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Films To Watch To Help Educate Yourself About Racism

Magnolia Pictures
A crowd gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in the film "I Am Not Your Negro." That film is one recommendation for movies to watch to help educate yourself about racism.

If you turn on Netflix, the top 10 films during the international Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd include movies like The Help, Greenbook, or Crash. But these films aren't necessarily the ones to watch to learn more about race issues and racism.

While films are a powerful medium and a widely accessible tool, it’s important to watch films that give accurate representations of events and are made by voices of color — whether fiction or documentaries.

Black filmmaker Yoruba Richen and 371 Productions' Brad Lichtenstein suggest watching the following movies to help educate yourself on racism:

13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)

13th is a documentary that examines the history of the criminal justice system and the criminalization of African Americans that contributes to the U.S. prison boom. 

"If you look at a film like 13th, that had an impact that was incredible for people who weren't necessarily documentary watchers," says Richen. "All these things comes out in conjunction with each other and I think brings us to this moment, and I think film is part of that."

The Green Book: Guide To Freedom (Yoruba Richen, 2019)

The documentary examines the Green Book, an African American travel guide started by Victor Green in 1936 and published through 1968. The guide was created to help African Americans navigate not just Jim Crow America, but the world. According to Richen, the film chronicles some of the businesses in the Green Book and the movements that were happening at the time that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

"It was a way to help us know businesses that accept us, that were not segregated, places we could go as we traveled ... The Green Book also mirrored the time of the Great Migration and also was a compendium of black businesses that were also pillars in their community," says Richen.

READ: New Documentary Explores The Genesis Of 'The Green Book'

Ghosts of Attica (Brad Lichtenstein, 2001)

The documentary examines the Attica Prison uprising of 1971 and prominently features the lead attorney for a group known as The Attica Brothers — prisoners during the five-day standoff between prisoners and the state. Then Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller's brutal re-taking of the prison with the state troopers by tear gas and shotguns resulted in the death of 29 inmates and 10 guards. 

"There was an investigation and then there was a cover-up, and then there was an investigation of the investigation, and another cover-up — and eventually the truth came out," says Lichtenstein. The film was made during the 30th anniversary of the uprising as the Attica Brothers finally made it to court to argue for compensation for the damages.

"[The film] ... is kind of a relic. If I was making that film today, I would have a much different view around who gets to tell who's story and I would have partnered at least with a black filmmaker who felt comfortable working with me to tell that story," admits Lichtenstein.

Listen to the full conversation between Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski, documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen and Brad Lichtenstein of 371 Productions. They cover film's place in educating society, industrial barriers, and more film recommendations.

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

"[The film] is a meditation upon race in this country," says Richen. "It uses the words of the great James Baldwin to investigate what it means to be black in America."

From racial violence to Hollywood representation to issues around masculinity, "it's just a beautiful essay film ... exploring all of these issues that are timeless issues for African Americans," says Richen.

I Am Not Your Negro is airing Wednesday on PBS along with Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. "It's a comprehensive documentary about the Black Panthers, which is really important to know that history as well," notes Richen.

Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, 2017)

"It's really valuable as an on the ground document of what's happening in Ferguson, [Missouri] after the killing of Michael Brown," says Richen. "What's so powerful about it is the film uses the documentation that activists were doing from their phones and news reports at the time." 

"A lot of the things that we're seeing nationally [now], were happening in Ferguson — militarization of police, curfews, 'vandalism' or 'looting.' But it was all happening in this concentrated area and it really documents the impact of these protests on these activist's lives," adds Richen.

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019)

Based on Bryan Stevenson's memoir, the film chronicles criminal justice reform in Alabama with actor Michael B. Jordan playing lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

"It looks at mostly this one case that Stevenson ends up getting an innocent man off of death row, and the book looks at kind of all these cases that he's working on," says Richen. "It's a very powerful look at the criminal justice system."

Warner Bros. just announced that Just Mercy is available to stream for free through June on platforms including YouTube, Google Play and Amazon.

Always In Season (Jacqueline Olive, 2019)

"The thing about that film that's so beautiful ... is that [Olive] blends an essay film about lynching in America with an investigative sort of real-time story of a racially motivated murder in North Carolina that the police were not trying to solve even," says Lichtenstein.

Always In Season also features a group of actors reenacting a lynching and the power that comes out of the power of both white and black actors when they try to embody these roles, which is essentially reenacting trauma says Lichtenstein. 

"That's kind of the overarching theme of the film is trauma and its lasting impact that becomes part of the fabric of being in America if your skin is black and you are threatened by lynching at any time," he says. "[Olive] sort of makes the case, too ... that violence directed at black bodies has been part of American life for as long as America has existed."

Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017)

"When I saw that film I just felt flattened," says Lichtenstein. 

Strong Island is a meditation from director Yance Ford's point of view. He investigates his family's survival, and lack of, in the wake of the murder of his brother by a racist man over a petty dispute at a gas station.

"The impact it had, it ultimately cost his parent's lives, it frayed the family, it tore apart everything that felt secure in [Ford's] life," says Lichtenstein. "It's a hard film I think to watch in some cases because it's relentless. But I think that's its power because the impact that murder had on their family is relentless, and it should be felt that way."

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.