Seven films to watch and discuss when the news isn’t enuf

BSR’s #GetWoke racial justice/​law enforcement film starter pack

5 minute read
Samuel L. Jackson as <em>'Do the Right Thing'</em> DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy. (Photo by Elias Schewel via Creative Commons/Flickr)
Samuel L. Jackson as <em>'Do the Right Thing'</em> DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy. (Photo by Elias Schewel via Creative Commons/Flickr)

As social and political issues take center stage in the United States, media like film and music have been developing as outlets for public opinion, proving that there’s more to the entertainment industry than popcorn and soda. In fact, film itself is becoming increasingly popular as an educational tool within schools and other institutions.

The racial tension between the police force and the African-American community has been going on for quite some time. Film, too, has long been speaking up about the issues of racial tension, social injustice, and law enforcement corruption. The best part about this type of media is that there is no one collective voice; film serves as a creative way for many individuals to voice their various opinions.

With all the turmoil the country’s been facing over the past week, perhaps it's time to turn to online streaming and educate yourself. Don’t know where to start? Here are my top seven films that speak up about the racial tension between African-Americans and law enforcement.

The dilemma

Films based on real-life events can educate us on social injustice in ways that present new information while allowing us room to develop our own opinions.

The Hurricane (1999)

Norman Jewison’s Oscar-nominated The Hurricane tells the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (portrayed by Denzel Washington), the African-American boxer who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1967. Based on the title character’s autobiographical novel The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, the film chronicles Carter’s 20-year fight to prove his innocence as he served a life sentence.

The film’s retelling of a real-life account of social injustice within the system brings to mind many others with similar cases, including Joyce Ann Brown, Rodney King, and David McCallum (whose exoneration was granted in 2014 with the help of Rubin Carter).

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

N.W.A., the six-man hip-hop group who rose to fame in the 1980s for their rebellious, uncensored lyrics, popularized the musical subgenre of gangster rap. 2015’s Straight Outta Compton (directed by F. Gary Gray) retells the musical group’s experiences almost like a documentary, guiding audiences through the narrative in a way that feels as though we are living the events with the characters, without the “telling” aspect that documentaries often have. We witness the members struggle not only in their personal relationships, but also with the justice system and law enforcement officers, events that heavily inspired much of the music that makes up their discography, including their most famous/infamous song, “Fuck Tha Police.”

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Oakland, CA resident, was shot and killed by BART officer Johannes Mehserle on the platform at the Fruitvale BART Station in 2009. This film, directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed) and starring the rising Michael B. Jordan, chronicles Grant’s final hours.

Despite cell phone footage depicting Grant restrained and handcuffed by two officers, Mehserle reportedly shot Grant in the back; Grant was pronounced dead the next morning. The film has gained widespread acclaim for its honest and unbiased retelling of events.

Police corruption

Corruption within the law enforcement system has been a major factor in the recent police shootings. There are two sides to every system. Instead of lionizing all law enforcement officers, these fictional films bare all by depicting the good cops and bad cops.

The Departed (2006)

Celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Shutter Island) has been criticized for lack of diversity in his films. His 2006 feature The Departed employed only one minor black character (portrayed by Anthony Anderson), but its depiction of police corruption, specifically within the Boston Police Department, holds much truth, even for a fictional narrative film. The opening scene alone (narrated by Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello) is a profound monologue that uses stock footage to express the racial tension between the Boston community and the police department and expose the fine line between cop and criminal.

Training Day (2001)

Denzel Washington stars in Training Day (directed by Antoine Fuqua), which follows African-American detective Alonzo Harris as he trains officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) for undercover duty. The narrative depicts Harris as the kind of crooked cop who does what he must to get what he wants.

Many believe the bigger issue with the police department’s recent behavior can be attributed to the techniques used to train incoming officers. Training Day offers an unbiased fictional exploration of the methods the police department uses to frighten its employees into using excessive force, as well as the consequences that can occur when power is placed in the wrong hands.

The people’s voice

Some stories are meant to express an opinion. These films do a great job of delivering strong voices while maintaining a fair perspective on social injustice by examining both sides of the coin. Each follows a main character who begins with one outlook, but by the end of the story, is transformed.

Dear White People (2014)

Justin Simien’s Dear White People uses humor and wit to employ the voice of the millennial generation in a very modern and relatable manner. While the narrative seems to jump off with a very critical and opinionated voice, you’ll see the main characters develop into more open-minded individuals, and as such, possibly be inspired to alter your own perspective.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s famous directorial debut is something like a “Dear people” to society. The film follows a young African-American man through his daily dealings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Characters range from stereotypes to genuine portrayals of members of the African-American and Caucasian communities, each developing perspectives as they witness and encounter social injustice in a racially integrated neighborhood.

Note: This list is compiled of narrative titles only. To see a Huffington Post list of recent documentary films that specifically address the issue of police brutality, click here.

Feel free to add your own picks in the comments below.

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