What to watch: It's time for white Americans to learn more about systemic racism
It has been a terrible, traumatic and terrifying week for America. An outcry, and an uprising, has erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and police forces across the country have reacted with violence and excessive force. After a long weekend of protests, tear gas and looting, the outrage did not seem to be letting up, stoked anew by President Donald Trump's aggressive rhetoric and threats of military action.
This anger and rage at police violence and systemic racism is not just a week old, or a few years old, or a decade or even 50 years old. It is centuries in the making. To understand and meaningfully contribute to this movement will require many white Americans to simply listen to black Americans and to educate themselves about the inequality baked into our society, about the racist social and economic policies that have oppressed many black Americans, even as we preach about a post-racial society. Now is the time to learn.
Ava DuVernay's powerful Oscar-nominated 2016 Netflix documentary "13th" is a fast, furious and information-packed film about race, the justice system and the effects of mass incarceration. The title refers to the 13th amendment, which abolishes slavery, except, of course, for criminals, who are stripped of their human rights upon entering and exiting the system. Much of the film hinges around the arguments of writer Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," that the criminal justice system is an extension of slavery and Jim Crow laws as a racialized system of control. "13th" touches upon the civil rights movement, the war on drugs, Hollywood, redlining and the prison industrial complex. And though it communicates a vast breadth of information, DuVernay presents it clearly and in a way that it is absolutely electrifying and infuriating. Also available on Netflix is "When They See Us," DuVernay's award-winning miniseries about the Central Park Five, a group of unjustly convicted black teenagers.
Alexander also appears in Eugene Jarecki's 2012 documentary "The House I Live In" (free to stream on Tubi), which makes the same argument as "13th" but is more specifically focused on the war on drugs. Jarecki's film illustrates the racist historical context for criminalizing drug use, due to white fears about other ethnic groups gaining economic power. He also demonstrates the destructive cycles of poverty and criminality that oppressed minorities become locked in once they are convicted of a drug charge, and the brutality of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which are opposed even by the judges and prison guards he interviews. It is all about economics in Jarecki's film, from the need to turn to alternate, criminal economies after being shut out of the main economy through racist social policies and the for-profit prison system.
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck brought an unfinished manuscript of critic and novelist James Baldwin to life with his 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," ($2.99 on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play). The book was intended to be about the interconnected lives of civil rights activists and friends of Baldwin's, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all three assassinated in their prime, during the height of their activism. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck enlivens the text with archival footage and photographs, and clips of the charismatic Baldwin's television appearances. He updates the material, bringing the brilliant thinker's words to bear on contemporary events with a lighting-fast edit through the major political movements and films about race of the 20th century. It's an investigation of the norm of whiteness in our culture, and a bold reminder we'll never reconcile the existential crisis of America without reckoning with issues of race and inequality.
Spike Lee, the auteur who made the seminal protest film, "Do The Right Thing" ($3.99 on Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu, YouTube), intimately grapples with the simmering and deeply rooted issues that cause civil unrest. He also made the somber and sensitive documentary "4 Little Girls" (available on HBO), about the Birmingham church bombing that claimed the lives of four young girls and shocked a nation. It's a serious film that looks at the context for the violence, including horrific acts of domestic terrorism enacted on black Birmingham residents during this time of segregation, and pays tribute to the memories of the victims.