The Essential Movies and Series on Netflix That Examine Systemic Racism in America
There is no one Black experience that can encapsulate what it means to be Black. That is why Hollywood’s (albeit slow) revelation to usher in new films and series directed, written, and portrayed by Black people is all the more important. And it just so happens that Netflix has cultivated a pretty decent collection when it comes to celebrating those stories, from the adaptation of a former First Lady’s memoir to a immersive dive into 1927 Chicago.
These films touch on some of the worst issues that plague America today and always—systemic racism, police brutality, implicit bias. But these stories don’t exist to simply teach a lesson. They are the encapsulations of joy and sadness, progress and frustration. They represent a giant group of people whose stories have been consistently side-lined or completely erased throughout history. Below is only a smattering of the best films Netflix have to offer. Celebrate those stories.
Pose just ended its spectacular three season run on FX, but the series from Steven Canals is available to watch on Netflix. Focusing on the ballroom scene of the early 90s, Pose kicked down the door for trans representation, boasting a cast of transgender actors and fearless queer performers unlike any other show that presented it. Throughout its short run, it didn’t stray from hard topics like the intersection of Black culture and queerness, as well as the devastating AIDS crisis in the late 80s and early 90s.
Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé
I mean. C’mon.
One incredible Coachella performance spawned a whole documentary that traces the inspiration of the show stopping performance to its roots. For those in the know, the documentary might be more of a love letter to culture and inspiration. For those unaware, Homecoming is a must-watch music doc and a whole lesson in how Beyoncé draws her inspiration and communicates her passion.
This 2013 film starring Michael B Jordan and Octavia Spencer was a massive cultural moment for the both of them, but beyond highlighting the incredible talent percolating right beneath the surface in Hollywood, Fruitvale Station is a heartbreaking film that never should have had to be. Based on real life events, the film follows Oscar Grant, a Black man killed by police on New Years Day 2009.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four Black soldiers who served in Vietnam, who have returned to the country to find the remains of a fellow soldier they hope to finally lay to rest. Not only is it an oft-overlooked narrative in war epics, but it also features incredible performances from Delroy Lindo and the late Chadwick Boseman.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Denzel Washington knew what he was doing when he tapped into August Wilson’s playbook for Fences. In this, he serves as producer, while Viola Davis ascends to the lead role in a story about Jazz era Chicago. Playing the brazen Ma Rainey, the George C. Wolfe-directed film brings Wilson’s stage play to life on screen and shines one hell of a light on Davis’ acting chops.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker
The Netflix miniseries about Madam C. J. Walker may be a bit fictionalized (with some slight inaccuracies, thanks to creative liberty), but it cannot alter the fact that Walker was America’s first documented self-made millionaire. Played to critical acclaim by Octavia Spencer, the story about the entrepreneur whose hair care products changed the course of the industry and the Black businesswomen who would follow her.
When They See Us
Twenty years after five young men of color were wrongfully prosecuted when a female jogger was sexually assaulted in Central Park, Ava Duvernay’s miniseries examines the story of the Exonerated Five. With Jharrel Jerome’s Golden Globe-winning performance, When They See Us shows exactly how the flaws—and racism inherent—in our criminal justice system can keep someone wrongfully incarcerated for decades.
Before she told us America’s story of mass incarceration through the eyes of the Exonerated Five in When They See Us, Ava Durvernay took it on in 13th. Featuring interviews with Van Jones, Grover Norquist, and Lisa Graves, 13th compares our criminal justice system to American slavery—showing how for-profit systems have corrupted our jails, with corporations making money from the mass incarceration crisis.
All Day and a Night
Throughout All Day and A Night, the narrator, Jahkor Lincoln (played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), says, “Slavery taught black people how to survive, but not how to live. And that’s what we pass on to each other. My father taught me how to take my fucked-up life out on everyone else.” The rest of the film—which shows Lincoln’s struggle not to follow the fate of his father, who is serving life in prison—explores the painful refrain, showing the cycle of tramua black men face in America.
Dear White People
Now going on four seasons, Netflix’s Dear White People is based on the film of the same name, created by Justin Simien. The critically acclaimed series follows several black students as they make their way through an Ivy League university. The Netflix series skewers all the normal conventions and stereotypes of racism and opens up the gray area that comes between “I have so many black friends!” and “I’m not a racist!”
What Happened Miss Simone?
Nina Simone is one of the most towering figures in music history. What Happened Miss Simone? looks into her incredible life and career, using archival footage to trace the paths she took as a multi-genre artist and civil rights activist. The 2015 Netflix documentary looks at all sides of Simone: the powerful activist, the civil rights leader, and perhaps her most-widely regarded moniker, the legendary chanteuse whose style is often imitated, but never matched.
The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson
Stonewall was a riot first and foremost. Those with an interest in the LGBTQ rights movement know that on that fateful June day in 1969, it was Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of color, who threw a brick and helped launch the Stonewall riots into the annals of history. What most don’t know is that her suspicious death in 1992 has gone unsolved, and the NYPD has neglected to provide answers for her untimely end. The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson looks into the mysterious passing and all the stones left unturned by those who were responsible for solving her murder.
Let it Fall
Many know of the Rodney King riots that launched riots in LA in 1992, but few understand that the Rodney King riots were merely the spark that set fire to a powder keg that had been building for years. Let it Fall looks at the decade leading up to the Rodney King riots and how Los Angeles’ police and its black community had been building up to a breaking point for years before it topped out in 1992.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s first memoir, Becoming, was an instant success and New York Times bestseller, so it’s no surprise that her documentary of the same name is equally compelling. The Netflix original documentary takes viewers on a deeper dive of her life, beginning in the Southside of Chicago through her time as First Lady. Living under a microscope, she accurately notes that much of the world only knows her for the eight years she spent living in the White House. Becoming seeks to offer the truths of what happened on her way there.
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