At Bryn Mawr Film Institute, we believe that cinema can serve many functions, including raising awareness, generating empathy, and inspiring change. We’ll continue to update this page with additional resources as they become available, with the hope of helping to spark the conversations necessary to engage with these critical issues. At BMFI, we know that we have work to do if we are going to be part of the solution. We can start by highlighting some voices that need to be heard. It’s not the only thing we can do, and these resources are not exhaustive, but they are places to start.
BMFI has compiled a list of films worth seeing that discuss racism and injustice in Black communities. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a place to start. If you would like to use film as a tool for talking about racism and injustice with your children or students, you can find age-based reviews for these and other films at CommonSenseMedia.org.
NOTHING BUT A MAN
1964 · d. Michael Roemer
A lonely, hard-working railroad hand falls in love with a school-teacher daughter of a preacher in this social-realist drama about which filmmaker Jonathan Demme said: “Nothing But a Man changed my life. By that I mean this beautiful film opened my head up, introduced me in a shattering way to the notion of race . . . thus birthing a whole new world-view for me.”
BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS
1983 · d. Billy Woodbury
Written and photographed by Killer of Sheep writer/director Charles Burnett, this understated drama about a struggling family in the Watts section of Los Angeles shares a neorealist influence with its fellow offerings from the L.A. Rebellion film movement.
DO THE RIGHT THING
1989 · d. Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s seminal film about racial tensions and police brutality in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer is as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago, when Roger Ebert wrote that it came “closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” After you watch the film, check out a recent conversation between Lee and comic W. Kamau Bell about Do the Right Thing on the AFI’s YouTube channel.
BOYZ N THE HOOD
1991 · d. John Singleton
John Singleton’s powerful debut feature, chronicling the struggles of four boys growing into young men in South Central Los Angeles, made the writer/director the first African American—and the youngest person—nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.
1992 · d. Spike Lee
This epic biopic of the iconic Black leader was co-written and directed by Spike Lee at the height of his powers and stars Denzel Washington, who earned the first of his six Best Actor Oscar nominations for his truly incendiary performance.
1992 · d. Marlon Riggs
This Peabody Award-winning documentary, narrated by Ruby Dee, examines 40 years of depictions of African Americans on prime-time television. It questions the medium’s stereotypical depictions and calls out the racial myths networks promulgated.
1997 · d. John Singleton
This historical drama depicts the 1923 massacre in the eponymous, predominantly Black, Florida town. It stars Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, and Esther Rolle, and Minnie Lee Langley, a survivor of the attack, and Arnett Doctor, the son of a survivor, consulted on the production.
THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967 – 1975
2011 · d. Göran Olsson
Using extensive archival footage, this documentary explores the Black Power movement that arose in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
THE LOVING STORY
2011 · d. Nancy Buirski
This Peabody Award-winning documentary chronicles the relationship between Richard and Mildred Loving, which led to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional. The film also served as the basis for the 2016 drama, Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
2012 · d. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Coerced into confessing to, and convicted of, a brutal assault, the Harlem teens known as the Central Park Five served years in prison before new evidence proved their innocence. This gripping documentary chronicles a shocking miscarriage of justice and the conditions that created it.
LET THE FIRE BURN
2013 · d. Jason Osder
On May 13, 1985, an extended stand-off between the Philadelphia police and radical activist organization MOVE came to a head when the city dropped two military-grade bombs on the group’s West Philadelphia rowhouse. This gripping film traces the years of clashes, political conflict, and racial tension that led to one of the darkest days in Philadelphia’s history.
2013 · d. Ryan Coogler
Writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther) made his feature debut with this searing drama based on the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a transit police officer. It won the top prize at Sundance and the award for best first film at Cannes.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE
2014 · d. Justin Simien
When a biracial student’s controversial radio show kicks up a storm of controversy at her liberal arts college, the school’s all-white newspaper staff taps African American student Lionel as a Black culture expert and recruits him to report on the issue. Tessa Thompson stars in this hilarious and biting satire of racial politics in 21st-century America.
2014 · d. Ava DuVernay
This dramatization of the 1965 voting-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Common as James Bevel, the activist who initiated the protests. A.O. Scott wrote of the film: “It will call forth tears of grief, anger, gratitude and hope. And like those pilgrims on the road to Montgomery, it does not rest.”
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
2015 · d. F. Gary Gray
This raucous biopic tells the story of legendary rap group NWA, whose explosive music gave voice to frustration about systematic racism and helped popularize hip-hop culture around the world.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
2016 · d. Raoul Peck
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Academy Award-nominated documentary uses writer James Baldwin’s own words to envision his unfinished book Remember This House, a radical narration about race in America.
2016 · d. Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated exploration of the deep-rooted racial inequalities in America’s prison system is available to stream for free on Netflix’s YouTube channel.
2017 · d. Yance Ford
In 1992, an African American man named William Ford is shot and killed by a white man during an argument. In this documentary, Ford’s sibling, Yance, explores his brother’s life, and the murder trial that allowed his killer to go free.
2017 · d. Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by the police, it marks a breaking point for the people of Ferguson, Missouri. Grief, racial tensions, and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest, while the National Guard descends to quell the unrest. Shot on the ground during the Ferguson protests, Whose Streets? is a searing look at race and policing in America.
2017 · d. Dee Rees
In 1940s Mississippi, the lives of a white family of farm-owners and a Black family working as sharecroppers become intertwined.
CRIME + PUNISHMENT
2018 · d. Stephen T. Maing
Filmed over four years, this documentary follows a group of twelve New York City Police officers who risk everything to bring a class action lawsuit against their department, exposing the existence of illegal arrest quotas and their disproportionate impact on minority neighborhoods.
THE HATE U GIVE
2018 · d. George Tillman Jr.
Attending an affluent prep school by day, returning to her working-class Black neighborhood by night, teenaged Starr feels caught between two worlds. After witnessing the fatal shooting of an old friend by a police officer, she must find her own voice to advocate for justice.
WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE?
2018 · d. Roberto Minervini
Filmed amid of a string of brutal killings of Black men during the summer of 2017, this documentary paints a raw, intimate portrait of activists and community leaders in the American South, struggling for survival and organizing to fight systemic racism.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
2018 · d. Barry Jenkins
This romantic drama from the Oscar-winning director/co-writer of Moonlight is based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. It tells the story of a young woman who struggles to exonerate the father of her unborn child, who’s been wrongly arrested on rape charges. Regina King (director of One Night in Miami . . .) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
2018 · d. Boots Riley
This dark comedy stars LaKeith Stanfield (Oscar-nominated for Judas and the Black Messiah) as a uniquely gifted telemarketer who finds himself embroiled in a corporate conspiracy. Taking satirical aim at racism and capitalism, this unconventional film was described by critics as “deliriously creative and ambitious to a fault,” and admired for its “something-to-prove chutzpah.”
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
2019 · d. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison recounts her life and career in this documentary, tracing a remarkable literary journey entwined with history, race, and American identity.
2019 · d. Destin Daniel Cretton
This legal drama is based on the memoir of attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who struggles to overturn the wrongful and racially motivated murder conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) and starts the Equal Justice Initiative.
WATCHMEN (limited series)
2019 · Created by Damon Lindelof
This powerful reimagining of the landmark graphic novel uses the horrific 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which white Oklahomans killed and wounded hundreds of African Americans in the vital and prosperous Greenwood section of the city, as the flashpoint for a nuanced and inventive decades-long story about race, class, and politics in a fictionalized America that, in some ways, seems eerily familiar.
WHEN THEY SEE US
2019 · Created by Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay’s four-part series dramatizes the true story of the Central Park Five, a group of Black teenagers falsely accused and convicted of a violent attack.
The annual BlackStar Film Festival is a rich and valuable presence in the Philadelphia area’s cinema culture, celebrating work by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from around the world. Learn more about the festival and upcoming programs on the BlackStar website.
Established in 1993, the African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) showcases new works by established and emerging artists, telling socially relevant and meaningful stories about people of color all over the world. Visit their website to learn more.
Ava DuVernay’s production company has launched a new online learning initiative, ARRAY 101, which provides free learning guides as tools for furthering social justice. The first program is a supplement to DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us. Lessons, tools, and activities are available for each episode, and designed for anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of social justice and advocacy, grade 9 and above.