A short film season about racial killing
How to respond to the killing of George Floyd? I played black protest music on my radio show this week and while I realise this can be seen as but a token gesture, there’s such power in the those lyrics and beats that it can surely only help spread the message.
So I thought about some films to watch that can crystallise the issues, focus the debate, open eyes and provoke discussion and revision. Just as with the music, some of these are among my favourite films anyway, because of the power they’ve had to change my world view.
Do The Right Thing/Bamboozled/Four Little Girls
Spike Lee’s 1989 film changed the world – literally, because Barack Obama and Michelle saw it on their first date (an occasion dramatised in the charming Southside with You, produced by my friend Tracey Bing) – although if you watch it now, not much has actually changed. It’s an essential film, one of the greatest, telling of a hot summer that builds to a riot and the police strangling Radio Raheem to death, images that chillingly predict George Floyd, as the short film on Spike’s Twitter account showed. Still, if you want his most trenchant, angry take on racial politics, Bamboozled is the one, an amazing film about putting a minstrel show back on TV. I’ve always loved the film, but it was too much for many people at the time, but you can’t know Spike Lee without it. And then there’s his exemplary documentary 4 Little Girls, about the KKK-sanctioned Alabama church bombings of 1963.
Selma/ 13th/When They See Us
Director Ava DuVernay is fast assembling a vital body of work. Her feature film Selma showcases a powerhouse performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and recreates the politics and atmosphere of the 1965 march for voting rights. Its song, Glory, won an Oscar. The 13th is a frankly shocking documentary, showing the link between slavery and the current prison system and the disproportionate sentencing of black Americans. It’s a must-see, as is her Netflix drama When They See Us, four parts reconstructing the injustices of the Central Park Five, wrongly accused of the rape of a jogger in Central Park.
The House I Live In
For white viewers, this could be the most view-altering film of all, following the journey of doc maker Eugene Jarecki who, troubled by the arrest of his long-time housekeeper’s son, investigates the true cost of America’s War on Drugs, widening it out to a view on the systemic prejudices in society. I can’t recommend it highly enough in order to deal with social injustice from the white privilege position.
The Battle of Algiers
A handbook for guerrilla warfare, Gilles Pontecorvo’s 1966 film is cited as an influence by generations of film makers, from Ken Loach to Paul Greengrass, as well as the Black Panthers. It’s exciting, troubling, provocative and yet looks like a dispassionate documentary. Again, you can’t talk about protest movies without seeing it.
Detroit (featured image)
Kathryn Bigelow is an Oscar-winning film maker yet her work is still dismissed way too easily. This is a brilliant drama, and I don’t know why it wasn’t shown more love (female film maker addresses racial inequality and police brutality…?) Set around the true stories that eventually came out around the riots of 1967 provoked by a police raid on a nightclub and the big audition for a soul group called The Dramatics, it has a great young cast doing fine work (John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith) and some terrific scenes re-creating tension, bigotry and fear.
I Am Not Your Negro/ What Happened, Miss Simone?
Raoul Peck’s documentary about the writer and activist James Baldwin contains some of the most powerful rhetoric about the black condition ever aired in the white mainstream. Nina Simone does it, too, in song and music, her struggle and politics beautifully captured in Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary. Baldwin and Simone were friends and both these films are as vital as they are entertaining and enlightening, so this makes a powerful double bill about crucial figures in the movement, whose impact and importance can’t be understated, yet for too long has been.
The Hate U Give
I used this film to start talking to my children about what’s going on. Amandla Stenberg is brilliant as Star, a teenage black girl sent to a white-dominated private school but pulled back into her secret ‘ghetto’ life when she witnesses a childhood friend shot dead by a cop. Based on a YA novel, the film nimbly steps through the minefield of political issues, from justice riots, to drug dealing, systemic inequality, white privilege to snitching, aspiration and young love. You’re with Star every stumbling step of the way, urging her to find her voice and her skin. Emotional stuff, with a powerful message yet always entertaining.
The Black Power Mixtape
Swedish director Goran Olson made a great little film about Philly singer Billy Paul called Am I Black Enough For You? showing how the artist’s career was ruined by the wrong choice of radically political song immediately after his smash hit Me and Mrs Jones. Olson’s next piece was an assembled doc from hours of unseen Swedish TV news footage from 1967 to 1975, following the rise of the Black Panthers and all the American government did to quash it. The access is remarkable and gives a platform to legendary figures from the era, including Angela Davies, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P Newton, Louis P Farrahkhan – a cast that sounds like some Gil Scot Heron lyrics. Meanwhile, a stellar cast reflects on the politics of the time and how the legacy lives on, with Questlove, Eyrkah Badu, Talib Kweli and many others, including actor Danny Glover, who co-produced the project.
Monsters and Men
An under-rated one this, from recent times, but chillingly necessary today – someone grabs footage on his phone of police choking a black man on a street corner. The cops want the phone back, and will search everyone to get it. We see how the fallout affects three men – a cop in the force (John David Washington, from BlacKKKlansman), a guy called Manny trying to go straight (Anthony Ramos) and Kelvin Harrison Jnr who just wants to make it as a baseball star, but who is threatened by the police when they search his back pack. The film darts between anger, violent, threat, thrills and some humour, very deft, very now.