Racial Conflict In Cinema: A Primer

Some films to consider on the eve of DETROIT.

Detroit comes out this week. Get your tickets here.

Will Kathryn Bigelow's new film Detroit join the ranks of films like The Color Purple and Roots? Or will it be seen on the same level as movies like Crash (2004)? Only time will tell as the film is set to release this Friday, August 4, 2017. There was a strict divide among critics on whether or not this movie is meaningful or historically accurate, but one thing is clear: this film is scarily timely. Detroit tells the story of the Algiers Hotel and the torture endured there at the hands of the Detroit Police department. With the current rise of cases dealing with Police brutality in America, this movie will definitely hit a trigger point for everyone who watches.

Whether or not Detroit is your cup of tea, there are some other great films out there that deal with race, politics, and the law that should definitely be viewed in your lifetime. Here are a few I recommend.

I am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck, this radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words, is as profound as it is timely. In I am Not Your Negro, Baldwin confronts the deeper connections between the lives and assassinations of three civil rights leaders--Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. What is upsetting about this documentary is how seamlessly the film journeys into Black American history and connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter and beyond.

Why you should see this film: It paints a picture that things haven't changed; it's just history repeating itself. James Baldwin leaves behind a treasure trove of literary work that is bold enough to challenge the very definition of what it means to be Black in America.

Do The Right Thing

Do the Right Thing tells the story of a Brooklyn neighborhood on the edge of implosion. There is a heightened level of distrust among the inhabitants as black people are weary of white people and vice versa. Things reach a fever pitch when a triggering incident of violence from "trusted" authority figures strikes an innocent bystander. 1980s New York was high time for Police brutality among marginalized communities. So much so, Spike Lee dedicated the movie to the families of six victims of police brutality: Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Jr., Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart.

Why you should see this film: The movie looks at race from several vantage points and empathizes with all the participants. Lee knows how to employ music, color, and humor to lighten the mood in material that is plagued with grim social commentary.


Ava DuVernay's film about the march in Selma, Alabama covers an integral part of Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy. However, the film expands beyond that. It's as much about intra-racial in-fighting and political maneuvering as it is about King's activism. The opening scene chronicles the American South before the Voting Rights Act, with poll taxes, ridiculous literacy tests, and anything else lawmakers could think of to suppress the Black vote, which is an issue the South is still dealing with today.

Why you should see this film: Over all other movies about Martin Luther King Jr., Selma shows the audience how flawed Dr. King was. The frustration, the exhaustion, and the pessimism he experiences take him down a few notches and turns him into a relatable man. Most importantly, the historical significance of this particular march not only changes the course the Civil Rights Movement but changes American history.

Malcolm X

Spike Lee is all about centering the Black struggle. As one of his most influential movies to date, Malcolm X set a precedence for how cinematic biographies should be. Some may go into the film expecting to see an angry Black man ranting about how much he hates white people for two hours. This isn’t that movie. Lee shows a progression of Malcolm's life as he goes from petty criminal Malcolm Little to the inner circle of top members of the nation of Islam as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He was also capable of stepping outside of himself and critiquing his methods. X was also known to be critical of the nation of Islam, which most likely lead to his demise.

Why you should see this film: The film isn’t exclusionary like many may think it is. Malcolm X didn't always maintain his stance of violence towards whites, especially after his trip to the Holy Muslim city of Mecca. This movie shows a human side to Malcolm X as he was not only an activist, but he was also a poet, a father, a student, and a teacher.


Mahatma Gandhi is a world renowned civil rights leader from India who practiced civil disobedience, which aided in the independence of India from British rule. The biographical film is directed by Richard Attenborough and stars Ben Kingsley in an Oscar nominated performance. The movie starts with Gandhi as a young man in South Africa where he is subjected to racial discrimination and stripped of his fundamental human rights. The cruelty he witnessed in Africa felt all too familiar to the experiences in India. He knew the situation needed to be rectified, but he was not sure how to do it. Over the course of his life, his activism took the form of non-violence which still lead to the deaths of many India citizens who followed him.

Why you should see this film: Despite the hardships Gandhi faced, his sacrifice did not go unrecognized. The British eventually granted India their independence, but it took many sleepless nights, hunger strikes, and senseless murder to get there.

Ghost of Mississippi

Medgar Evers is one of the first major civil rights leaders to die in the South at the height of the movement. While Evers may not be as well known as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, his work as an activist has left an everlasting impression on the Black community. Directed by Rob Reiner, Ghosts of Mississippi follows Bobby DeLaughter and Myrlie Evers as they work to find closure on a 30-year mystery as to who killed Medgar Evers.

Why you should see this film: This is such a poignant film because it displays the insidious nature of white supremacy and the indifference of law enforcement as they were slow to act when prosecuting the murder. For goodness sake, Evers’ killer was tried twice in 1963, and both trials ended in hung juries.

Mississippi Burning

As you can see, Mississippi is something of a civil rights black hole. First with the death of Medgar Evers in 1963, and then in 1964, three civil rights workers were kidnapped and killed in cold blood. FBI agents Rupert Andersen and Alan Ward are deployed to Mississippi to investigate the killings of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. All three men worked at a pop-up voter registry for minorities in Jessup County, Mississippi. The agents are met with hostility partly because of the massive influence the Ku Klux Klan had over the county.

Why you should watch this film: Not only is this film about racism and civil rights, but it’s also a gritty police drama that is as shocking as it is endearing.


The numerous high profile cases of Police brutality haven't gone unnoticed as director Camilla Hall dares to tackle the issue in the documentary Copwatch. The film chronicles members of the Copwatch movement has they watch and record Police actions via video camera and smart-phones. The most notable cases of cop watching are in the case of Eric Garner (with footage captured by Ramsey Orta), and the death of Freddie Gray (recorded by Kevin Moore). Recording cops may seem like a safe way to be a Good Samaritan without directly getting involved, but based on what these gentlemen have gone through this isn't the case.

Why you should watch this film: The documentary premiered at this years Tribeca Film Festival and shows that there is a new type of activism which documents Police actions and holds them accountable when they violate the law.


Amistad is the Steven Spielberg film based on the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy by Howard Jones. On the slave ship ‘La Amistad’, Slaves on route to Cuba were able to get free of their chains and take control of the ship. Two ship crew members were spared and instructed to take them back to Africa. However, they were lead to an American port, arrested, and then put on trial for killing Spanish citizens. The main argument against the Africans was that they were considered property and did not have the right to fight against their captors. But defense attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin protested that the inhabitants of the boat were kidnapped, illegally brought to America, making it so they have a right to defend themselves.

Why you should watch this film: Because it will take you out of your comfort zone. It's an inside look at an element of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the horrendous conditions Africans endured on the way to America.

Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock

Teepees on fire, heavy police presence, planned pipelines ready to transport hazardous oil throughout the United States--this is Standing Rock, North Dakota. The breathtaking and peaceful landscape is now rife with hopelessness due to the Dakota access pipeline running through sacred Sioux Indian territory. The rise of the Standing Rock protests is the biggest movement since Black Lives Matter established itself. The wounds are still fresh, but this documentary serves as a wake-up call for everyone. Americans should care about the environment and what happens to it as this isn’t just a problem to be solved by Native Americans.

Why you should watch this film: The peaceful protesters were attacked by police daily, so the film seeks to answer the question, when the police are out of line, who will protect innocent people from the police?

Get your Detroit tickets here!