The Black Experience: 18 Docs to Help Explain Today's Unrest - Rolling Stone
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Fight the Power: 18 Docs to Help Explain Today’s Unrest

From primers on the Black Panther Party to a look at a police department attempting to purge its precinct of systematic precinct

Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Fred HamptonAngela Davis, James Baldwin, Fred Hampton

Left to right: Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Fred Hampton.

IFC Films, Bob Adelman/Magnolia Pictures; Everett Collection/Shutterstock

At the end of a recent appearance of The Late Show, host Stephen Colbert asked his guest, Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike, what white people could do to be better allies in what has become a serious moment of reckoning in our country. The artist’s answer: go watch the work of Jane Elliott, an educator who’s been conducting classroom experiments involving race, role play and the pain of exclusion since the Sixties. We have no idea how many people took his advice and sought out the Frontline documentary that’s the easiest introduction to her eye-opening lessons, but his advice was telling. The first step is understanding and compassion. And for decades, documentaries have been a prime source in terms of detailing the numerous battles African Americans have waged in the U.S. — for basic human rights, freedom and justice to simply staying alive — from almost every angle imaginable.

The 18 nonfiction movies we’re listing below cover a large spectrum — from a primer on the Black Panthers to one white filmmaker’s attempt to wrestle with his ancestral racism to a look at the Oakland Police Department’s attempts at purging itself of institutional racism. (The Frontline doc Killer Mike mentioned is in here, too.) We agree that “film lists are lazy substitutes for action”; simply watching movies is not going to fix the litany of problems and historical prejudices that have led to people taking to the streets and saying, “Enough.” But our hope is the following titles will not only contextualize why what’s happening now is necessary, but will also spur people to action — a sort of “we don’t know who needs to hear this, but…” compendium of history lessons and portraits to help inform and inspire.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
Renowned documentarian Stanley Nelson captures the late-Sixties atmosphere that birthed the Black Panther Party, and, through interviews with founding members, traces its evolution from a grassroots community organization in Oakland to a global network deemed a terroristic threat by the FBI. For anyone who denies systemic racism in law enforcement, the film’s exposure of the bureau’s campaign to “neutralize black nationals” should settle that matter. And for anyone whose conception of the Panthers is a group of extremists, many of their demands will sound shockingly mundane now: “decent housing; education; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.” MF (

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 (2011)
In 1967, a Swedish TV news crew traveled to America to “show the country as it really is” — which included documenting the growing Black Power movement and giving its leaders a stage on which to rage. Goran Olsson’s extraordinary compilation of footage from their eight-year tenure captures the highs and lows of the moment and the struggle but, more importantly, offers a counterpoint to how the U.S. media was covering figureheads like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis. You couldn’t ask for a more pertinent time capsule of a turbulent era. DF (Amazon Prime, IFC Films Unlimited)

The Central Park Five (2012)
Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s meticulous examination of the Central Park Five case doubles as an indictment of New York’s feverish political climate at the time, which provoked prosecutors to cut corners in order to get faster convictions. This is a quietly furious reminder of Citizen Trump’s inherent racism (he took out newspaper ads demanding the five youths get the death penalty) and the ways that the police callously profile people of color, assuming guilt before innocence. TG (Amazon Prime)

A Class Divided (1985)
When Stephen Colbert asked recent guest Killer Mike what white people could do to be better allies, the rapper replied: “Spend an hour watching Jane Elliott.” This Frontline episode covers the diversity educator’s famous experiment, conducted in her third-grade classroom the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that exposes how easy it is to implant and propagate prejudice. Elliott divides her class by blue-eyed and brown-eyed students, labeling the former superior and the latter inferior. Watching the children take to their roles  — one group dominant and ebullient, the other submissive and dejected — is eye-opening and never less than heartbreaking. MF (YouTube)

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017)
“In 1946, my great-grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann and got away with it.” Travis Wilkerson’s personal-essay film grapples with the guilt of that crime, as the director’s whiteness forces him to confront his family’s very tangible contribution to racial injustice in America. Inspired by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, Wilkerson contemplates the bigots at his own dinner table, and his struggles to in some small way pay reparations for his ancestor’s sin. White Americans have been, and continue to be, complicit in our country’s shameful mistreatment of people of color. We should all take a page out Wilkerson’s book. TG (Amazon Prime)

4 Little Girls (1997)
Spike Lee’s chronicle of the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that took the lives of Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14) and Denise McNair (11), is a forensic account of a chilling domestic terrorist act, from first-person testimonies about the victims and the incident itself to the eventual conviction of the man responsible, Robert Chambliss. But it’s also a penetrating look at what was going on in the city where it happened, the bigotry that fueled it, and the community that mourned their loss. (Also highly recommended: Lee’s blistering look at Hurricane Katrina and its effect on NOLA’s African-American community, When the Levees Broke.DF (Amazon Prime, YouTube, HBO Max)

The Force (2017)
Peter Nicks’ immersive documentary takes us inside the Oakland Police Department, which had been under federal oversight for more than a decade because of rampant misconduct and civil rights violations. Embedded within the embattled department, the filmmaker captures a tough-but-optimistic new chief, Sean Whent, who’s determined to turn the OPD around. From cadet training to tense altercations on the street, the film dispassionately illustrates the dangers that cops face. Yet viewers also leave with a despondent recognition that institutional racism can’t be swept away overnight, and this is a broken system with no easy fixes. Don’t expect a happy ending. TG (Netflix, Kino Now)

Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (2012)
As in Angela Davis, the activist who went from being a college professor and early booster for the Black Panthers to a fugitive and, per the title, a political prisoner of the state. Filmmaker Shola Lynch lets Davis speak about her life and times in her own words; it’s an excellent introduction (should one be needed) to a crucial figure of the movement. DF (Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube)

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
This inspiring, Oscar-nominated look at James Baldwin, who loved America enough to constantly criticize her, was a longtime passion project for filmmaker Raoul Peck, who was allowed rare access to the late author’s archives. With Samuel L. Jackson delivering a powerfully mournful voiceover of Baldwin’s words, I Am Not Your Negro illustrates how America promotes bigotry through its laws, customs, even its pop culture. The film is an eloquent tribute to Baldwin and a fiery condemnation of a country he accurately claimed never lived up to its ideals. TG (Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube)

The Interrupters (2011)
Hoop Dreams co-director Steve James highlights a handful of Chicago’s Violence Interrupters who intercede in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, hoping to dial down the violence they themselves once helped perpetuate. A story of redemption that resists phony uplift — James is clear-eyed about the systemic causes for violence, poverty and addiction — this doc boasts a remarkable intimacy as we watch the hard work that goes into improving lives that the system left behind. TG (Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube)

L.A. ’92 (2017)
Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s assemblage of archival footage retraces the steps that led from Rodney King’s beating to a national emergency. The smug looks on the faces of the cops, shop owners carrying guns, motorists being dragged from their cars, King’s tearful plea for peace and the City of Angels going up in flames — almost 30 years later, none of these images have lost their power to shock. It’s a portrait of systematic racism pushing people to the boiling point. It looks all too familiar right now. DF (Amazon Prime)

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (2017)
Starting with the police-chokehold death of James Mincey Jr. and ending with convictions stemming from the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, filmmaker John Ridley does a deep dive on a decade of violence — from the LAPD against African-American citizens, from questionable tactics used to combat gang warfare, from two caught-on-tape incidents and from the collateral damage that followed. What makes his history lesson so compelling and unique is the mosaic of voices he includes in laying all the cause-and-effect out, including numerous ex-cops, Korean shop owners, community members who’ve suffered, and even members of the L.A. 4. A stunning achievement. DF (Amazon Prime, iTunes)

Let the Fire Burn (2013)
The 1985 killing of 11 Black Philadelphians by local police is immortalized in Jason Osder’s extraordinary film, which reconstructs the horrors of May 13th through news footage and subsequent commission testimony. Unspooling like a procedural, the film lets us see cops clash with MOVE, a Black liberation group that was forcibly removed from its compound, and how the stand-off led to widespread fires that consumed a city block. It’s a stunningly organized rundown of exactly how this badly mismanaged tragedy occurred — and why the stain of those deaths still lingers 35 years later. TG (iTunes, Vudu)

The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
In the early hours of the morning of December 4th, 1969, a 21-year-old named Fred Hampton, was shot to death by police who’d busted into his Chicago apartment. He was a high-ranking official in chairman of the Black Panther Party. The cops claimed that they had been fired upon; the investigation that followed contradicted that notion at almost every turn. Howard Alk’s portrait of a political assassination doesn’t flinch in terms of showing the bloodied crime scene or listening to heartbreaking testimonies from people in the room when it happened. Yet the movie is also a tribute to Hampton as an activist in action, seen here organizing community programs and spreading the word about the need for freedom from oppression. Hamtpon wasn’t just a martyr. He was also a revolutionary. DF (Amazon Prime)

Strong Island (2017)
For more than two decades, filmmaker Yance Ford lived with the agony of his brother William’s 1992 death at the hand of a white mechanic., The latter claimed he shot him in self-defense; a grand jury agreed. Strong Island both recounts the events that led to William’s murder and explores the many ways that Yance and his family were destroyed by the criminal justice system’s mishandling of the case. This is a personal portrait of raw pain — and a bigger-picture look at the anguish of so many Black families crying out to a society deaf to their plight. TG (Netflix)

13th (2016)
Ava DuVernay shines a much-needed light on what has become, per the title of Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “the new Jim Crow” — the mass incarceration of African-Americans. Using the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) as a starting point, this look at our nation’s skewed, screwed-up judicial system irises out to view how larger social factors that have contributed to an ongoing “mythology of black criminality” and a massively disproportionate number of black citizens being behind bars. Sobering, scathing, essential. DF (Netflix, YouTube)

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)
Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini traveled to New Orleans for this incisive glimpse into a series of ordinary Black lives. We hear stories of drug addiction, sexual abuse, random violence and organized resistance that collectively illustrate the insidious ways that racism visit these individuals on a regular basis, leaving them with few good options. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? culminates with a powerful street protest, proving as prophetic of our current reality as the film’s provocative title. TG (Amazon Prime, YouTube)

Whose Streets? (2017)
Six years before tens of thousands of people across the globe would protest police brutality in the name of George Floyd, a small group of impassioned activists did it in Ferguson, Missouri, in the name of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man killed by a white officer. While mainstream media broadcasts at the time focused on isolated rioting, this guerrilla-style doc takes you inside the unrest from the demonstrators’ perspective. In wrenching footage, a devastated community repeatedly gathers to grieve and plead for justice, and is repeatedly met with armored vehicles, dogs, flash-bombs, and tear gas. A civics lesson you won’t find in any textbook. MF (Amazon Prime, YouTube)


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