10 Movies About Race to Stream Instead of The Help
Netflix viewers responded to the outcry against racism by streaming a movie that’s kind of racist. Here’s some films to help you do better.
During a moment marked by demonstrations against systemic racism, Netflix subscribers showed their newly invigorated wokeness by streaming… The Help. That’s right, the 2008 story of dutiful black servants told from the perspective of a white housewife — who, in real life, was sued for stealing the story — has skyrocketed to the top of the streaming service’s most-watched list.
Viewers’ desire to gain a greater understanding of America’s ugly and complicated relationship with race is admirable. However, The Help is actually a prime example of the flawed and destructive way in which black characters and stories are often portrayed. The black maids seemingly exist in the narrative primarily to facilitate the personal growth of the unaware but ultimately benevolent Emma Stone character.
For movie fans looking to broaden their understanding of race in America through cinema, I’ve compiled a list of ten films that offer insight, nuance, and ultimately humanity to the long overdue dialog.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Few films are both as timely and timeless as Spike Lee’s transcendent masterpiece. Set on the hottest day of the summer on a single Brooklyn block, Do the Right Thing is layered like a lava cake with thought provoking meditations on race, social hierarchies, economic exploitation, police violence, and the very nature of love and hate. What begins as a leisurely, often laugh-out-loud funny, slice of life builds to such a gradual simmer that the concluding eruption feels as jolting as it does inevitable.
Upon its release, Do the Right Thing was the subject of controversy and heated debate. The film is still sure to spark intense conversations, and that’s part of its power. I highly encourage viewing it with a diverse group of friends and embracing whatever directions the ensuing dialog take. But, in the three decades since its release, the controversy has gradually given way to near universal reverence, its prescience and poetry having solidified Do the Right Thing as a fixture in the American film cannon.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
One of the first films to tackle racism while featuring a empowered black lead, In the Heat of the Night still packs a punch. Issues of racial profiling and abusive law enforcement practices feature prominently and will resonate with audiences today. But the film’s true marvel is Sidney Poitier’s star turn as Detective Virgil Tibbs.
Poitier is one of the brightest stars ever to grace the silver screen. While director Norman Jewison effectively evokes the swampy Mississippi setting, he knows when to pull back and let Poitier carry a scene. Watching the actor constantly processing every encounter and setting as both a police officer and a black man in the south, his trademark grace and authority carefully tempered by caution and restraint, is truly mesmerizing. It’s also a commentary on America’s racial dynamics in and of itself.
Black Panther (2018)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or in the Trump White House), you’ve probably seen Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s superhero epic is one the highest grossing movies of all time. It’s also one of the best comic book movies to date; beautifully shot, briskly paced, and compellingly acted. It’s such a great popcorn movie, in fact, that it is easy to miss the poignance in the subtext.
Re-watch Black Panther with an open eye and you might be struck by Coogler’s construction of Wakanda as the affluent, high tech Africa that may have been had it’s natural resources not been raided by Europeans, its citizens taken from their homeland and sold into servitude around the world.
You might also see the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger as a thoughtful representation of the long standing tension within the black community about the responsibility of those with resources to lift up their less fortunate “cousins.” Upon closer inspection, perhaps, Killmonger might not even be a villain at all, but a tragic anti-hero.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Carl Franklin’s adaptation of Walter Mosley’s hardboiled novel truly puts the “noir” in film noir. Denzel Washington’s magnetic charisma, Don Cheadle’s simmering intensity, and the atmospheric depiction of post World War II Los Angles make Devil in a Blue Dress go down as smooth as the whiskey favored by its characters. Yet, race inhabits every crevice of the story, just as it informs every element of its characters’ worlds.
Washington’s Easy Rollins is drawn into an underworld web after losing his job for turning down overtime in a scenario eerily reminiscent of the excessive hours that “freed” slaves were expected to work in order to hold onto work as “plantation hands” after the civil war. Desperate to pay his mortgage, Rollins digs ever deeper into the sordid underbelly of LA’s white upper class in a caper chalked full of all the familiar noir tropes: corruption, double crosses, sex, and extortion.
Unlike the classic noirs of the past, the film’s darkest secret is rooted in race. Rollins must navigate a minefield of powerful men who see him merely as an easily disposable means to an end. Rollins’ pride in owning his home, and the lengths to which he’ll go to keep it, speak volumes about the yearning for permanence in a country built on your expendability.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019)
Concepts of permanence and home also figure prominently in Joe Talbot’s lyrical elegy. Jimmie and Mont wander the streets of their hometown by day as living ghosts; reminders of an achingly human past that is being displaced by a world of tech money and the oblivious newcomers to whom it belongs. By night they find solace in the regal Victorian in which Jimmie grew up, temporarily vacated due to an estate dispute in the white family that now owns it.
Even as the two men diligently decorate the house and Mont writes a play about a murdered childhood friend to stage there, we know they’re squatting on borrowed time. Forces far bigger will take the house and the city, and Jimmie and Mont will be forgotten just like so many before them. By bringing to life a moment of transition, while persistently foreshadowing the inevitable, the film forces us to relish the present, even as we eulogize it. It’s a powerful and moving statement about the structural forces that have conspired across centuries to erase black lives and stories from the American narrative.
Talk to Me (2007)
Ostensibly a biopic about Washington, DC radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene, Talk to Me unfolds as a testament to the necessity of black voices and media outlets through which the community can share its stories and perspectives unfiltered. Black radio has historically been one of the most powerful platforms for communication within the community, and director Kasi Lemmons deftly illustrates the way in which radio is woven into the fabric of a 1960s DC that George Clinton once dubbed “Chocolate City.”
An ex con with an incisive wit and a dynamic gift-of-gab, Greene breathes life into an R&B station languishing under white ownership that has grown increasingly out of touch with the frustrations and aspirations of the community it purports to serve. While Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Greene is electric, Chiwetel Ejiofor grounds the film with his measured performance as Dewey Hughes, a black programmer walking the tightrope between corporate ambition and cultural responsibility. Hughes’ ascension from token employee to owner of WOL (which would go on to become the first station of black owned media empire, Radio One) is the most understated yet impactful victory in the film.
A deep dive into the commodification of black narratives and images by white power brokers, Bamboozled isn’t Spike Lee’s best film, but it may be his most interesting. Drawing a clear throughline between the minstrel shows of the antebellum era and the exploitation of stereotypes prevalent in mass media at the time of the film’s release, Bamboozled is as acerbic as it is angry.
Frustrated by perpetual pigeonholing from condescending bosses, television executive Pierre Delacroix pitches a “New Millennium Minstrel Show” in an effort to get himself fired from the network. Not only is the show picked up, it becomes a smash hit, with white fans enthusiastically donning blackface to attend tapings. In one of the film’s shrewdest moves, Lee stages the minstrel shows beautifully, and the blackface performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are mesmerizing. It’s both a heartfelt nod to the talent and artistry of minstrel performers of the past (many of whom were brilliant artists trapped by the demeaning options available to them), and a deft device to seduce modern audiences into laughing along with truly abhorrent material.
While black representation has improved in the two decades since Bamboozled’s release, the film will still sadly feel all too relevant to contemporary audiences steeped in the racial tropes of reality television and the sad specter of a “news” network presenting new millennium minstrel performers Diamond and Silk as political commentators.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
On the surface, Charles Burnett’s little seen indie film is an episodic slice of life portrait of an unremarkable family in post Viet Nam War Los Angeles. We follow Stan, the family’s patriarch, through the daily toils of his slaughter house job. We watch him dutifully maintain their modest home. We watch his wife (never addressed by name) touch up her make up in preparation for Stan’s return home. We witness Stan, too drained from fatigue to notice.
Yet, as the film slowly unfolds over a brisk 80 minute run time, the dutiful execution of ordinary tasks takes on a defiant heroism. Simply getting through another day in a world stripped of opportunity, hope, and color (the black and white cinematography may have been dictated by budget, but makes a powerful statement) becomes a triumph. Even the children at play, blissfully unaware of the brutality of the world that awaits them, unwittingly perpetuate that very brutality, hurling rocks at each other across a vacant lot.
The film never coalesces around a linear plot line, but that feels like the point. It lurches along in fits and starts, ultimately ending up back in the same place, much like the lives of its characters. It’s a powerful evocation of the black lives that modern audiences are so quick to say matter, while systemically overlooking.
Based on the true story of a prosperous black town destroyed by white rioters in the 1920s, John Singleton’s Rosewood informs the desolation of black neighborhoods like those portrayed in Killer of Sheep, Do the Right Thing, and Singleton’s own Boyz N The Hood decades later.
Left largely to their own devices, the residents of Rosewood own homes and businesses, and a tight knit sense of community offers respite from much of the oppression and menace of the world around them. But the success and autonomy of Rosewood breed envy in the poorer whites of surrounding areas, which comes to a head when a moneyed stranger arrives and buys a plot of land prized by the town’s white grocer. The stranger, played with authority by Ving Rhames, conveniently “fits the description” of an escaped convict. When a white woman is assaulted nearby, it provides the neighboring whites all the pretext they need to begin “investigating” in Rosewood, which quickly spirals into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
American racism, the film illustrates, was not simply defined by marginalization of black people, but the aggressive subjugation and destruction of them.
Written by stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, and directed by Carlos López Estrada, Blindspotting feels like the culmination of centuries of internalized racial tropes and stereotypes. Those perceptions and conceptions are now baked so thoroughly into our cultural infrastructure that they permeate our every interaction we have on levels both painfully obvious and dangerously imperceptible.
The film follows Collin, a black man on his last three days of probation as he tries to navigate the perils of life in a gentrifying Oakland, a fraying relationship with his white best friend, and the trauma of his recent experiences with the criminal justice system. Blindspotting is layered thick with piercing insights on identity, perception, erasure, and displacement cut with sharp humor and grounded by a sumptuous sense of place. But, at its heart (and beneath its colorful exterior, it’s all heart) is a coming of age tale about the struggle for personal growth set against a system designed to freeze certain people in place, even as it physically moves them out.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Despite its long history of under representation, American cinema is dotted with films that offer insight into race either explicitly or implicitly. Many of the directors of the films listed above have other offerings that are equally compelling. (I could easily have culled ten titles from Lee’s filmography alone). I encourage you to explore, share, think, and discuss. Surely whatever you find will provide more nourishing food for thought than The Help.