19 Movies About Race Every White Person Needs To Watch, From 'Fruitvale Station' To 'Do The Right Thing'
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 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 males being hired to write scripts and direct films).
Some of the below films are based on true stories, while others are completely fictional, but 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.
1'Do The Right Thing'
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.
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 L.A. just in time for the infamous 1992 L.A. riots.
3'Dear White People'
Dear White People is a great movie to show someone who might be under the impression that racism in the U.S. is over. The film exposes many subtleties in racism and how kids experience race, specifically on a college campus.
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.
Not all movies about race have tragic ends, as evidenced by Mississippi Masala, the 1991 romance from director Mira Nair. The movie explores the racism between minority groups that is exposed when an Indian woman falls in love with an African American man.
6'The Joy Luck Club'
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.
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.
Dee Rees' Pariah lays bare the complex intersectionality of racism in the U.S. 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.
Another film from Spike Lee, Malcolm X is a biographical film about the controversial civil rights leader.
10'The Big Sick'
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.
11'In The Heat Of The Night'
The 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, as a police detective who comes to a racist town to investigate a murder.
12'Beatriz At Dinner'
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 for the Trump era, and shines an unflinching light at white privilege.
13'12 Years A Slave'
Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave is just as horrific and haunting as a historical epic about slavery needs to be.
14'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.
15'Remember The Titans'
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.
16'The Color Purple'
It might not seem like it now, but when The Color Purple was released in 1985, it was a huge cinematic event for African American audiences — a rare example of Hollywood bringing their stories to life.
Imperium takes audiences undercover into the world of white supremacist hate groups, a place that is becoming more and more dangerous in the modern world. The rise of white terrorism, specifically in the U.S., is undeniable, and Imperium is a great jumping off point to start a discussion about the threat of white nationalism.
18'Imitation Of Life'
The phenomenon of passing — the ability to live life as a race or ethnicity that is not your own based on your appearance — is one rarely tackled in modern movies about race, but it takes center stage in Imitation of Life. Granted, the mother-daughter pair devastated by racism and the daughter's decision to pass are the supporting characters in the movie (it was released in 1959, after all), but still, it's an important story that deserves to be told and to be seen.
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.
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 work with. And that's how movies can change perspectives on race: by giving viewers a place to start.