In a list of films addressing systemic racism, an illustration of famous Black historical figures behind an American flag and a man in a prison jumpsuit
Each of these movies is about a real event or person. (Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University)

10 Films That Can Help You Learn About Systemic Racism

Here’s a starting point for educating yourself about the history and effects of racial inequality in the United States.

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In a list of films addressing systemic racism, an illustration of famous Black historical figures behind an American flag and a man in a prison jumpsuit

Here’s a starting point for educating yourself about the history and effects of racial inequality in the United States.

In the United States, systemic racism refers to the ways in which structures systematically place Black people at a disadvantage. These structures are all-encompassing and include health care, education, jobs and much more.

If you are an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, you must educate yourself on systemic racism. You must learn about Black history, the Black struggle for liberation and the challenges Black people face. This is not a holistic solution, but it is a necessary part of allyship.

Below are 10 films to watch to increase your knowledge about systemic racism. While you read through the list, remember that there is inherent privilege in the choice to educate yourself about racism rather than experiencing it.

1. “Malcolm X”

The movie stars Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Much of the film was adapted from X’s autobiography, which is a crucial read for anyone hoping to gain a broader perspective on the ongoing civil rights movement. The film opens with the image of a burning American flag overlaid with footage of Rodney King being beaten by police officers. King was brutally injured by the Los Angeles Police Department just a year prior to the release of the film. Watching this film in 2020 is a surreal experience because the imagery is all too similar to current news clips. Washington’s performance is moving and enthralling, and the film encourages audiences to reflect on the work and legacy of the late Malcolm X. The movie is available for streaming on Netflix.

2. “The 13th”

The Netflix documentary “The 13th” is a must see. The film centers scholars and activists, such as Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis, as they discuss the way slavery via mass incarceration has been continued despite the existence of the 13th amendment. Clips from rap songs, such as Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” are interspersed throughout the film and serve to showcase how deeply rooted the injustices against Black people in the United States are. As part of its Black Lives Matter initiative, Netflix has made the film available for free on YouTube.

3. “I Am Not Your Negro”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a 2016 documentary based on American writer and activist James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House.” The manuscript is Baldwin’s personal reflection of his memories with civil rights leaders Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film delivers a look into Baldwin’s life and thoughts in a personal and visceral way. It cuts from clips of police violence in the ‘60s to clips from today showing that the Black struggle for liberation is ongoing. “I Am Not Your Negro” brings Baldwin’s essential work to life in a way that leaves viewers feeling connected to him and his legacy. The film is available for purchase on the site iamnotyournegrofilm.com. 

4. “When They See Us”

The four-part series explores the real life tragedy of the Central Park Five, five New York boys falsely accused and convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. The movie shows the deeply entrenched consequences of systemic racism that give rise to the vicious accusations against five innocent boys. Scenes of the teenagers living normal lives are juxtaposed harshly with scenes of police questionings and trials, leaving viewers fully aware of the unfathomable injustice the five men have experienced. The series is available to stream on Netflix.

5. “Just Mercy”

The 2019 legal drama, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, tells the true story of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his client, Walter McMillian, a Black man on death row wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman. The film is based on Stevenson’s memoir of the same name and follows his fight to get McMillian exonerated. The film is currently streaming for free on Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

6. “Fruitvale Station”

This film is “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut. Starring Michael B. Jordan, it recounts the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was shot by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police on January 1, 2009. The film begins with the footage of Grant and his friends being detained by police officers moments before his death. Coogler explained his decision to focus on the last 24 hours of Grant’s life in an interview with the Nation: “Seeing the trial, I feel like it kind of got muddled over that Oscar is a human being. He became this saint or this idol that people held up. … And the other side has demonized him. He’s a criminal. He’s a thug. He got what he deserved. Personally, he’s not either one of those things. I feel like what was getting glossed over was the fact that this 22-year-old guy didn’t make it home to the people that he mattered to most. And for unnecessary reasons — his life was cut short unnecessarily.” The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

7. “Selma”

Directed by Ava DuVernay, “Selma” is a historical drama based on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, led by activists James Bevel, Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams and John Lewis. The film depicts the planning of the march as well as the violent state response to the peaceful form of protest. Although we know today that the brave actions of these civil rights activists ultimately resulted in Black people receiving the right to vote, viewers should also take time to understand the different ways in which Black people are still not receiving their full voting rights due to immense voter suppression. The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

8. “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise”

Told from the perspective of historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., this two-part documentary examines the past 50 years of African American history post-1965. The title of the film comes from Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” an inspiring and uplifting piece about Black resilience and strength. The poem mirrors the contents of the documentary, which, through Gates’ personal narrative, takes viewers through the triumphs and struggles of the ongoing civil rights movement and the fight against systemic racism and oppression. The documentary is available for free on PBS’s website.

9. “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”

The 2016 film tells the story of the Black Panther Party through news footage and interviews with FBI agents and surviving Black Panthers. It is the first feature-length documentary created about the Black Panthers. The documentary highlights the efforts of the group in providing housing, welfare and health care to their local communities and illustrates a critical but underrepresented part of the civil rights movement. The documentary is available for free on PBS’s website. 

10. “Whose Streets?”

The chant “Whose streets? Our streets” is permanently entrenched in the minds of many people who have protested against police brutality in recent years. This 2017 documentary centers on the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson uprising. The story is told by the activists on the ground leading the movement and provides a detailed and intimate focus on the Ferguson community. The documentary is available on the site whosestreetsfilm.com. 

Know that what makes one an effective ally is not simply watching these movies but what one chooses to do with what they’ve learned. Additionally, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you only consume Black media to learn about racism. Definitely educate yourself about racism, but don’t forget to read books from Black authors and watch TV shows written by and starring Black people because Black creators are doing amazing work!

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