It’s been over a year now since the Academy Awards copped flak for apparently ignoring black films and filmmakers. But truth be told, most films tackling race that earn the Academy’s attention all involve slavery (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln etc.) – which almost feels like a self-congratulating, forced apology for the same issue over and over. When thinking of films involving racism and racial issues, the slavery-based are often the first to come to mind, but there are many excellent pieces of cinema that cover a massive range of other race concerns, both current and historical. We’ve been treated to several this year alone with great range to them – uplifting (Hidden Figures), modest (Loving) and creative (Get Out). There’s so many great films out there that tackle race in different ways – here’s just a few of them!
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Just about all of Spike Lee’s films centre around racial issues in some shape or form, but none made as big of a splash as his breakthrough Do the Right Thing, a film that pulls absolutely zero stops in picking apart racial profiling. Set in a massively diverse Brooklyn neighbourhood, racial tension is slowly building between the African-American and Italian-American members, with Chinese families, white cops and a mentally disabled man dragged into the brewing storm. Young black man Mookie (Spike Lee) works at the Italian Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizza shop. Things are civil until one of Mookie’s friends demands a black celebrity be included on Sal’s all-white Wall of Fame. Sal refuses, causing an outrage in the community that explodes in violence on the hottest day of the summer.
Lee opens a dialogue about whether or not violence is truly the right response to injustices – particularly those started by violence themselves – and invites the audience to decide what exactly “doing the right thing” is. He’s unafraid to show just how racist anyone can be either, no matter their own skin colour. The montage in which each race brutally impersonates the other is gold.
Racist stereotypes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLYTObRhcSY
American History X (1998)
Edward Norton has probably never been better than his ferocious portrayal of a skinhead coming to his senses in Tony Kaye’s shockingly unflinching American History X. Teenager Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) writes a paper for his history class on his older brother Derek (Norton), a former Neo-Nazi and white supremacist gang leader who, after a three-year prison sentence for brutally murdering two black men, realises the error of his ways. Once released, he becomes determined to prevent Danny from following in his footsteps.
Kaye’s success is in his refusal to be preachy. He lays out the raw hatred of the skinhead in all its gory glory, while also boldly humanising them. Effectively switching from black and white in Derek’s homicidal days to colour in his reformed state, Kaye suggests the importance of learning from the actions and consequences of leading a hate-filled life, and that redemption is always an option within grasping range.
Derek gets violent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOzR5Jnd6bU
Mississippi Burning (1988)
The most significant cultural leap in racial equality since the abolition of slavery was the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s; a massive operation to end segregation and create legal security for black people across America. Mississippi Burning explores the backlash and protest this movement faced, and how the mindset of many can remain unchanged as society progresses around them. When three civil rights activists go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi, two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) are sent in to investigate, but find themselves very unwelcome as the town residents, police and the Ku Klux Klan retaliate.
The post-slavery geographical divide remaining through America is evident, though director Alan Parker finds a moral conscience in the few honest and unprejudiced townspeople, black and white, who suffer horrific fates for speaking out. The complications, grief and torment faced by everyone involved in the movement on either side of the coin are streamlined to give an idea of what was faced by people of all perspectives throughout the era.
The burning cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbXTl0WX4RE
District 9 (2009)
No, seriously. While it might feature illegal aliens in the most literal sense, Neill Blomkamp’s ingenious metaphor for the apartheid – South Africa’s institutionalised racial segregation system throughout the latter half of the 20th century – couldn’t be more authentic. An extra-terrestrial race that appeared over Johannesburg a few decades ago is now confined to a refugee camp, and forcibly evicted and relocated by a military company hired by the government. Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat, is exposed to technology designed to return the species to their home planet, causing war between the emigrants and government.
Though the latter half evolves into traditional science-fiction, much of the set up cleverly analyses real racial concerns through this alien species. They’re treated inhumanely, forced to live in barely-sustainable conditions, given a derogatory eponym (“prawns”), and meet remorselessly violent ends if not cooperating with their regime. It’s a thrilling take on what human refugees undertook in South Africa’s toughest times.
Prawns get evicted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXHzOkAY9qo
Get Out image (c) 2017 Universal Pictures
Additional images courtesy of United International Pictures, Roadshow Films, Village Roadshow Corporation & Sony Pictures