Over the years, there have been many terrific movies produced on the subject of civil rights and racial discrimination. Most of these movies were made by major studios, a number of them prestige pictures recognized during awards season. We all know about To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and that Oscar winning performance by Gregory Peck. In the Heat of the Night (1967) won Best Picture, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was “robbed” in Cannes, when many thought it would take home the top prize.
Denzel was amazing as Malcolm X, and Daniel Day played Lincoln to perfection. What about Oprah in The Color People? And, of course, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.
The thing is, most of us have heard of these movies, thanks to the studio marketing machine. I thought it might be more useful to present a list of 10 movies made outside the system, terrific films you may not have on your radar. There are a variety of styles offered here, a blend of narratives and docs; but they are all engaging and inspire change.
Have a look at trailers below and know that all of these titles are available, if not found on Netflix, Amazon or iTunes, I include the link to stream the films.
Freedom on my Mind
1994 ‧ Indie film/Political cinema ‧ 1h 45m
The Academy Award nominated Freedom on my Mind is the first film to chronicle, in depth, the story of Freedom Summer. It vividly tells the complex and compelling history of the Mississippi voter registration struggles of 1961 to 1964: the interracial nature of the campaign, the tensions and conflicts, the fears and hopes. It is the story of youthful idealism and shared vision, of a generation who believed in and fought for the principles of democracy.
To see: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/freedomonmymind
Talk to Me
2007 ‧ Biography/History ‧ 1h 59m
Outspoken ex-convict Ralph “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle) talks his way onto the air at a white-owned radio station in 1960s Washington, D.C. Fueled by the new music and social upheaval of the times, he courts controversy while becoming the voice of the black movement.
Soundtrack for a Revolution
2009 ‧ Rockumentary/History ‧ 1h 22m
Bill Guttentag’s documentary examines the importance of music during the U.S. civil rights movement that took place during the 1950s and ’60s. The various sit-ins and public demonstrations of the era incorporated protest songs, folk tunes and spirituals, music that was a crucial part of the movement. Guttentag uses archival footage and interviews to connect specific songs (covered by artists including the Roots and John Legend) to specific events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott.
See Movie: https://www.vudu.com/movies/#!content/185516
The Black Power Mixtape
2011 ‧ Historical Documentary/Documentary ‧ 1h 40m
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 mobilizes a treasure trove of 16mm material shot by Swedish journalists who came to the US drawn by stories of urban unrest and revolution. Gaining access to many of the leaders of the Black Power Movement — Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver among them — the filmmakers captured them in intimate moments and remarkably unguarded interviews.
Thirty years later, this lush collection was found languishing in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover bring this footage to light in a mosaic of images, music and narration chronicling the evolution one of our nation’s most indelible turning points, the Black Power movement.
Music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, and commentary from prominent African- American artists and activists who were influenced by the struggle — including Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles — give the historical footage a fresh, contemporary resonance and makes the film an exhilarating, unprecedented account of an American revolution.
2013 ‧ Crime film/Romance ‧ 1h 30m
Though he once spent time in San Quentin, 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is now trying hard to live a clean life and support his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). Flashbacks reveal the last day in Oscar’s life, in which he accompanied his family and friends to San Francisco to watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and, on the way back home, became swept up in an altercation with police that ended in tragedy. Based on a true story. Sundance, Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner.
Dear White People (2015)
2014 ‧ Comedy/Satire ‧ 1h 48m
Director Justin Simien wrote the script and promoted his crowdfunding campaign through social media. He raised $40,000 instead of the goal of $25,000. Even with studio interest, Simien decided to remain independent. Dear White People raises the challenging questions. Through a number of characters who all struggle with racism in different forms, we get a picture of how pervasive it is, and most importantly, how we all can take action. SXSW Audience Award winner.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
2015 ‧ Biography/Musical ‧ 1h 41m
Simone found purpose in the civil rights movement, and realized she could use her fame and talents to support the fight for equality.
I Am Not Your Negro
2016 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 35m
This is an impressive re-imagination of James Baldwin’s biography, almost a spiritual documentary a meditation on the hidden meaning of race in America. But rather than creating a by the numbers biopic, filmmaker Raoul Peck intercuts photos, interviews and archival footage to make a statement around civil rights. His effort attempts to reconcile the difference between what the US says it stand for and what it actually does.
Considered by many film critics as one of the best docs of the year in 2016, this powerful movie was nominated by the Academy for Best Documentary.
2017 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 43m
Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri.
Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy. Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters. As the national guard descends on Ferguson with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new resistance.
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis know this story because they have lived the story. Whose Streets? is a powerful battle cry from a generation fighting, not for their civil rights, but for the right to live.
2017 ‧ Documentary ‧ 1h 47m
Winner of the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary Filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the 1992 murder of a young black man. It becomes a gut wrenching personal journey, since the victim, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., was the filmmaker’s brother.
Yance speaks directly to the camera about his brother’s murder 20 years ago, and about its affects on the family. You really get the sense of unfinished business, racial tension and deep sorrow felt by the filmmaker, as he reconstructs the stories surrounding the murder. Strong Island is both memoir and investigation into the circumstances under which his brother was murdered, by a white car mechanic.
Click here to see related blog on Rosa Parks, with additional films connected the civil rights movement.
Let us know your your favorite picks!
Filmmaking for Change
This Filmmaking for Change section will present the Articles written for our Substack channel.
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