If you’ve been watching the news or on social media lately, you’ve no doubt found it hard to ignore cases of videotaped racist incidents, or examples of police brutality that have triggered nationwide outrage and protests. From Breonna Taylor, the EMT who was killed when police entered her apartment on a search warrant; to the runner Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Georgia; to George Floyd, the man killed by an officer in Minneapolis, Americans are once again having passionate conversations about race relations in America. Sadly, these conversations, and the cases that prompted them, aren’t isolated or out of the ordinary; as Will Smith said a few years ago, “Racism isn’t getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”
Racism, police brutality, and racial violence can be complicated and possibly overwhelming issues to unpack, requiring an intimate understanding of segregation, income inequality, the criminal justice system, and more. It can be a lot, especially if these topics are new for you. Many Americans are turning to streaming platforms to learn more these topics, as evidenced by The Help, which is currently the most-viewed movie on Netflix. However, movies like The Help, Crash, Green Book, and more have been widely criticized by many (including Viola Davis who regrets taking her role in The Help) as narratives that center white protagonists’s viewpoints, emotions, and character arcs while using black trauma and pain to do so. To help you learn more and cut through the white noise, here’s a list of some great series and documentaries that center black perspectives and are a strong starting point for understanding these pressing social issues — and how all Americans are affected by them. This is just a very short list; for more, check out PBS’s large library of shows and documentaries and a trove of content on BET and BET+.
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Niecy Nash, Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us
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1. When They See Us (Netflix, 2019)
The gripping miniseries from Ava DuVernay dramatized the case of the Exonerated Five (previously called the “Central Park Five”) — a group of black and Latino teens who were wrongfully convicted in 1989 of raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park. That conviction was overturned in 2002 only after the real assailant came forward ,but the case became a real-time study in how police, the criminal justice system, and the news media tried and convicted boys of color despite a glaring lack of evidence. It’s a sobering, upsetting, and phenomenal piece of television, and Jharrel Jerome‘s Emmy-winning performance will haunt you.
2. 13th (Netflix, 2016)
Years before she took on one specific case of injustice with When They See Us, Ava DuVernay delved into a more sweeping, wide-ranging story with the phenomenal documentary 13th. Using plain, easy-to-understand language, logic, and facts, DuVernay lays out how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration in the United States. Breaking down the racist origins of “the war on drugs” and coded language like “tough on crime” and “law and order,”, this fierce documentary is an eye-opening and unsettling examination of how the amendment created a pipeline to put black boys and men in for-profit prisons. It’s a must-see for every American, and will challenge the beliefs of people who’ve never questioned the notion of liberty and justice for all. It was nominated for many prestigious awards, including a Best Documentary Oscar, and won a Best Documentary BAFTA, three Critics Choice awards including Best Documentary, an NAACP Image Award, and a Peabody, among other accolades.
3. The Central Park Five (PBS, 2012)
Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns‘ work on the aforementioned New York City case contains tons of archival footage and first-person testimony from reporters, people involved in the case, and historical context that explains how bias against people of color allowed five teenage boys to be sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit. It originally aired on PBS but is now available on on Amazon and iTunes.
4. Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Netflix, 2017)
This six-part series, which has Jay-Z as one if its executive producers, examines the case of Kalief Browder, who was a 16-year-old kid from the Bronx accused of stealing a backpack in 2009. He was sent to the notorious Rikers Island without trial, and, unable to afford bail, placed in solitary confinement for two years of a three year stay. Upon his release at age 22, he died by suicide — a death advocates say was due to the mental, physical and sexual abuse he endured in prison. His family settled a suit with New York City for $3.3 million in 2019 but, as this series explains, his imprisonment highlighted troubling ways black and Latino people are severely punished in the judicial and correctional systems.
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