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15 Films That Confront Race Relations Head-on (Instead of Kevin Costner’s ‘Black or White’)

15 Films That Confront Race Relations Head-on (Instead of Kevin Costner's 'Black or White')

We’ve made it just over halfway through the month of February, granted the distinction of being Black History Month, and racial tensions in the film world, particularly in Hollywood, are at an all-time high. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences effectively whitewashed The Oscars this year, shutting out people of color (PoC) from the acting categories and both PoC and women from the director’s stable, even though both respectively put in some of the best work of 2014. What’s more, the custody battle courtroom drama “Black or White,” starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, and Anthony Mackie, has been taken to task by many a critic (myself included) for its good-intentioned but melodramatic and milquetoast approach to issues of biracial identity and our country’s still festering racial biases. The funniest part? This is only Costner’s first headlining gig as White Messiah in a period of just under a month, as the inspirational sports drama “McFarland, USA” opens nationwide this Friday.

In an era where racial profiling has come back to the public consciousness with a vengeance and PoC in pop culture continue to both demand recognition and create our own routes toward taking it, I think now is as good a time as ever to reflect on films that have the balls to tackle race relations head-on. There are no easy answers to cancerous societal problems like racism, but differing perspectives and viewpoints can and will make all the difference in how we deal with these things moving forward. This is my list of 20 films that refuse to dance around the issue of race relations in America.   

Disclaimer: Inclusion on this list doesn’t necessarily denote a film as conventionally “good,” though I think most of the films I’ve selected are in one way or another, just that they didn’t shy away from what they were trying to do.     

1. “Do The Right Thing”

The jury’s still out as to whether this or Malcolm X is considered writer/director Spike Lee’s magnum opus, but “Do The Right Thing” is an explosive effort all the same; it follows the denizens of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York during the hottest day of the summer and how their individual stories interconnect and bring out the worst (and best) in each other. The ensemble cast, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito, Joie Lee, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, Bill Nunn, and Lee himself, digs deep to find the nuance in every character, and Lee’s focus and raw skill bring it all together. Let’s not forget that Public Enemy’s trademark song “Fight The Power” was written specifically for this bar-burner of a drama.  

2. “In The Heat Of The Night”

This Sidney Poitier-starring detective story was responsible for giving us “They call me MISTER Tibbs!,” but In The Heat Of The Night was also the story of Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs, a Northern Black cop from Philadelphia transposing himself into a Southern Mississippi society.   

3. “The Color Purple”

Based on Alice Walker’s bestselling classic of the same name, The Color Purple is a meditation on female bonding and empowerment in the face of adversity. Both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey made their cinematic debuts here, and the bond they created onscreen was one for the ages.

4. “Fruitvale Station”

The death of Oakland, CA man Oscar Grant at the hands of a cop who mistook his gun for his taser was a shocking and sad conformation on the state of race relations in America. Write-director Ryan Coogler took much of the sensationalism out of the story and focused on Oscar Grant’s last day alive in Fruitvale Station. Michael B. Jordan plays Grant as as a flawed guy on the path to a better life before his life was tragically cut short, and it’s raw and uncompromising.     

5. “Blazing Saddles”

Mel Brooks is famous for his cinematic satire (Space Balls, Silent Movie, The Producers), but his most controversial work came in the form of this Western pastiche. It directly addresses the racist myth-making that many American Westerns participated in, reflected in its decision to make the main character a Black sheriff in an all-white Western town. It was ahead of its time when it was released back in 1974, and it remains a vital and hilarious classic to this day. The opening musical number kills me every time.   

6. “Imitation of Life”

The b-story in this Douglas Sirk-directed drama deals with the relationship between mother Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who manages to pass as white. Her friends and lovers begin to ostracize and assault her when they discover that she’s actually Black, complicating Sarah and Annie’s relationship and bringing to light a difficult story of systemic self-hatred in the process. Oh yea, and the rest of the movie’s pretty good, too.  

7. “Putney Swope”

An examination and satire of the world of advertising that predates Mad Men by at least 30 years, Putney Swope spares no expense in taking portrayals of African-Americans in film and ads to the woodshed. The titular character is promoted to the head of his firm after the unexpected death of his boss, and proceeds to rename the company Truth and Soul Inc. Swope cuts all ties with tobacco, alcohol, firearms, and war profiteers and takes on the US Government while full color satirical ads run in between. This is a real barn-burner.

8. “12 Years A Slave”

Steve McQueen’s drama based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup is an examination of slavery the likes of which American cinema hasn’t really seen before. Northup was a free man living in the pre-Civil War North before he was kidnapped and sold back into slavery for over a decade, and 12 Years A Slave plays as a sort of American slavery horror show; Saw meets Roots, relatively speaking. A tough pill to swallow and not for the squeamish, but an important cinematic discussion and one hell of a powerful film.  

9. “CSA: The Confederate States of America”

Here’s a film about slavery and contemporary race relations that goes in a completely different direction. The base premise of CSA is simple: What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War instead of Union, and much of the antiquated and outright racist tendencies and viewpoints became the norm in America? It’s a satirical pastiche filled with deliberately offensive ad campaigns and what-if Confederate history lessons that served to put a fine point on how far we’ve come since Reconstruction and how far we still have to go.    

10. “Manderlay”

Lars von Trier is well known for his stylistic trilogies, most famously including the Depression Trilogy (Antichrist, Melancholia, Nymphomaniac). Manderlay, a film of his from 2005, is the second part of his projected USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy (the first part is the 2003 film Dogville), a stylized depiction of the American past with a focus on slavery. Manderlay follows Grace, the main character from Dogville (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Nicole Kidman), as she stumbles upon a plantation called Mandelay in 1930s Alabama. Slavery still exists in this confined space, and Grace takes it upon herself to kill the problem at the source by giving ownership of Manderlay to the slaves. It’s a morbid and uncompromising piece of work that examines the roots of systemic self-hatred and how preposterous American slavery as an institution was. It doesn’t help that director von Trier has never been to the United States himself because of a phobic fear of travel, but this one’s still a conversation starter all the same.

11. “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song”

This Melvin van Peebles’ masterwork is the film that arguably started the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, and for good reason. Aside from the then-revolutionary technical aspects of the film (jump-cuts, Van Peebles doing all of his own stunts and sex scenes), Van Peebles’ Sweetback was a uniquely compelling hero in his run from and fight against The Man. It kickstarted the demand for more African-American faces in Hollywood cinema that led to blaxploitation classics like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Black Dynamite, and the world is a much better place because of its existence. I could probably write an entire column about the influence this movie had on Hollywood, but I’ll leave it at the fact that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song brought the revolution in ways that most of us can’t even imagine.

12. “Bamboozled”

Spike Lee’s never been known for being subtle, but Bamboozled is on another level entirely: Damon Wayans stars as a TV executive who pitches a really offensive idea, a New Millennium Minstrel Show, in an effort to get fired from his job. To his horror, his boss (Michael Rappaport) loves the idea and not only is the show greenlit, it becomes a massive hit. Wayans has to deal with the oblivious fans who eat up the antics of Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep ‘n Eat (Tommy Davidson) and a militant revolutionary group called the Mau Maus, headed by Big Blak Africa (Mos Def). A filmmaker who would dare to ask hip-hop superband The Roots to appear as a backing band called the Alabama Porch Monkeys clearly isn’t interested in subtlety. The movie has a lot to say about African-American celebrity, and it doesn’t shy away from stomach-churning and angry social commentary.      

13. “Coonskin”

Ralph Bakshi, the adult animation titan behind the Fritz The Cat films, brought this animated crime drama to screens to a lot of controversy back in 1975. A satire of mob films, racist stereotypes, and Songs of The South, Coonskin not only challenged what we could and should expect from animation, its bold and brazen depiction of race relations in America (the country is here represented by a blonde woman who seduces and kills African-American men) is unlike anything you’ve ever seen this generation or otherwise.  

14. “Black Like Me”

What happens when white journalist John Howard Griffin decides to darken his skin through pigment treatments and tanning in an attempt to experience the racism of the American South in the 1950s firsthand? Nothing mild or boring, to be sure. Based on the book from 1961, Black Like Me showed us that the ugliness of racism put visors over the eyes of millions of Americans. A white guy darkening his skin to look Black is going to stir some controversy regardless of what he’s doing it for, but the unnerving experiences, insults, and assaults from everyone, black or white, help to put American racism into perspective. This isn’t a film that I particularly like to watch, but the rawness of its story is difficult to deny.   

15. “Dear White People”

Justin Simien’s satirical college dramedy from last year brought a new generational perspective to the race relations table. We live in what many people consider to be a “post-racial” society, but Dear White People isn’t here for that kind of labeling. It follows four college students and their respectively different “Black experiences” on the mostly white Winchester University campus. My generation’s inversion on A Different World or School Daze, Dear White People proves that racism is too deeply entrenched in American society to be solved away with easy answers.

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