantly balances issues of racial and sexual discrimination. Based on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins’ adaptation traces the tribulations of African American youth, Chiron, from adolescence to early manhood. Part of the genius in Jenkins’ and McCraney’s vision is their choice to separate Chiron’s ascension and awakening through three distinct acts, each benchmarked by a different actor portraying the character (Alex Hibbert for Chiron’s adolescence, Ashton Sanders for his teenage years, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron).
Each performance builds upon the last, adding new levels of nuance and maturity to Chiron’s experience and the narrative at large. With a cast rounded out by towering performances from Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe, Moonlight‘s countless laurels speak for themselves. But what’s most paramount is the grand sense of timelessness Jenkins imbues the film with. It feels like Chiron’s journey has been in the canon of great African American cinema for decades. And, in a way, it has.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Shariff Earp
Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 111 minutes
The expertly lensed Mudbound — written and directed by Dee Rees and photographed by Rachel Morrison — explores the personal, economic, and racial tensions of two rural families living by way of the land in World War II-era Mississippi. A respective son from each family goes off to war. These are Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), two boys who leave a world of racism and other struggles behind.
The battle ends. They return home, Jamie with newfound trauma, and Ronsel to a country that looks down at him for the color of his skin, regardless of his valor. What’s to truly savor in Rees’ masterful period drama is Morrison’s language of framing. Rees and Morrison were after a kind of camera work that reflected the feeling of the American Dream, and so we get beauty in shades. But under the flora is loud and vibrant cinematography that enhances our connection with both families, one white and one black. Mudbound is illuminating in more ways than one, an epic racial drama led by a master class of actors that all own their roles.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell
Director: Dee Rees
Runtime: 144 minutes
Strong Island (2017)
Director Yance Ford’s investigation into the 1992 murder of her brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., is an examination of judicial prejudice like no other, and an incredible film experiment. Courageously, Ford toes the line between essay film, personal memoir, and true crime exposé, seamlessly blending each type of documentary form in an effort to best capture her 22-year story of pain and loss. Ford spends time with the friends, family, and willing judicial entities that were involved in her brother’s life and in the courtroom for his killer’s trial, 19-year-old Mark P. Reilly. These many emotional recollections weave a rich tapestry of William Ford Jr.’s life, ambitions, fears, and frustrations. Underneath the records, talking heads, and scrapbook photos is a story about a family that lost their son, and his little sister’s lifelong quest for familial and personal closure.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Yance Ford, Harvey Walker, Kevin Myers
Director: Yance Ford
Runtime: 107 minutes
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
What Happened, Miss Simone? explores the life of prolific singer-songwriter and pianist, Nina Simone, through recollections composed of archived interviews, photographs, commentaries, musical performances, and journal entries. Plagued by racism from an early age, Simone’s rise to stardom served as a platform for the activism that would define much of her career. Liz Garbus’ film is an introspective journey into the always racing mind of an artistic genius, and a black woman who desperately wanted for black voices to be heard and understood the world over. Conversations with friends, family, and those that worked with Simone professionally round out the documentary, each contributor adding a new layer of Nina, a complicated but enduring individual with a calling that never ceased, and a talent like no other.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Stars: Lisa Simone Kelly, Roger Nupie, Dick Gregory
Director: Liz Garbus
Runtime: 101 minutes
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