5 Movies You Should See on Race

Black movement at 24 frames per second – which gives us the “illusion” we call film – has gone in a variety of directions. Some movies are forward-looking and inspiring, others are questionable fare, best forgotten by the closing credits.

This year’s Oscars was a case of black cinema moving in the right direction – for the most part. With the Best Picture nominations of such films as If Beale Street Could Talk, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, something alchemically-heavy was brewing. Then Green Book won for Best Picture and started another conversation on how race is dealt with in movies. Whether it’s handled well or not depends on your perception of what a movie about race is supposed to be (and do). If it’s billed as “based on real events,” you expect some artistic license, but at least a hint, an attempt at verisimilitude.

Dr. Melba Joyce Boyd, distinguished professor in the department of African American Studies at Wayne State University teaches film and classes on African-American culture. Boyd’s sharp in her criticism of the 2019 Oscar winner starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, as the classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. Shirley’s family have distanced themselves from the movie, calling the depiction false. Boyd found the movie maudlin and predictable.

“You’re going to tell me this black man never had fried chicken?” Boyd says. “Come on. Stop. And you have this Italian guy who’s going to introduce him to fried chicken. He was supposed to have a transformative experience by taking this job. Out of all of the films that came out last year … really? It didn’t even have to be about race to beat that movie out.”

Although Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was a superior film, Boyd found the riff on history lacking in, well … history. “The lead character not only spied on the Klan, he also spied on black civil rights organizations,” she says. “It ends with this false image of him being in concert with his love interest.”


Boyd admits she’s a huge James Baldwin fan and would have liked to see If Beale Street Could Talk win the Oscar, however, out of all the movies on the roster, she would have given Black Panther the trophy for its progressive take on race.

“I thought the best film of the year was Black Panther in every aspect,” Boyd says. “It’s an unprecedented production. It had superior actors in it. It was captivating. It challenges the imagination.”

What other movies “challenge the imagination” and say something unique about race?

Here, Boyd gives us five to start with.

1. Amistad (1997)

“It’s the best presentation of what the middle passage was actually like. I taught it this semester and students are just blown away and upset, but it’s crucial because it’s so realistic. They don’t understand because they’re not taught the history. They come to a level of understanding of how horrific this moment is in world history.”

2. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

“(This is) another film that I teach and I think everyone should see. It’s one of the most realistic presentations of the slave experience and also the ongoing racism that existed: the danger that black people were in, even if they had gained their freedom and were still living in the United States. It did actually win the best film (category) when it came out. It’s an amazing film.”

3. Get Out (2017)

“I think it deals with this whole illusion of the post-racial society, the myth that everybody was into. (This) allowed for a lot people who were still racist – and didn’t know they were racist – to have to look at the consequences. You consider the different ways black talent is exploited. That film is a really interesting film to stimulate discussion about racism.

4. Boycott (2001)

“(This film) is sort of obscure because it’s an HBO film, which is about how Dr. King got drawn into the civil rights movement when he started his career as a minister in Montgomery. It stars Jeffrey Wright … it’s a fairly old film, but it deals with his grappling with the concept of nonviolence as a political strategy – it reveals him as human being. It’s a huge demand on him and his family and also the fact that he realized that it probably was going to get him killed, he understood that early on.”

5. The Human Stain (2003)

“It’s a film about a guy who is black, but looks white. His other siblings look black, so he decides he’s going to pass for white and ultimately he’s estranged from his family. It’s a subject that isn’t looked at a lot – passing. It’s interesting because it shows all of the internal strife he goes through. Passing is also a reference we use for when people die: so-and-so passed away. (For black) people when you pass for white, you’re no longer the person – you’re dead to the community.”

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