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Best Movies about Race in America

Edited a month ago
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A comprehensive list of the best movies that capture one or more facets of the complicated history of race relations in America. No one film can say it all, but these narratives help untangle the complicated web of emotions that have yet again bubbled to the surface with the police brutality towards George Floyd and countless others.

  • Do The Right Thing
    • 1989 Movie
    • 4.6/5

    In no way could this list be complete without perhaps the most seminal work on race in America - Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing". In his original review, the late critic Roger Ebert described how he left the late 80s screening of the film at Cannes with tears in his eyes and aptly remarked that he had been given "only a few filmgoing experiences in my life to equal the first time I saw 'Do the Right Thing.'" and that "Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul." Spike Lee's movie tells the tale of a hot day in Brooklyn, where a riot begins with almost comical origins - because Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is offended that Sal has only photos of Italians in the wall of his pizzeria: Sinatra, DiMaggio, Pacino. He wonders why there isn't a black face up there. Of course this all spirals out of control and into a full-blown riot. But in all the pandemonium, Spike Lee never ceases to empathize with all the characters. It is for this reason more than any other, that his tight, precise, movie about a hot day in Brooklyn has become perhaps the defining film on race in America.

  • Get Out
    • 2017 Movie
    • 4.4/5

    Jordan Peele, in his seismic directorial debut, shattered the conventions of the horror genre by using its most recognizable touchtones, but subverting the status quo entirely by inserting a psychological appeal to the horrors of racism. As with many horror films, the movie begins innocuously detailing the quotidian aspects of a modern-day interracial couple - the black boyfriend meeting the white girlfriend's family. But this rollercoaster of a movie rapidly descends into true psychological nightmare, exposing the terrifying subtleties and ghoulishness of racism in America. True to Peele's roots, it is often funny, often satirical, but mostly frightening. A must watch for anyone remotely interested in modern-day race relations in America (or just horror cinema generally).

  • Fruitvale Station
    • 2013 Movie
    • 4.2/5

    Apropos to the current racial tensions in society, in the late Aughts, Oscar Grant was kneed in the head and killed by BART police officers responding to a report of an alleged subway station fight. Ryan Coogler, in his directorial debut, told Oscar's story in great detail, showing all the events leading up to that day and the broader promise of his life that was so prematurely taken from him. It is a devastating story, sadly poignant during this time, and worth a view.

  • Fences
    • 2016 Movie
    • 3.7/5

    This movie is adapted from an August Wilson play, who is one of the essential portraitists of African-American life. So much so that Denzel Washington has made a commitment to carrying on his legacy after his death the early 2000s. This is one of those films that Denzel packaged and stars in, which depicts the brutal discrimination black families faced in the post-war Pittsburgh neighborhood Hill District. A worthwhile film and period piece detailing postwar black struggles in American cities.

  • The Learning Tree
    • 1969 Movie
    • None/5

    This is a tragic, poignant coming-of-age movie about how a young man's life is unalterably defined by his skin color. Taking place in a mid-20s rural Kansas, there are terrifying moments where a white sheriff shoots to black men at point blank and faces no consequences. More than 50 years later, this barbarism rings all too true. This was also uniquely a black-made major studio production, and the cinematography is beautifully textured.

  • The Jackie Robinson Story
    • 1950 Movie
    • None/5

    A narrative account of the first black American to play professional baseball starring Jackie Robinson as Jackie Robinson! This movie made the list more for its production backstory as well, which is a midcentury triumph against the Hollywood status quo. Apparently Hollywood was only interested in a white savior story for the big screen, so they had to independently produce this to maintain any degree of biographical integrity.

  • Intruder In The Dust
    • 1949 Movie
    • None/5

    Adapted from the eponymously titled Faulkner novel, and shot mostly in Mississippi, this late-40s movie depicts a black farmer who is falsely accused of a murder and in imminent danger of being lynched. This is an essential early depiction of race in America and tests the limits of the white conscience in the face of potential tragedy, without being overly didactic.

  • Downtown 81
    • 2000 Movie
    • 5/5

    Downtown 81 is a neorealistic film (filmed in the 80s but released in 2000) starring the legendary black artist Jean Michel Basquiat when he was 19. The movie has many subtle depictions of what it was like to be a black artist in 80s New York. Though it is a narrative film, it almost captures, in vivid detail, the explosive downtown New York art scene in the early 80s with all its multicultural splendor and broader societal tension, more than a documentary ever could. A must watch art film.

  • I Am Not Your Negro
    • 2016 Movie
    • 4.5/5

    An insightful documentary based on the unfinished manuscript of the iconic and enduring black novelist James Baldwin. The documentary uses Baldwin's unpublished manuscript on race in America to explore Baldwin's own life and activism, as well as his broader legacy. For those who recall the iconic debate at Cambridge University between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, this should be considered essential viewing as well.

  • Remember The Titans
    • 2000 Movie
    • 4.7/5

    A hallmark for introducing the construct of racism to schoolchildren of all ages (particularly student athletes), but don't write it off, this film does surprisingly well for non-academic viewing as well. Denzel Washington gives a riveting performance as a black coach of a newly integrated football team.

  • 12 Years A Slave
    • 2013 Movie
    • 4.1/5

    The title says it all, Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is as haunting and poignant as a historical epic about slavery would need to be.

  • In The Heat Of The Night
    • 1967 Movie
    • 4.1/5

    The great Sydney Poitier stars in this crime thriller about a black detective having to investigate a murder in a racist southern town. Whodunits are a ubiquitous genre, but introducing the lens of race in a southern setting makes this a truly unique film, particularly for the late 60s.

  • Malcolm X
    • 1992 Movie
    • 4.4/5

    An indelible part of the Spike Lee Canon, offering a biographical film about Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington starring as the controversial activist.

  • The Joy Luck Club
    • 1993 Movie
    • 4/5

    An iconic movie that deals more with the perspective of immigrants and first-generation Americans than race per-se, but it is touching mother-daughter tale that offers real perspective on what it means to be the "other" in America.

  • Dear White People
    • 2014 Movie
    • 4.1/5

    Dear White People (which was later reprised as a Netflix series) offers slightly comedic take on race in America - specifically the injustices dealt to people of color at university campuses. The movie is about escalating racial tensions at a fictitious Ivy-league university.

  • Gook
    • 2017 Movie
    • None/5

    A sleeper at the box office, but a hit on the indie movie circuit. Gook gives a unique perspective on race in America with a narrative about two Korean-American brothers who become friends with a young black girl in the midst of the infamous L.A. riots following the brutality towards Rodney King.

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