In the summer of 2016, my cousin and I saw “Southside with You,” a biographical indie film depicting Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in 1989, filled with intelligent conversations between the future POTUS and FLOTUS about everything from bigotry to desserts. After Michelle and Barack watch a screening of Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” the two run into a white colleague from their law firm, who expresses confusion about the film’s end: Mookie (the film’s main character, played by Lee) throws a garbage can through the storefront window and incites violence from bystanders. Barack tells his colleague that Mookie did it to save the white storeowner — a common justification used by people who didn’t understand the film — but after he and Michelle are alone, he makes the truth clear: “Mookie threw that trash can because he was fucking angry.”
These words have been echoing through my mind as I watch the Black Lives Matter movement unfold over the death of George Floyd. Between the peaceful protests and strong social media coverage, some people have focused on moments of violence and looting peppered throughout the movement, finding riots to be just as coarse and confusing as white audiences did in 1989. White critics and viewers who watched “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 clung to their explanation because they struggled to comprehend the place of violence in the conflict — if Mookie threw the trash can with the good intentions of saving Sal, they think, then the violence is justified. The belief that violence delegitimizes the movement only demonstrates that these people don’t understand the conflict. And the fact that I was surprised by Barack’s comment while watching this movie in 2016 means that I don’t really understand it either.
These past few weeks have seen a whirlwind of protests as the Black Lives Matter movement gains steam across the country. There are many ways to get involved, whether it’s marching in protests, donating to bail funds or buying from Black-owned businesses. It’s also crucial for non-Black allies to take this time and educate themselves. There are many ways to do this: reading books or articles, listening to podcasts, watching speeches from community leaders, etc. Simple education on the Civil Rights movement is half the battle; the other half is forcing yourself to realign your view of the world to match those who have been oppressed for centuries. I turned to watching films, inspired by lists I’d seen circulating around social media. Film has long been an effective method of telling stories that aren’t always told and sharing voices that aren’t always heard, capable of filling in some blanks left by the American education system. Fictional or not, these stories are powerful, able to humanize people that are consistently dehumanized by the system and the media.
In January, I reviewed “Clemency” for the Daily, heralding it as a tragic but important depiction of the crippling prison system and death row. What I didn’t mention is that it took days after I’d watched it to process the full force of the story. It was a glimpse into a system so broken and destructive — murder that is sanctified because the state said it was okay, based on a crime that the man likely didn’t do. By becoming embedded in the story, you’re forced to acknowledge the sheer inhumanity of the system. Understanding the consequences of institutionalized racism and realities of police brutality is not simple — there are many layers to the conflict, extending from the macro to the micro.
Many mainstream films about Black struggles are surface-level, filled with simple racism that is easy to identify; others, like “The Help” — recently one of the most-watched films on Netflix — are written by white storytellers and are ultimately not the best for learning about the history of racial oppression. I encourage going deeper by looking up lists of essential Black Lives Matter viewing. Some which focus on the “systemic” part of systemic racism — like “Just Mercy,” about legendary civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s attempts to free an innocent man from death row, or “13th,” a documentary by Ava DuVernay that outlines the ways the United States justice system targets Black Americans and other people of color — taught me just how little I knew about our country’s prison system. Others force you to confront the victims of this system and empathize with them as human beings. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” director Barry Jenkins’s take on James Baldwin’s novel about two lovers torn apart by a racist cop and a wrongful conviction, considers the community that is impacted by someone who has been taken by the system despite not doing anything wrong. “When They See Us,” a limited series about the Central Park Five who were sickeningly coerced into confessing to a crime they didn’t do, shows how profiling ruins the lives of innocent people.
While watching “Do the Right Thing” for the first time, I was hit with the sinking realization that little has changed in the 30 years since the film was made. In terms of the concern over the looting and destruction of property, a quote from the “Do the Right Thing” Wikipedia page sums it up: “Viewers who question the riot are explicitly failing to see the difference between damage to property and the death of a Black man.” There is the film, and then there is the reality. It’s up to you, the viewers, to internalize and understand the similarities and differences between the two. For me that means watching films about oppression and the effects of police violence that I can’t fully understand. It means putting in the work to be a good ally — the only person who should have the burden of my education is myself. And as I’ve watched these films, I’ve been able to internalize what Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond meant when she said the protests in Minneapolis had been “a long time coming.”
Film is one way to educate yourself on these issues, especially as coverage of the movement starts to fade. Films like “Just Mercy” and “Selma” are free across platforms, while others are free on specific platforms. Netflix has even come out with a Black Lives Matter collection of films and series that cover issues faced by BIPOC. If you’re a Michigan student, the library system gives you free access to film databases with many important Black films. So take a break from binging “Avatar” and try to watch something that will give you some clarity for the present movement. Knowledge and empathy are powerful tools — maybe then we’ll be able to more holistically comprehend why people in this country are so fucking angry.