After white police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes, and the video became public, renewed #BlackLivesMatter protests have emerged in every major American city, in small rural towns, and even internationally in dozens of countries. It’s the biggest protests since the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, and perhaps the biggest since 1968 in terms of its broad sweep.
With those protests have come discussions about police reform and accountability, Confederate monuments and statues, and myriad other reckonings with American’s systemic racism problem, both big and small. Because of that, there’s been something of a rapid cottage industry of white people buying books and watching film/TV to learn how to not be a racist (*stares at White Fragility*). Which, for my taste, is a bit off-the-mark. We don’t need to treat racism in America like a self-help problem. We just need better education about history, both long ago and recent.
For example, too many people only learned about Black Wall Street and the resulting 1921 Tulsa massacre because of an HBO television show (Watchmen). Most only receive a broad, sugarcoated version of history, too, which perhaps goes something like this: There was slavery, but it was only a small segment of the country, a Civil War was fought over it, there was some lingering issues until Martin Luther King rode in, saved the day with one great speech, was killed for it, and now everything is swell.
Well, I want to do my part and recommend five documentaries (you’ll see that I cheat because one of them isn’t technically a documentary) to help educate people that might not otherwise know about certain issues. These documentaries get beyond the sanitized, somewhat performative, and corporate self-help cottage industry around race, and instead, get at the brute reality of racism in the United States, with a particular bent toward modern issues that may surprise people to learn about. With that, let’s get to it.
1. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
If you want to understand racism in America, there’s no better voice to start with than that of James Baldwin. The documentary is based on an unfinished manuscript of his that investigated racism in America through the eyes of Baldwin, as he saw it, particularly among the civil rights leaders of his time. It’s one of the most affecting documentaries I’ve seen because Baldwin is an affecting type of personality and voice.
2. Let the Fire Burn (2013)
Here’s a documentary about an incident many Americans have probably never heard of, even though it occurred in 1985 (so in living memory of many people) and was the bombing — yes, bombing — of a major American city by the police. Waco (1993) and Ruby Ridge (1992) loom large in the imagination of Americans, but that’s probably because it happened to white people, if we’re being honest. This happened to the black liberation group known as MOVE. Given the backdrop of what’s going on today in terms of reevaluating the police, this is an imperative film.
3. PBS’ The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
Get past what you may think about the Black Panthers. This PBS documentary is a fascinating look at the organization and a time period in American history that, at best, is a footnote in most history classrooms. Plus, there’s a lot of great archival footage used here, which makes for some of the best documentary works.
4. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
So, this might seem like an odd pick among this list, but aside from on its own merits being one of the best documentary series I’ve ever seen, it also provides an interesting window into the duality of race in America. That is, both O.J.’s emphatic attempt to be race neutral as an athlete and entertainer for white America, and the bubbling race issues that bubbled to the surface with the LA riots in 1992 and capped off (and then the duality flipped) with O.J.’s murder trial.
5. James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965)
Okay, here’s where I cheat. This isn’t a documentary, but it’s an illuminating exchange of ideas about America that’s still as fresh and potent today as it was then. Baldwin, who again, is an instrumental voice on race issues in America, debates Buckley, the founder of conservative magazine National Review. The question upon which they debate is, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Even writing about it makes me want to revisit it. It’s extraordinary viewing.
– Hoop Dreams (1994): One of the greatest documentaries of all time.
– LA 92 (2017): This is one of a few documentaries that have covered the LA riots.
– 13th (2016): An interesting, if somewhat flawed in places, look at the prison system in America and how it’s disproportionately harmful for blacks.
– The Central Park Five (2012): This is another great PBS documentary. I have not seen the newer documentary about the same subject (When They See Us) yet, but this from Ken Burns is a terrific primer on a terrible subject.
– Fruitvale Station (2013): Here’s another one I’m going to cheat on since it’s a movie and not a documentary. It’s directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan about the police killing of Oscar Grant in LA, a true story. It’s gut-wrenching, to say the least.
If you watch any of these, let me know what you think! And please, include your own favorites that I didn’t mention in the comments, so I can check them out, if I haven’t already.