Documentaries on racism are some of the best tools we have to educate ourselves on the tragic acts of hate that plague this country. This list should not be considered all-inclusive. There are many other movies and documentaries available that will help enlighten and educate anyone who wants to know more. All of these movies are available with subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.
Documentaries On Racism
First on our list of documentaries on racism is The 13th. In 2016, Award-winning director, Ava DuVernay, gave an interview with the Washington Post about this documentary. Through it, Ms. Duvernay explores the connection between prison and slavery, suggesting that prison sentences are a modern-day extension of slavery. The title, The 13th, refers to a clause in the 13th amendment that states prisoners can be used as slave labor to help rebuild the South. As a result, a disproportionate number of African Americans (compared to white Americans) suddenly found themselves under arrest and, once again, slaves.
2I Am Not Your Negro
Based on an unfinished James Baldwin novel, this documentary is a personal examination of the assasinations of three civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evars, and Malcolm X. Baldwin began toying with the premise of this book in 1979 but died before he could finish it.
3The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross
Available to watch on PBS, this series chronicles the history of African Americans in the U.S. beginning with the origins of slavery.
On March 3rd, 1991, Rodney King was arrested after a high-speed chase. During the arrest, four police officers brutally assaulted him. The attack was caught on video. While all four police officers were indicted on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, none of them were found guilty for their crimes. This jaw-dropping documentary shows never before seen footage of the violence that erupted after the four police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted.
5What Happened, Miss Simone
Per her website, Nina Simone was born Eunice Wayman in 1933. Her musical talents were observed at a young age and she received classical piano training from Muriel Mazzanovich. Nina longed to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was denied admission. Until her death, she believed her rejection from the institute was due to racism. What Happened, Miss Simone? reveals the life of singer and activist, Nina Simone, using unseen footage and voice recordings.
6The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson
In 2019, CNN published an article about Marsha P. Johnson – a black, transgender woman who was also an activist within the LGBT community. She also advocated for individuals suffering from HIV as well as prisoners and sex workers. In 1992, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. Her death was listed as suicide and there are many who feel the NYPD didn’t do a thorough investigation. Transwoman, Victoria Cruz, an activist for the transgender community, explores the death of her friend, Marsha Johnson, in this 2017 documentary.
7Let It Fall
Also on our list of documentaries on racism, is Let It Fall. Leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this documentary explores the growing tension between the Los Angeles Police Department and the African American community.
Strong Island is an Oscar-nominated documentary by Yance Ford. Mr. Ford is the first openly transgendered director in Hollywood. This documentary chronicles the death of his brother, William Ford. Yance Ford gave an interview with the NPR in 2018, discussing the life and death of his brother. William was a teacher who was working toward becoming a police officer at the time of his death. No arrest in his murder was made.
9The Innocence Files
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 and is dedicated to freeing men and women who were wrongfully convicted using DNA evidence. The Innocence Files chronicles their efforts, revealing investigative mistakes and outright lies.
10The House On Coco Road
Director Damani Baker tells the powerful story of his mother, Fannie Haughton, in this 2016 documentary. The LA Times reported that Damani used home movies and video footage he took during the 1990s for this documentary. Fannie Haughton fled her California home with her children because the neighborhood was overwhelmed by drug dealers. They all lived peacefully in Grenada until U.S. Forces overtook the island in an effort, Damani believed, was aimed at removing the Black leaders who were currently in power.
11Time: The Kalief Browder Story
In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested on allegations involving the theft of a backpack. He spent three years at Rikers even though he was never convicted of a crime. The New York Times was one of many news outlets to report his suicide in 2015. Family members believed the suicide was, in part, connected to the violence he was subjected to while at Rikers. This documentary, starring Jay Z, tells his tragic story.
12Crime + Punishment
An NYPD Sergeant told the New Yorker that officers were forced to uphold a monthly quota on the number of citations issued. Crime + Punishment tells the true story of 12 police officers who filed a class-action lawsuit against the NYPD for illegal quota practices. NYPD police officers were pressured to arrest or cite individuals and many of the individuals cited lived in vulnerable, high-risk neighborhoods.
13The Black Power Mixtape
Inspired by the civil unrest in the United States, a group of Swedish journalists came to the U.S. and spoke to members of the Black Power movement. This documentary uses the footage those journalists took between 1967-1975.
14Do The Right Thing
Do The Right Thing is the only fictional feature on our list of documentaries on racism. Complete with an all-star cast including Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Rosie Perez, and many other talented actors this movie was released in 1989. It’s focus centers on the day-in-the-life of a group of individuals living in Brooklyn amidst a heat weave and racial tensions that are reaching their breaking point.
Last on our list of documentaries on racism is Selma. Selma documents Martin Luther King Jr’s 3-month fight to secure equal voting rights. His march from Selma to Montgomery led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While not all-inclusive, these documentaries on racism are an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to see first-hand footage of the movements and the individuals that drew attention to racism in America.
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Sources: Vogue | BuzzFeed | PopSugar | New York Post | Washington Post | I Am Not Your Negro | The African Americans | LA 92 | Biography | What Happened, Miss Simone? | NinaSimone.com | Marsha P. Johnson | CNN | Let It Fall | NPR | The Innocence Project | The Innocence Files | LA Times | The New York Times | New Yorker | Crime + Punishment | Black Power Mixtape | Do The Right Thing | Selma