This is a volatile time in America. As the country continues to reel from the death of George Floyd, protests and a heightened level of activism remain, with many speaking out against systemic racism, police brutality, and other long-standing forms of oppression.
Thankfully, for those looking to learn and better contextualize the events at hand, there are a plethora of outstanding films that shed light on the Black experience and our nation’s continuous struggles with racial injustice. Recently, Netflix has even launched a Black Lives Matter category, buttressed by a message of awareness on the company’s Twitter profile. These are films from a number of visionary writers and directors, from eras both past and present, that shine a powerful light on stories of systematic racism.
Here are 12 of these titles you can watch right now. We’ll be sure to update this list as Netflix adds and removes respective films from the curation.
“If you’re in the prison business, you don’t want reform. You may say you do. But you don’t.” Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening, at times harrowing, 13th is a pivotal documentary that explores the centuries-old criminalization of disenfranchised African American communities, but by way of tracing the steps of American racism to its very roots. Over the course of the film, DuVernay and many activists, lawmakers, and academics unfold decade after decade of politically motivated legislation, and the lobbyists often behind these laws, that have led not only to the privatization of the American prison system but also to the staggeringly disproportionate incarceration of millions of African American men and women.
The film can be difficult to watch, but DuVernay’s grim realizations are made to be blatant. What is also apparent is that there is still hope for fundamental change, a message echoed by the film’s ensemble of progressively minded confiders, figures both left- and right-leaning.
American Son (2019)
Kerry Washington is electric in Kenny Leon’s racially charged drama about a mother, father, and the police officers that serve as the gatekeepers to their son’s safety (or lack thereof). The film is minimalist in terms of set pieces, but the true gravitas of this 90-minute, escalating panic is in the claustrophobia of the police station, a bunker clinging to its segregated past by way of demarcated water fountains and a quiet regional disparity covered with a law book and a grin. The true joy of the film is in watching Washington claw her way through the narrative, channeling a polarity of emotions that are all backed by the all-too-relatable fear of a mother worried because her child didn’t come home. Sparse editing and an emotional score are the backbones of these three acts, each of which plays out like a theater piece, sans the intermission.
Get on the Bus (1996)
Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus is not only an exemplary road film, but also an essential piece of African American cinema, running at the peak of its powers. The story follows the journey of 15 men, each of them black, as they make their way across the country to the Million Man March. The initially fraternal nature of their trek begins to fold as the various men get to know each other. Certain personalities clash, and what we’re left with is a jousting of manhood, classes, sexes, believers, husbands, sons, and lovers. Writer Reggie Rock Bythewood’s dialogue is as razor-sharp as the ensemble cast is excellent, namely the group’s eldest, Jeremiah (Ossie Davis). Through laughter, heart, and goodwill, the “old man” is the quiet sage for his companions and a mentor to those who care to lend an ear.
Imperial Dreams (2014)
In co-writer/director Malik Vitthal’s Imperial Dreams, John Boyega plays Bambi, a gangster looking to put his violent past behind him. But as Bambi makes steps to leave Imperial Courts, the projects rope him right back in, against his will. Vitthal actually shoots the film at the real Imperial Courts housing projects in Watts, Los Angeles, creating a true-to-life arena for all of the film’s powerhouse performers. Every role in the ensemble is richly lived in by the respective actor, creating an honest and nuanced depiction of everyday life in the community. Visually, cinematographer Monika Lenczewska’s camera keeps everything in widescreen, with a majority of our focus on Bambi as he hovers in and out of scenes. At its heart, Imperial Dreams is a film about the redemption of a man, a sprawling odyssey that keeps two feet in reality throughout the entire film. The film has plenty to say about disparity, and it says it all quite naturally. In Dreams, the story feels just as real as the projects it’s set and shot in.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Black-cinema savant and activist Spike Lee’s version of a rom-com is a whole lot more provocative than the standard Hollywood romantic drivel. Famously shot in 15 days on a budget of $175,000, She’s Gotta Have It became Lee’s coming out party, introducing him to the world as a fearless filmmaker with a unique voice and a profoundly different perspective. The film follows Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) on a familiar quest of trying to figure out what kind of man she wants to date. Indecisive, she decides to date three at once: Greer Childs, the rich, handsome narcissist; Jamie Overstreet, the stable, overprotective alpha male; and Mars Blackmon, the timid geek with a heart of gold. While she can’t make up her mind, it is very clear that Nola has gotta have it all.
You might think Barack Obama is still too recently out of office to have his own biopic, but the circumstances surrounding the nation’s first Black president’s rise to power are worthy of this 2016 film. The story follows a young Barack Obama as he arrives in New York City in the fall of 1981 for his junior year at Columbia University. Echoing many of the themes expressed in his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Obama struggles to stay connected to his mother and his estranged father and build new connections with his classmates. Simultaneously, he battles an identity crisis and becomes critical of the injustices he sees in his day-to-day life, ultimately motivating him toward a career in organizing and, eventually, politics.
LA 92 (2017)
This is as close and personal as many of us will ever get to the large-scale unrest and utter chaos of the 1992 LA riots. By means of vignetting archival footage, directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin craft a challenging and raw mosaic of this crucial moment in Civil Rights history. For those seeking knowledge and understanding, this could be one of the best places to start. As far as documentaries go, LA 92‘s pastiche approach may not be as conversation-laden as something like Ava DuVernay’s approach to 13th, but even that statement is not entirely true. LA 92 speaks its own language with fiery, vivid imagery that recalls memories and an open wound. This is education at its most unforgiving, but also its most honest, relevant, and meticulously recalled. It’s a rather graphic entry to our list, but a firm recommendation nonetheless.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee’s first movie under his new Netflix deal is a modern masterpiece. Simultaneously about the stasis of the movement for Black justice and the enduring villainy of the Vietnam War, Da 5 Bloods bounces between eras to illuminate how little has changed in 40 years. The film follows four Black vets as they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and a buried treasure they vowed to one day return for. What they discover is their own “Heart of Darkness” as they battle the forces of man and nature, confronting the lasting legacy of the war and its impact on Vietnam and one another.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ richly layered opus is a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale that delicately yet defiantly balances issues of racial and sexual discrimination. Based on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins’ adaptation traces the tribulations of African American youth, Chiron, from adolescence to early manhood. Part of the genius in Jenkins’ and McCraney’s vision is their choice to separate Chiron’s ascension and awakening through three distinct acts, each benchmarked by a different actor portraying the character (Alex Hibbert for Chiron’s adolescence, Ashton Sanders for his teenage years, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron).
Each performance builds upon the last, adding new levels of nuance and maturity to Chiron’s experience and the narrative at large. With a cast rounded out by towering performances from Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe, Moonlight‘s countless laurels speak for themselves. But what’s most paramount is the grand sense of timelessness Jenkins imbues the film with. It feels like Chiron’s journey has been in the canon of great African American cinema for decades. And, in a way, it has.
The expertly lensed Mudbound — written and directed by Dee Rees and photographed by Rachel Morrison — explores the personal, economic, and racial tensions of two rural families living by way of the land in World War II-era Mississippi. A respective son from each family goes off to war. These are Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), two boys who leave a world of racism and other struggles behind.
The battle ends. They return home, Jamie with newfound trauma, and Ronsel to a country that looks down at him for the color of his skin, regardless of his valor. What’s to truly savor in Rees’ masterful period drama is Morrison’s language of framing. Rees and Morrison were after a kind of camera work that reflected the feeling of the American Dream, and so we get beauty in shades. But under the flora is loud and vibrant cinematography that enhances our connection with both families, one white and one black. Mudbound is illuminating in more ways than one, an epic racial drama led by a master class of actors that all own their roles.
Strong Island (2017)
Director Yance Ford’s investigation into the 1992 murder of her brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., is an examination of judicial prejudice like no other, and an incredible film experiment. Courageously, Ford toes the line between essay film, personal memoir, and true crime exposé, seamlessly blending each type of documentary form in an effort to best capture her 22-year story of pain and loss. Ford spends time with the friends, family, and willing judicial entities that were involved in her brother’s life and in the courtroom for his killer’s trial, 19-year-old Mark P. Reilly. These many emotional recollections weave a rich tapestry of William Ford Jr.’s life, ambitions, fears, and frustrations. Underneath the records, talking heads, and scrapbook photos is a story about a family that lost their son, and his little sister’s lifelong quest for familial and personal closure.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
What Happened, Miss Simone? explores the life of prolific singer-songwriter and pianist, Nina Simone, through recollections composed of archived interviews, photographs, commentaries, musical performances, and journal entries. Plagued by racism from an early age, Simone’s rise to stardom served as a platform for the activism that would define much of her career.
Liz Garbus’ film is an introspective journey into the always racing mind of an artistic genius, and a black woman who desperately wanted for black voices to be heard and understood the world over. Conversations with friends, family, and those that worked with Simone professionally round out the documentary, each contributor adding a new layer of Nina, a complicated but enduring individual with a calling that never ceased, and a talent like no other.
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