Let's not kid ourselves: movies are not going to change how race is understood or experienced around the world by themselves. But movie watching does not happen in a vacuum, and the right film in the right environment has the capability of completely changing your worldview, whether it's about race or gender or sexuality or anything else. These
19 movies about race every white person needs to watch might not erase racism overnight, but they will provide every viewer with a brand new perspective on how to think and talk about the subject.
Since their inception, movies have been tackling the subject of race. D.W. Griffith's first feature-length film,
The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, famously followed the story of post-Civil War white families adjusting to their new reality. Granted, that movie doesn't offer a particularly enlightened view of race in America, but since then Hollywood has made leaps and bounds when it comes to depicting race (thanks, in large part, to the small but constantly growing number of non-white men and women being hired to write scripts and direct films).
Some of the below films are based on true stories, while others are completely fictional. That's the beautiful thing about movies: They don't have to be real to be meaningful. Race is one of the most difficult subjects to talk about as a society or culture, in part because of how sensitive and defensive people can be by nature. Watching a movie can take away the confrontational aspect race relations that might scare people off, which is why
everyone should watch these 19 movies about race.
Spike Lee's 1989 film
Do the Right Thing became an instant classic because of its daring visuals and twist on the race movie narrative. Do The Right Thing is available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.
Justin Chon's movie
Gook didn't make a lot of money at the box office, but it did make waves on the indie film circuit. The movie is about Korean American brothers who befriend a young black girl in Los Angeles just in time for the infamous 1992 LA riots. Gook is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Dear White People is a great movie to show someone who might be under the impression that racism in the United States is over. The film exposes many subtleties in racism and how kids experience race, specifically on a college campus. Dear White People is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
Before he directed
Black Panther, Ryan Coogler made his film debut with Fruitvale Station, a touching portrait of the last day of Oscar Grant's life. Grant, a young black man living in Oakland, was shot and killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day in 2009. Fruitvale Station is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes. Loving recounts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who changed the world when they got married. An interracial couple they had to take their union all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually getting anti-miscegenation laws off the books in all 50 states. Loving is currently available to stream on HBO Max. The Joy Luck Club is more of a movie about mothers and daughters than it is about race; however, it provides a real insight into the experience of many immigrants and first-generation Americans who find themselves torn between being American and also being identified racially as other in white America. The Joy Luck Club is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
Ava DuVernay's documentary,
13th, is a must-watch for anybody who remains puzzled as to why some people say that despite the 13th Amendment, slavery still exists in the United States today. 13th is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Pariah lays bare the complex intersectionality of racism in the United States. The movie tells the story of Alike, a young teenage girl living in Brooklyn dealing with the reality of being a gay black woman in her relatively conservative environment. Pariah is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
Another film from Spike Lee,
Malcolm X is a biographical film about the controversial civil rights leader. It's a great movie to watch if you want to learn a little history, and also be dazzled by Denzel Washington. Malcom X is currently available to stream on Netflix. Sarah Shatz/Amazon Studios, Lionsgate The Big Sick is another movie that isn't exactly about race, but about family and the South Asian immigrant experience in a post-9/11 world. The film does a great job in exposing the kind of micro-aggressions and racial stereotyping that are easily dismissed as benign. The Big Sick is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Blindspotting was the best movie of 2018 that you didn't see. Starring Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting follows two best friends from Oakland — one black, one white — over the course of a few days. It's a story about police brutality, gentrification, race, and the limits of white allies, all told through the lens of these two friends. Blindspotting is currently available to stream on HBO and HBO Max. Beatriz at Dinner, from director Miguel Arteta, explores racial tensions and race relations at a dinner party held by rich white people for rich white people, that also ends up being host to a Mexican practitioner of holistic medicine. The film feels tailor-made to the Trump era and shines an unflinching light at white privilege. Beatriz at Dinner is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
12 Years a Slave is just as horrific and haunting as a historical epic about slavery needs to be. The film is a gorgeous portrayal of horrific cruelty, suffering, and, ultimately, bittersweet resilience. 12 Years a Slave is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
'Real Women Have Curves'
Real Women Have Curves, recently declared the original, Latina Lady Bird by some critics, offers a look at what it means to be a first-generation immigrant, similar to The Big Sick and The Joy Luck Club. It's also a great movie about one woman's journey to find herself at the intersection of two cultures, and those culture's expectations of her and her body. Real Women Have Curves is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Want to introduce the concept of racism to kids?
Remember the Titans is definitely the movie to do it. Disney's movie, about a newly integrated high school football team, is a millennial classic for a reason: It's damn good. Remember the Titans is available to stream on Disney+. Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Archive Photos/Getty Images I Am Not Your Negro puts together personal letters and an unfinished manuscript from James Baldwin, the author of Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk. The movie uses his unpublished works on race in America to explore Baldwin's life, legacy, and activism. I Am Not Your Negro is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix
and not a movie, but it's heartbreaking and unflinching look at the story of the Exonerated Five ( When They See Us is a miniseries formerly known as the Central Park Five) is definitely a must-watch. Ava DuVernay directed the series, which can be difficult to watch, as it follows the true story of five men who were wrongly convicted of the violent rape of a white woman in 1990. When They See Us is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning feature debut,
Get Out, turns modern race relations into a popcorn horror movie, imagining a world in which black people are lured into rich white homes and brainwashed — essentially enslaved. The movie gets at the psychological effects of racism, while also providing a thrilling ride. It's definitely a one-of-a-kind movie that needs to be seen to be understood. Get Out is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes. The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, is another story about what it is to be the child of immigrants, but more importantly, it's about how that experience affects one's racial identity. The Namesake is available to rent on Amazon & iTunes.
No one movie on this list is going to teach you everything you need to know about race. The topic is vast and riddled with complexities and disagreements. However, watching all of these films provides a great, diverse starting point from which to begin the work. And that's how movies can change perspectives on race: by giving viewers a place to start.