With Black Lives Matter protests happening all over America in reaction to the frequent, unaccountable murders of Black people by the police, there has been a concurrent push to celebrate Black lives through art and appreciate the contributions that Black people make to American culture. One such cultural arena is film, where Black directors have made incredible features and documentaries.
There's a study that shows reading fiction builds empathy. I don't know if watching movies works in exactly the same way, but I think it's fair to assume that it doesn't make you less empathetic. Here are some great films by Black filmmakers that are streaming now on Netflix. The majority of these films are part of Netflix's new Black Lives Matter collection, which highlights movies, TV shows, and documentaries about Black American experiences.
But cultural consumption is not activism. When we're not watching movies to unwind, there's work to be done. Black Lives Matter has shared these resources for people who want to donate, sign petitions, and protest safely. Text DEMANDS to 55156 to sign Color of Change's petition to reform policing.
A few years removed from this drama's Best Picture win, it's easier to appreciate Barry Jenkins' gorgeous film on its own terms as a personal and intimate story about Black masculinity, sexuality, and vulnerability. It tells in three parts, from childhood to young adulthood, the story of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), aka Little (Alex Hibbert), aka Black (Trevante Rhodes). Chiron lives in an impoverished neighborhood of Miami where toughness is currency, and he is mistreated by people who sense that he is gay, and by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). But he is really seen by Juan (Mahershala Ali, who won a much-deserved Oscar for his extraordinary supporting performance), a drug dealer who nurtures him as a boy, and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome as a teenager, Andre Holland as an adult), a classmate with whom he shares an unspoken bond. Moonlight has one of the best screenplays, some of the best acting, and some the most beautiful cinematography of any film of the past decade, and it depicts Black life in a way that had never been shown quite like this before. And while its description may make it sound like a difficult, painful movie to watch, it has so much kindness and compassion and romance that you will come away from it feeling uplifted.
Spike Lee, America's most acclaimed Black director, has made some of the best and most important movies of the past 35 years, including Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour, and the documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. One of his greatest movies, and certainly his most epic, is Malcolm X, his 1992 biopic of the civil rights leader. It stars Denzel Washington in a magnetic performance, following X's life from his time as a petty criminal to his incarceration, where he converted to Islam, and his ministry and activism after he got out of prison, to his fallout with the Nation of Islam and his assassination. The film's three-hour running time and epic scope give one of the most important American leaders of the 20th century the weight he deserves, and it serves as a great introduction to the concepts of Black liberation he preached. Netflix also has a documentary series investigating the questionable circumstances of his assassination called Who Killed Malcolm X?
This period drama from Dee Rees tells the story of two World War II veterans, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who's white, and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who return home to Mississippi and find that they have changed, but their community has not. It's about poor white and Black people coming to understand that they're more alike than different, but in a class-conscious rather than purely emotional way, which makes it more meaningful. It has beautiful acting and cinematography, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar in that category. Also, Mary J. Blige made Oscar history as the first person ever to be nominated for acting and original song Oscars in the same year, for her performance as Ronsel's mother Florence and the song "Mighty River."
Ava DuVernay's two Netflix projects, the documentary 13th and the narrative limited series When They See Us, blend skillful filmmaking with powerful activism. 13th is about mass incarceration in the United States, and breaks down historically, from Reconstruction to the present, how the racist systems of policing, criminal justice, and prison perpetuate slavery. The title comes from the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery but kept a loophole for involuntary servitude as punishment for the conviction of a crime. This loophole has led to the mass incarceration of Black people by a system that wants to keep them enslaved, deprive them of their voting rights, and profit off their uncompensated labor through the prison-industrial complex. It's an infuriating, convincing documentary that methodically shows how Republicans and Democrats both have failed and exploited America's most vulnerable people. If you don't have Netflix, 13th is available to watch in full for free on YouTube.
Beyoncé's concert film she co-directed with Ed Burke captures one of the 21st century's greatest entertainers at the peak of her power, documenting her otherworldly performance at the 2018 Coachella music festival. Beyoncé used her platform at the festival and at Netflix to celebrate Black culture, specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), using iconography and performers from Black institutions of higher education, intercut with quotes from Black leaders and intellectuals. Homecoming is an unapologetic, unequivocal statement from one of the world's biggest pop stars that she is a Black woman first and foremost. It's a joyous, dynamic movie that will have you marveling at Beyoncé's stamina. How could she dance and sing like that for an hour and 45 minutes nonstop?
The last bout of civil unrest anything like what we're experiencing now was in 1992, when riots rocked Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the savage beating of Rodney King, a Black man. This documentary from John Ridley (writer of 12 Years a Slave) takes a sprawling look at the conditions in the city in the decade leading up to the riots, putting what happened in the full historical context of economic inequality, the rise of street gangs and the crack epidemic, and the brutal heavy-handedness of the LAPD. It features interviews people who were there for the riots, from cops to the cops' victims to rioters, and creates a comprehensive tapestry of one of the definitive political events of the '90s. If you're interested in another complementary angle on the L.A. riots after watching this, Netflix also has another documentary called LA 92 that entirely consists of archival footage.
Yance Ford directs this intensely personal documentary about the 1992 murder of his brother William, an all-white grand jury's choice not to indict the white man who killed him, and the effect of the murder on his family. Ford turns the camera on himself and shows the human cost of this act of violence and subsequent failure of justice through interviews with his family and William's friends and devastating scenes of himself talking on the phone with the detective who investigated the case and the Suffolk County, Long Island prosector who declined to indict. While it might technically qualify as a true crime documentary, it's a meditative memoir rather than a polemic or an attempt to get justice, because what happened to William is done. Strong Island eschews expert talking heads for a more intimate and directly emotional approach. It just tells you about William Ford, a young man whose life was snuffed out. When Strong Island was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2018, Yance Ford became the first openly transgender man ever nominated for an Oscar.
Let's end this list on a lighter note. This heartfelt dramedy was written and directed by Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, and tells the story of Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), who's trying to find a way to balance his dream of becoming a master sommelier with his father Louis' (Courtney B. Vance) expectation for him to take over the family's Memphis barbecue restaurant. It's a story about wanting something different from life while staying true to where you came from. It's an uplifting movie that will have you ordering a plate of ribs and a bottle of Château Haut-Brion.