As Black Lives Matter protests continue to rock the world after the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, open dialogues about race on a national level are beginning to tackle the longstanding effects of systemic racism. On a personal level, many individuals have committed to learning about the deep-rooted prejudices black communities face around the globe in a resounding call to action to not only become a more knowledgable ally to the movement but also to recognize their privilege and dismantle unconscious biases.
While there is no shortage of resources to kickstart this self-education process—as is evident by the flood of recommendations circulating around social media—films that resonate with the current social climate and amplify black stories that are long-overdue to be heard are a transformative starting point for many. From expert-heavy documentaries on topical issues to inspiring true stories, these award-winning films about race will leave a lasting impression on your life-changing journey to reflect, grow, and change.
Available to stream for free on iTunes throughout the entire month of June, this drama based on the memoir of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson brings to light the systemic racism tragically prevalent in criminal justice systems in the United States. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, Just Mercy features Michael B. Jordan as the Harvard Law graduate who moves to Alabama to provide legal aid to death row prisoners who are unable to afford proper representation of their own. One of the first landmark cases he takes on is that of wrongly convicted Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who is sentenced to die for a murder of a young girl he didn’t commit, despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Far more than a courtroom drama, the multi-NAACP-award-winning film is a meaningful glimpse into a tireless battle for equal justice that continues today.
Although the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, it has a staggering 25% of the world’s prisoners—far more than any other country. The problematic cycle of mass incarceration in America is no secret, but the fact that one-third of these prisoners are black is often overlooked. Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay investigates the detrimental impact of the for-profit prison system on black communities and the correlation between race and justice in this modern-day extension of slavery through the heavily informative Netflix documentary 13th, which garnered a Best Documentary nomination at the 2017 Academy Awards and an Emmy win.
An accurate depiction of a crucial moment in American history, this rousing biopic on renowned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. revolves around the monumental 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama amidst a tumultuous time in the South. These peaceful protests and widely attended demonstrations eventually led to the legal prohibition of racially discriminatory voting practices in the US, a problem some argue still subtly persists today with new exclusionary tactics targeted towards people of color, such as poll taxes and voter ID laws.
Although the stories of three influential female African-American mathematicians at NASA during the 60s were relatively unknown until quite recently, Hidden Figures shines a well-deserved spotlight on their integral roles in successfully sending the first American astronaut into orbit and securing a spot in the Space Race. Forced to tread the arduous intersection of racial and gender discrimination at the workplace, these untold heroes paved a path for future generations of intellectuals destined for other turning point achievements. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star as the groundbreaking trio which racked up a multitude of Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and won a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast.
The Color Purple
After 35 years, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Alice Walker novel turned Steven Spielberg movie continues to leave its far-reaching impact on society today. Following the emotional coming-of-age story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a young African-American girl growing up in a rural Georgia town in the early 90s, The Color Purple details the vast injustices she and many other black women experience throughout their lives, from racism and sexism to poverty and domestic violence. Nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and winner of a Golden Globe, this timeless tale of empowerment and resilience in the face of widespread trauma and oppression is powerfully moving to say the least.
Behind the traditional shock-factor and jump scares common to horror films lies a deeper horror in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut: casual racism. When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visits his white girlfriend’s home in suburbia to meet her parents for the first time, he discovers a frightening secret about their neighborhood. Illustrating the demoralizing complexities of community marginalization and subliminal microaggression, this satirical thriller subverts the stereotypical horror experience to deliver a much-needed social commentary on the truly horrific prejudices surrounding contemporary race relations for mainstream movie audiences to understand in a new manner.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis lead this poignant drama adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an African-American man who couldn’t achieve his dream to be a Major League Baseball player in a post-World War II-era because of racial barriers and its ensuing destructive effects on not only his life but also the life of his family. Selected by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of 2016, Fences received four Oscar nominations, with Davis emerging victorious in the Best Supporting Actress category, as well as two Golden Globe nominations.
12 Years a Slave
A devastating look at the inhumane abuse millions of African-Americans suffered on southern plantations throughout the 1850s, this Best Picture winner at the 2014 Academy Awards, documents the life of a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 punishing years. This eye-opening feature based on a real-life memoir rightfully earned three history-making Oscar wins, a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and a BAFTA Award for Best Film for its harrowing portrayal of a brutal past that bleeds into the present.
If Beale Street Could Talk
The bestselling James Baldwin novel of the same name serves as the premise for this award-winning drama, which provides a heartwrenching visualization of a young love story threatened to be torn apart by the broken criminal justice system. Although the film is set in 1960s New York, the troubling similarities to modern-day racial inequality highlight the long road to reform that continues to lie ahead.
The Best of Enemies
A cinematic adaptation demonstrating the pivotal influence a few individuals have on enacting change on their community, The Best of Enemies delves into the challenging journey of reconciliation between an outspoken civil rights activist and a local Ku Klux Klan leader who reluctantly join forces to spearhead a historic meeting discussing school desegregation and white supremacy in their North Carolina town.
Teach Us All
Equal access to education is a topic often overlooked in dialogues about racial disparity. Yet, this critically acclaimed documentary strives to inform viewers how more than six decades after the watershed case Brown v. Board of Education legally desegregated American schools, segregation continues to exist in various other ways, from biased admission processes and disproportionately available teaching resources to low-funded predominantly black residential schooling districts.
I am Not Your Negro
American novelist James Baldwin’s infamous words on racial conflict in America have catalyzed a nation, all the way from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. Inspired by a personal account Baldwin planned to write remembering the lives and ideals of his friends Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evans, this Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson weaves together the unfinished manuscript with archival footage to explore modern-day racism through a revolutionary lens.
Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is another name on a long list of thousands of unarmed black men murdered at the hands of white police officers. This chilling portrait of a real-life incident at an L.A. train station that occurred more than a decade ago defines the current state of unchecked racially-driven police brutality and dramatizes an all-too-familiar injustice that continues to destroy lives far before their time, far too often.