In recent weeks, the national conversation around systemic racism in the U.S. has led many non-Black people, including myself, to reflect on their own racism and how their privilege has contributed to systems of oppression. While supporting the Black Lives Matter movement can take on different forms, including signing petitions, donating to causes and attending protests, self-education through pop culture can be extremely useful in beginning to understand how and why systemic racism exists and persists in the U.S.
This list of movies has helped me in my self-education about systemic racism. Admittedly, I used to watch films that are considered “white savior” films, believing that they provided sufficient education about the history of racism and systemic oppression. The following films, however, completely reject this trope by centering Black experiences and stories instead of white characters. While this list certainly isn’t exhaustive — there are many other movies that I haven’t seen that shed light on racism — here are seven films that I highly recommend.
- “Just Mercy”
“Just Mercy” was released in 2019 as the movie adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” It follows Stevenson as he works with the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that he started to provide legal representation for those that have been wrongfully convicted or cannot afford representation.
The film follows the events of the book, detailing the case of Walter McMillian, a man on death row for a murder that he did not commit. In addition to being an excellent and well-made film, “Just Mercy” provides a look into the injustices that exist in the prison system in the U.S. and the systemic racism that contributes to this lack of justice. Films about death row inmates have in the past been susceptible to the “white savior” stereotype, but “Just Mercy” completely rejects the trope by focusing on Stevenson’s story and how he worked to get justice, instead of centering the white characters.
- “Get Out”
A recent classic from acclaimed director Jordan Peele, “Get Out” follows a Black man named Chris as he meets his white girlfriend’s family. Aside from winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and nominated for Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards, “Get Out” has been talked about ever since its release for being an incredible film with criticism about modern racism and the dangers of white people believing that the U.S. exists in a post-racial society. Through the plot, Peele spotlights the kind of racism that comes from upper middle class progressives who specifically claim that they aren’t racist, but end up being the most dangerous for the main character. The film is also hilarious, a common feature of Peele’s films.
- “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Streaming on Hulu)
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, is a beautiful, romantic and heart-wrenching film that follows a woman working to bring justice to the man she loves — a man who has been wrongly accused of a crime. Similar to “Just Mercy,” “Beale Street” reflects on the lack of justice in the criminal justice system. The film also features stunning and heartbreaking acting from KiKi Layne, Stephan James and Regina King, as well as brilliant direction from Jenkins and a beautiful score. Nominated for three awards at the 91st Academy Awards, “Beale Street” comes critically acclaimed.I highly recommend it as an educational film, but also because it has quickly become one of my favorite films of all time.
- “The Hate U Give” (Streaming on HBO)
Based on the novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” is about a teenage girl named Starr navigating the majority-Black neighborhood she lives in and the predominantly white school she attends. When she becomes the only witness in the shooting of her best friend by a police officer, she faces tension between her two worlds.
What is especially revealing in “The Hate U Give” is the relationship between Starr and Hailey, her white friend from school. Hailey acts as though she’s progressive, but continues to be uninformed about the systemic racism Starr is protesting against throughout the film. For example, in one scene, Hailey celebrates the fact that school was let out early for a protest, instead of truly understanding the purpose and significance of protesting. “The Hate U Give” is also driven by an incredible performance from Amandla Stenberg, rendering it a must-watch.
- “13th” (Streaming on Netflix)
Released in 2016 and directed by Ava DuVernay, “13th” is a frequent inclusion on other self-education lists, and for very good reason. The film is a work of genius from DuVernay, and it follows the history of the prison system in the U.S. from the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The amendment abolished slavery except as a punishment for a crime, which led to policies and laws that contributes to present-day mass incarceration. “13th” provides an in-depth look into the U.S. justice system and how, as Bryan Stevenson states in the film, it “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”
- “Blindspotting” (Streaming on HBO)
Starring and co-written by “Hamilton” actor Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, “Blindspotting” is a fast-paced film that looks at white privilege, gentrification and police brutality. Collin, played by Diggs, is trying to get through the last few days of his probation after going to jail for a crime his best friend Miles, played by Casal, committed. The relationship between Collin and Miles becomes more tense as the plot progresses, revealing truths about white privilege.
Of course, there are plenty of other films that center Black stories that can be used to self-educate. However, these seven are all incredible movies that are informative and reject the white savior trope that is common in films such as “The Help” or “Green Book.” While this list of films is not a solution to the problem of systemic racism and oppression, I hope that it can be a resource for education and the sharing of Black stories.
Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists, but she decided to write about film this week instead. She is from California and loves her dogs, cats and talking about TV. One of her quarantine recommendations right now is “Blood and Water.”