The rage and anger at police violence and systemic racism is not just a week, a year, or even decades old. It is centuries in the making. And in order to understand and meaningfully contribute to the movement, audiences will need to educate themselves on the racist and socioeconomic inequities that nurture the environment that allows these injustices to thrive.
From Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” (1920), to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” filmmakers have tackled this subject with tense and angry films made in reaction to the status quo. They unpack the onscreen racist ideology that began with D.W. Griffith’s incendiary “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), and highlight the realities of a society in which racial disparities permeate and undermine an entire system’s effectiveness.
These are bold and provocative films that serve as overdue tonic for a society that has long been saturated with incomplete depictions of black people, even as expectations evolve.
Here are 10 cinematic social critiques that speak to the present day, in chronological order. Only two of them are currently unavailable on streaming platforms, but this list would be incomplete without them.
The oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director, Oscar Micheaux’s silent film “Within Our Gates,” was a noteworthy response to Griffith’s racist “The Birth of a Nation.” Micheaux’s landmark film provided a rebuttal to Griffith’s depiction of black violence and corruption, with a story of the injustices faced by African Americans. While Griffith represented black male offensives on white female purity, Micheaux’s film sets the historical record straight with its depiction of the attempted rape of a black woman by a white man. It’s a searing account of the U.S. racial situation of the early twentieth century, including the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Great Migration of Southern black people to Northern cities.
“Within Our Gates” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Considerably more controversial in its day, “The Battle of Algiers” reconstructs events that occurred during the Algerian war of independence from French colonists in the late 1950s. Recalling its rallying cry — “It’s difficult to start a revolution… even more difficult to sustain one… and still more difficult to win one” — it’s a seminal work of cinema that still very much resonates today, with visceral thrills galore — due, in large part, to director Gillo Pontecorvo’s realistic representation of the real-life scenarios the film is based on, through a distinct grainy newsreel-like cinematography, the use of real locations, and observance of factual information. Embraced by leftist groups like the Black Panthers, it’s certainly timely in light of uprisings that have been taking place around the world in recent days.
“The Battle of Algiers” is streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy.
Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is often the cinematic reference point for radical, subversive black cinema during one of the more contentious periods in American history. But the seemingly underseen 1973 adaptation of “The Spook Who Sat By The Door” (which was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012), directed by Ivan Dixon, was potentially more lethal in its crafting and message, and really had the ability to inspire a revolution at a time when African Americans were most susceptible to one. Financed mostly with funds raised from individual black investors, the film was suppressed for three decades, until its re-release in 2004.
“The Spook Who Sat By The Door” is not streaming anywhere, unfortunately. A DVD purchase is currently the only way to see it.
Marlon Riggs’ essay film gives voice to black gay men, documenting their perspectives on the world as they confront racism, homophobia, and marginalization. It broke new artistic ground by mixing poetry, music, performance and Riggs’ autobiographical revelations. The film was embraced by black gay audiences for its authentic representation of style and culture, as well its fierce response to oppression. It opened up opportunities for dialogue among and across communities, while being lauded by critics for its vision and boldness. For those reasons, it was vilified by homophobic audiences who used it to rebuke government funding of the arts. Nevertheless, the film won the Best Documentary Film award at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival.
“Tongues Untied” is streaming on Kanopy.
Spike Lee made one of his most daring films with this dramedy, which was a scathing look at racial stereotypes in popular culture. Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, an uptight, Ivy League-educated TV writer who proposes a modern-day minstrel show as a protest against television portrayals of African Americans, only to see his series become an unexpected and unironic ratings blockbuster. Lee worked with cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), shooting in an unusual mixture of digital (for the real world scenes) and film (for the blackface sequences). Twenty years later, the film’s satire remains as sharp and relevant as ever.
“Bamboozled” is currently only available as a DVD rental or purchase.
The legacy of the Black Power Movement still hasn’t been properly placed in the context it deserves. Historically vilified by some, fetishized by others, its effect and influence on other political movements still isn’t widely acknowledged and celebrated, unlike the earlier Civil Rights Movement. Swedish director Goran Hugo Olsson’s empowering “The Black Power Mixtape” works overtime to contextualize the movement, highlight its successes and failures, and note its importance today. It aims to raise awareness and reignite penetrating discussion on the movement, by introducing it to a new global generation, in a format that may be more accessible to them – the “mixtape,” hence the title. Voiceover contributors to the film range from Angela Davis to Talib Kweli.
“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” is streaming on Amazon Prime.
In October 1970, Angela Davis was arrested in New York City, accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who took hostages in a courtroom, which he hoped to exchange for his brother George Jackson — an alleged black radical imprisoned at San Quentin Prison. In the subsequent shootout with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed, along with Judge Harold Haley and two inmates. Davis, who had championed the cause of organizing black prisoners and was friends (later became involved) with George Jackson, was indicted in the crime. But she went into hiding, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals. She was eventually apprehended and her trial drew international attention. Shola Lynch’s “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” relives those eventful, uncertain, transformative early years of Angela Davis’ life.
“Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” is streaming on Tubi.
In assembling “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck mined James Baldwin’s published and unpublished work, selecting passages from books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin envisioned a writing project about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Peck’s film juxtaposes Baldwin’s private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.
Jordan Peele said he initially intended “Get Out” to be a sledgehammer response to the illusion of a “post-racial” America during the Obama era. “Get Out” was a bold racial provocation, right down to the unorthodox Grand Guignol finale. Released a few months after the 2016 election, it took on a new level of urgency and, for black audiences, the film’s insights were pure catharsis. The concern was whether white audiences would be able to identify with a movie in which every white character was utterly evil and dies gruesomely. But audiences of all shades were more than ready for what was effectively “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” for a new generation of black viewers. White audiences may have found it awkward to talk about race, but it certainly was not awkward to talk about “Get Out.”
“Get Out” is available as an Amazon and iTunes rental.
Ladj Ly’s politically-charged feature debut is inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences as the son of a Malian immigrant, growing up in the harshness of the banlieues, in a commune east of Paris, called Montfermeil. Ly, who still lives there, said his Montfermeil isn’t all that different from Victor Hugo’s, whose 1862 novel is a source of inspiration. It remains grim, comprised of poor and disenfranchised people — primarily African immigrants — who often clash with the authorities. Ly said he hoped that volatile state would change, and has been chasing that goal with the best tool at his disposal: his camera. The uprising seen in the film’s fiery climactic scenes, during which the police are ambushed in a stairwell, is haunting.
“Les Misérables” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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