Black Lives Matter - A Beginner's Guide on What to Watch
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Black Lives Matter. You may not have been able to escape those words over the past couple of weeks but that’s the point. Whilst the news is still clinging on to the Madeleine McCann case and Trump continues to be the most dangerous man in America, there are protests across every American state, hundreds of cities across the world. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of videos showing inhuman and abhorrent police brutality that expose the inherent racism of modern-day society. Those who pepper spray peaceful protesters and inflict violence on those whose only wish is to be seen and heard. The best thing smartphones have given us as a society is a way to document this notion. Because I’ve been blissfully ignorant for too long.
I knew about racism. And that’s meant in the most basic sense possible. I knew it was wrong. I knew not to be racist. Sounds simple enough, right? But there were influences and behaviours I subconsciously picked up from those around me growing up – not intentional by any means but it made me ignorant to the issue at hand in the past. I’ve never had to experience even the slightest bit of prejudice based on who I am, and for me to acknowledge the fact that black people don’t have that privilege isn’t enough. The minimum we can do is be vehemently anti-racist, and for many that’s difficult to comprehend because it means actually doing something.
Now, I don’t have a platform necessarily. But I do have a website which manages to achieve about 50-100 visitors a month, and I’d be ashamed of myself if I didn’t try to help signal-boost the message that’s on our streets and on our signs. I implore you to go to Twitter, Reddit and Youtube compilations of videos from the past two weeks. Educate yourself on the matter, because the news broadcasters barely scratch the surface. Type ‘Black Lives Matter’ into Google and peruse for an hour. There are hundreds of pages set up to educate people like me and you, to show us the petitions and ways we can help the cause of not just equality but anti-racism. I’ve included a few links at the bottom of this post but there’s such a wealth of useful content out there that I highly suggest you take the initiative and find things out for yourself. And remember not to let it sink into obscurity again. That’s the only way change can happen.
Of course I don’t know a lot. I’ve learnt more about periods of history that were bypassed in schools these last two weeks than I ever thought possible, but I somewhat know about film. And representation in film. And the power of film. A film has the power to change minds and educate in a way very little else can – because the audience just has to be absorbed by the story in order to learn something. They can be as passive or active as they like. I’ve seen a bunch of people (including myself) recommending different films and TV shows to bolster their knowledge on the situation and the history of black people, so I thought I’d collate a list of some of the ones I’ve seen and find important here. This isn’t me doing this because it’s the least I can do (although it is, considering my website is pretty much about film/TV), it’s because this is the area of representation, I feel most well-versed in. I can make educated assumptions and relay some modicum of film history. And that film history is seen more than any other type, which technically makes it one of the most powerful resources in the world. Enough rambling, here’s some stuff you should be watching the next time you’re bored or scrolling through Netflix. Some are stories about black people whilst others are the work of black filmmakers/creators, I’ll specify which is which for each one.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, I’ve not seen close to as much as I can, but I’m always looking for more. So if you have a suggestion please get in touch. Please also understand that whilst some of these are educational viewing, many are entertainment-based in order to appease those who wish to work their way up towards the factual.
- Selma (2014 – available to rent for free this month)
- 13th (2016 - Netflix)
- When They See Us (2019 – Netflix)
13th has now been made available to watch for free without a Netflix subscription here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krfcq5pF8u8&feature=youtu.be
One of the most progressive filmmakers working today, Ava DuVernay’s career has been about supplying voices to the stories and people that require it. But it’s all in service of story. Selma (2014) is a beautiful drama about the 1965 Montgomery voting rights March led by Martin Luther King Jr. Whilst some of its historical inaccuracies waver, it’s a powerful tale of real-life heroism in the face of overwhelming adversity that was cruelly overlooked by the Academy during awards season due to the crew protesting against the death of Eric Garner at the Los Angeles premiere. 13th is a blisteringly ruthless documentary about the systematic racism that undercuts the laws and restrictions across America, particularly the 13th amendment to the constitution which allows involuntary servitude as a punishment for the conviction of a crime. It’s the one film I’ve seen pop up most across Twitter, and for good reason – it pulls no punches and offers a sobering look at the continued discrimination of black people across the history of the states. When They See Us is a 2019 drama of the 1989 Central Park Five, five black male teenage suspects who were falsely convicted and imprisoned for up to fifteen years for the supposed rape and assault of a female jogger. This is a tough watch at many times and should make your blood boil. DuVernay’s expertise behind the camera allows the boys’ stories to shine through, and its one of Netflix’s best original productions. If you’re looking for a sobering, powerful drama that showcases one of the biggest injustices of recent memory than look no further.
DuVernay’s other work for television includes Queen Sugar and Cherish the Day, and although I’ve yet to see either of them they’re consistently held as huge steps forward not only in terms of black filmmakers and representation but female-led work too.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Available in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGQaAddwjxg
Less so of a suggestion and more of a worrying and important reminder of how black people were treated, The Birth of a Nation is D. W. Griffith’s glorification of racism and oppression that was lauded by then-president Woodrow Wilson who indorsed the picture and called it ‘like writing history with lightning’. This very film became the biggest of all time up until that point. A film that features lynching en-masse, blatant use of racial profiling/stereotypes all performed by actors in blackface and even became inspiration behind the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a dangerous piece of film that convinced an entire generation to fear or belittle black people and presented clansmen as heroes that exterminated them. Whilst it was a technical marvel that inspired countless practices modern filmmaking relies on, it’s best kept as a disturbing reminder of the world’s past and hopefully can be looked back on with even more disgust than it is today.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)
Shudder has made the documentary free available to view without subscription here: https://www.shudder.com/movies/watch/horror-noire-a-history-of-black-horror/e650978256281a67
“We have always loved horror…it’s just that horror hasn’t always loved us”
Essential viewing for those of you who, like me, have a passion for horror cinema. Horror Noire looks back at a century of genre films and how the black community’s representation and relationship with horror changed. Directed by Xavier Burgin and featuring interviews from Jordan Peele, Keith David and Tananarive Due just to name a few, it contextualises and offers a succinct timeline of things like tokenistic characters, stereotypes and the emergence of positive character development and the rise of the black ‘final girl’. Whilst it’s good to see the flaws throughout the genre’s past it’s interesting to note how far ahead the horror community is in regard to representation when compared to other genres. From the societal call backs within Candyman to the underrated intelligent of films like Ganja & Hess, Horror Noire also makes for a perfect introduction to the world of black horror.
The first time I was made aware of the trope of a black guy dying first in horror movies was actually in the 2001 film Evolution in which Orlando Jones’ Harry Block proudly argues “I’ve seen this movie, the black dude dies first” after being told to try and grab one of the aliens. I was six at the time and the deconstruction was just a passing meta joke, but in actuality it was a long-standing cliché built from systemic racism and the abundancy of it far surpassed what I had always thought. Not only that, but Horror Noire has also added numerous films to my watchlist. The likes of Blacula directed by William Crain and Tales from the Hood directed by Rusty Cundieff I had always avoided simply because their titles brought to mind the cheap blaxploitation pictures of the 1970s. In actuality those films were only presented in such a way in order to fit in commercially. It’s an enlightening watch that has led me to the work of Kasi Lemmons and Bill Gunn too.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Yes, really. Not only was white filmmaker George A. Romero’s original zombie masterpiece a titan of terror, but it also featured a black, intelligent and strong-willed protagonist in the form of Duane Jones’ Ben who takes leadership over a small group of survivors that otherwise consist of white people. Not only that, but it’s a film where the character is required to hold power over others and beat up (mostly) white zombies. Many called the film the scariest ever made up until that point, and it’s interesting to think about whether moviegoing audiences were saying that in regard to its actual narrative or the fact that a black person was the most sensible character, because back in 1968 most representations were still limited and offensive. The commercial and critical success of the film however, helped to usher in a change to all that and the subsequent ripples became waves across different genres. The character of Ben was written without a race in mind, and Romero notes that Duane Jones was hired simply because he was the best actor for the job, though it’s hard to think of how aware Romero was of the impact the film’s racially-charged ending would have. It’s another sobering statement made even more powerful by context.
- Fruitvale Station (2013)
- Creed (2015)
- Black Panther (2018)
A titanic force of blockbuster filmmaking in the modern era, Coogler burst onto the scene in 2013 with his debut based on the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by BART officer Johannes Mehserie in Oakland. Launching the career of Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station was a condemnation of an innocent man’s death and a triumph in humanising and communicating the brutality of force ushered in by prejudice. It’s a devastating look at victim’s rights and served as an almost statement of intent for the filmmakers later work. Creed not only works as a spiritual rejuvenation for the Rocky series but acts as a genuine emotionally uplifting drama with a black center. Adonis Creed could have so easily fallen into the pitfalls of genre rehash, but instead Coogler offered up an honest and passionate portrayal of the fight against adversity. And Michael B. Jordan continues to kick ass anyway alongside a brilliant Tessa Thompson as a singer/songwriter with a hearing impairment. Then of course there’s Black Panther. No matter what your thoughts are on the film itself the importance of having such a positive outlook to a whole cast of people who are usually marginalised cannot be overstated. It’s a cultural celebration and a call to the mainstream media to embrace black stories and that they can be just as (if not more) successful as anything else.
Written by and starring Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Clipping.) and best friend/poet Rafael Casal, Blindspotting is a brilliant comedy-drama about a lifelong friendship between a white and black man that comes under threat once one of them witnesses an unjustified police shooting right at the end of his parole. People have been sharing the clip of Diggs’ Collin Hoskins facing off against the murderous cop in the film for the past week, but to ignore the rest of the film is a crime. As a representation of the San Francisco Bay Area Blindspotting is second to none, but it also has the balls to be one of the best films released over the past few years. What struck me personally the most was the relationship between Collin and Casal’s Miles and the way their racial differences are thrust upon them in certain situations where otherwise it had no effect. The unfairness of Collin’s problems within the film are well highlighted, as is Miles’ lack of understanding in the moment. It walks the line between importance and entertainment perfectly.
Sorry To Bother You (2018)
Written and Directed by musician and activist Boots Riley in his debut, Sorry To Bother You is a scathing takedown of capitalism starring one of the best actors of this generation – Lakeith Stanfield. Whilst it veers into the absurd and surreal whenever possible, it’s a refreshingly original voice behind the camera that seeks to bother its audience with discomforting truths. Following a black telemarketer who adopts a white accent over the phone to succeed at his job, it’s a strange amalgamation of genres and ideas that at times can seem overwhelming, but it’s wholly original as a result.
- Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
- Moonlight (2016)
- If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Moonlight was the big one that drew everyone’s attention after sweeping the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean Barry Jenkins is done, far from it. The first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. Not only that, but the first LGBTQ-related film to win Best Picture. Following protagonist Chiron Harris throughout his childhood, teenage and adult years as he comes to terms with his sexuality and this struggles with blackness and vulnerability. It’s essential, pretty much required viewing at this point. Physical and emotional abuse and love go hand in hand here, and the brilliant cast including Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris do wonders with Jenkins’ script.
It shouldn’t be a surprise though. Almost a decade earlier Jenkins gifted us the poignant Medicine for Melancholy that follows the brief one-day romance two back twenty-somethings and how it offers a brief escape from the culture clashes of white-washed San Francisco. It’s a small, touching film that leaves a large impression. Even Jenkins’ latest work – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk that follows a young black woman who seeks to clear the name of her wrongly charged lover before she gives birth to their child. It’s more traditional to Moonlight, but just as effective with similarly powerful performances from the likes of Regina King, Kiki Layne and Stephan James. Jenkins continues to strengthen his skills as a visual and emotional filmmaker with each release, and he’s one of the best working in the industry today.
Kathryn Bigelow’s period drama about Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot, which lasted five days after Detroit Police Department raided and decided to arrest an entire bar-full of people celebrating returning black veterans from the Vietnam war, does the impossible by juggling dozens of stories all at the same time. Whether it’s John Boyega’s Melvin Dismukes security guard placed in a disheartening situation or Algee Smith’s Larry Reed seeking refuge from the riots only to be thrust into terror at the hands of the armed forces, Detroit doesn’t pull any punches and presents events with a stoic matter-of-factness that makes them harder to watch.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the story of the black female mathematicians who works at NASA during the space race of the 1960s, in particular the stories of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson and how essential they were to the entire operation. Whilst it doesn’t dare paint NASA or the racist climate of the time in nearly as bad a light as it should have, this is to keep the film positive and empowering throughout to an almost-conventional level. The trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae bolsters the source material tenfold however, and the accessibility of the story allows Hidden Figures to be a perfect starting point for introducing some of your more, let’s say ‘old-fashioned’ family members to… It even has the likes of Kevin Costner to keep them quiet.
- Do the Right Thing (1989)
- Malcolm X (1992)
- Get on the Bus (1996)
- Bamboozled (2000)
- BlacKkKlandsman (2018)
Every Spike Lee Joint is worth watching, but for the time being I’m going to focus on five in particular. Do the Right Thing manages to pepper a Brooklyn neighbourhood’s racial tensions to breaking point without ever appearing preachy or anything less than earnest. Arriving at the end of a decade in which the powerful (yet satirical) image of black power was used for blaxploitation pictures was replaced with the ‘black guy dies first’ or ‘tokenistic’ attitude on screen, the film certainly feels like a bookend to a certain period of screen representations in some ways. A stark, rallying cry for mass audiences to…well, do the right thing. Meanwhile Malcolm X manages to be one of the best biopics ever produced. Detailing the man’s upbringing and dramatizing key events throughout his life all the way up to his assassination on February 21, 1965. Denzel Washington managed to squash qualms over the man’s depiction whilst Lee refuses to skirt over his conversion to Islam. Spike Lee is one of the most powerful and ruthless voices working in cinema, he always has been, and yet it never ceases to amaze me how nuanced Malcolm X feels in context.
On competing ends of the spectrum, we also have Get on the Bus and Bamboozled. The former is an empowering drama about a group of black men who take a cross-country bus trip in order to participate in the Million Man March of October 16th 1995 and capitalises off the condensed setting in order to address humanistic approaches to conversations about race and prejudice. Bamboozled on the other hand is a strangely heavy-handed symptom of frustration in the form of biting, blatant satire. It features a network facing violent scrutiny after airing a modern-day minstrel show featuring blackface and stereotypes which is bolstered by casually-racist executives who want nothing more than financial gain. From the opening scene you can tell the film is made from frustration with a lack of development, and that’s reason enough to listen to its widened lookback at the representation of black people in contemporary American film and television productions. BlacKkKlansman on the other hand dramatizes black police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado Springs. John David Washington shines as Stallworth, and Lee utilises the backdrop of racial injustice rallies to give Laura Harrier a meaty side-plot at the same time. Much like Malcolm X is a surprisingly delicately-handled affair, even when portraying the blatant prejudices of KKK members. It was released the day before the first anniversary of ‘Unite the Right’ rally, in which white supremacists and neo-Nazis in an attempt to unify their movements, and the film’s final five-minute montage of news footage cut to Trump’s speeches of the event are some of the most powerful and harrowing things I’ve ever seen.
- 12 Years a Slave (2013)
- Widows (2018)
12 Years a Slave, based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, is a story that swept the world. After being born free in New York, Northup was tricked into travelling to Washington D.C. where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery by the deep south for twelve years. The reality is just as harrowing as the film itself, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o giving goosebump-inducing performances in order to frame the events at hand. It’s not an easy watch but it’s important. Whilst not necessarily a black story, Widows features a black, strong, female protagonist in the form of Viola Davis’ Veronica who leads a group of widowed wives into a new heist after their partners are killed during an operation. It’s the kind of diverse cast that should be the norm by now and a simple reminder that all that matters is talent, not how you look.
I am Not Your Negro (2016)
A devastating documentary directed by Raoul Peck using James Baldwin’s unfished manuscript that dictates his observations and thoughts on the history of racism in the United States. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, the film consists of several notes and letters written by Baldwin between his friend and civil rights leaders including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Despite being a (hopefully) sickening snapshot of these thoughts from the mid 1970s, it’s a stark and depressing reminder of just how much further we as a society have to go.
- Get Out (2017)
- Us (2019)
If you haven’t seen Get Out or Us yet then you can’t knowingly call yourself a horror fan. As two of the biggest releases from the genre in years, they’ve bolstered Jordan Peele’s reputation to something of an iconic status above his career. After kickstarting Monkeypaw Productions, Peele has dedicated his time to produce and ensure black artists and creatives have a place for their stories to be told both on the big and small screens. Almost everything he touches is filled with sub textual layers hinting at the history of racism or black identity, it’s become interwoven with his work and he’s since confirmed that he has no real interest in telling stories within his films that don’t centre on black people – and why should he? The quality of a story isn’t dictated by the colour of its characters, and Peele is refreshing in part because of that.
Watchmen (The Miniseries)
Although showrunner Damon Lindelof’s name is plastered throughout the show, its writing staff and crew were diverse enough to convey its message without feeling cheap or cheated. And it shows, too. Telling the story of Regina King’s Angela Abar, a masked vigilante member of the police department who is thrust into a conspiracy after a white supremacist group named the Seventh Cavalry starts to take action in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hell, the series itself opens with a haunting depiction of the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921, in which white residents torched and murdered black civilians and destroyed black-owned businesses that, at the time, made up the wealthiest black community in the United States. Watchmen uses the event as a catalyst to reinterpret Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel in such a way that it modernises distinct concepts without ever feeling like it caters to a racially charged narrative. On top of that, it’s one of the best science-fiction stories I’ve seen in a damn long time, and everything from the writing and the sheer wealth of powerful flashback episodes (which are beautifully done) – it’s a dozen heavy subjects that are all given the correct amount of time whilst effortlessly showing up all the other shows failing to feature a strong black central character(s). Definitely worth your time.
These are just some of the films/TV shows I’ve seen as a kind of starter package. Of course, there are thousands more out there. Even little moments in texts are important. In the second episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta as Earn is waiting at a police station there’s a casual moment where officers are seen beating up a clearly mentally unwell black man just because he’s tricked into offending them as they mock his handicap. It’s a moment presented with no agenda, it’s never brought up again but it’s just a reminder of the vitriolic hatred and oppression that black people have to live with which I, as a white person, never even have to consider.
So whether you’re watching Queen & Slim, Mudbound or hell even Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, notice the positive representations of black people and hold them against the decades and decades of negative stereotypies and portrayals. It’s not something that goes away easily when it’s so ingrained in society, so the best thing to do is just be anti-racist and keep speaking out about it.
I've only touched on the base layer here, I've done nothing, the amount of extraordinary stories on screen is daunting because it should be. Films like Higher Learning, Dope, Belly, Barbershop, Fences, Menace II Society, Juice, Daughters in the Dust are all brilliant watches both about and by black people.
Here’s a list of resources for the Black Lives Matter Movement. They include various petitions and charities you can support, as well as financial aid for the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Belly Mujiga and Breonna Taylor and other black lives taken unfairly during this whole ordeal, most at the hands of the so-called justice system. It has books, articles and resources to help you educate yourself on the matter too, at which point you’ll no-doubt notice how shit my attempt has been but hey, I’m trying. It’s constantly being updated with new links as well as information on how to help outside the US (this is a worldwide issue remember, if you don’t believe that you’re an idiot).
I wasn’t able to donate much, I don’t have a job and am pretty financially barren but every little bit helps. For those who’d want some proof that I’ve donated and aren’t just doing this for some kind of clout (I don’t blame you for thinking so) here’s the confirmation of my donation. Again, it’s not much but I wanted to help.
My knowledge on this isn’t even close to enough, and I’m well-aware of the lack of female black filmmakers and writers on this list too. I’m in the process of rectifying this but in the mean time here’s a piece featuring 62 black women who write for TV and Hollywood talking about their experiences.
Ban the use of insane rubber bullets that cause just as much damage as lead ones. Far too many innocent people have lost eyesight, movement and even their lives to these things. They are not a form of prevention, they’re just disguised artillery.
In the outcome of this it’s nice to see some companies taking the chance to educate audience. The Criterion Channel subscription service is offering up some brilliant films and documentaries by/about black people all in the aid of Black Lives Matter. I highly recommend checking some of them out as I’m going to over the next few days…
(the ones without a padlock symbol are all free to view without signing up)
Better yet, here's an entire list from Film School Rejects of all the films that have been made available for free in order to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It's literally been made that easy for you to learn something else.
Here’s a thread put together of over 300 (as of writing) videos of police brutality over the past two weeks. (WARNING: VIOLENCE, BLOOD, SWEARING, RACISM, BLATANT DISREGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE). Don’t forget any of these. Keeps these in your heart where it hurts. Nobody should get away with this. Use the anger for good.
Above all else, help promote change and be good to each other. As white people we have a certain level of privilege that allows our thoughts and opinions to wrongly be heard and listened to more than a black person’s – the least we can do is use that voice for them.
I don't know if this was okay for me to do, a part of me is worried that it comes across as a kind of 'white knight' thing but please know it's just the best way I could think of for me to try and help right now. I'm in a secluded area away from any protests but I just wanted to say something. But please please let me know if this was the wrong kind of thing to do and I'll delete this immediately.
Black Lives Matter. Fuck White Supremacy. Don’t be a fucking racist. Thank You.
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