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Black Lives Matter at the Movies

Aired on June 7, 2020 (Episode #803)

In recent days, the nation has been gripped by protests, riots, and social unrest following the death of George Floyd while he was in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. These events occurred in the larger context of a national debate about civil rights and policing that is commonly referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement. Today’s show examined the overlap between movies and this movement with the intention of pointing the audience in the direction of feature films and documentaries that can help make sense of what is happening.

I. The Black Lives Matter Genre

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 following the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old African American who was fatally shot by an adult citizen. When the shooter was acquitted of murder, a national movement was started that sought to draw attention to the way the dignity and civil rights of black citizens are routinely violated. As a movement, Black Lives Matter is decentralized although there is a loose network of activist groups working for social justice. Since the Trayvon Martin murder trial, the Black Lives Matter movement has seized upon subsequent incidents of violence against people of color who were killed, oftentimes by police officers and under suspicious circumstances. This has led to highly publicized public demonstrations that sometimes resulted in violent clashes with law enforcement.

The Black Lives Matter movement has remained in the news since 2013 in part because of a steady stream of national news stories in which African Americans were alleged to have been unjustifiably killed by police. In that time, filmmakers have responded to the news and a whole genre of Black Lives Matter movies has emerged over the past seven years.

The most visible of these films was 2018’s The Hate U Give. Adapted from the novel by Angie Thomas, this film is about an African American teenage girl who lives in a black neighborhood but attends a predominantly white private school. When she is witness to a friend wrongfully killed by a police officer, the young woman must reconcile her fractured identity and confront her place in her community and she becomes a voice in the movement. It is a didactic film but The Hate U Give is also the essential Black Lives Matter drama released so far. 

Also released in 2018 was Blindspotting. This movie shared some of the same ideas as The Hate U Give and again it is about an African American character, in this case an adult parolee, who is witness to a police shooting. It’s also a tale about gentrification and the way identity and locality are intertwined.

Queen & Slim was a 2019 drama about a traffic stop gone bad and an African American couple go on the run after killing a police officer. It’s a flawed movie but there are some poetic moments in it and the film is an interesting exploration of identity.

Also released in 2019 was Just Mercy. The movie was the true story of a civil right lawyer working with death row inmates in Alabama. Just Mercy is designed to critique the death penalty and it dramatizes some of the racial disparities in the justice system.

2013’s Fruitvale Station was the directorial debut feature of Ryan Coogler who went on to helm Creed and Black Panther. Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the 2008 killing of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area police officer. The movie was not as complex as some of these other titles but it was very effective as a visceral cinematic experience.

If Beale Street Could Talk was adapted from the novel by James Baldwin. In this film an African American woman tries to clear the name of the father of her unborn child when he is wrongly accused of rape. The movie was less confrontational than these other titles but in some ways it was more effective. The love story of this couple is so involving and so vivid that the movie demands we recognize their humanity.

In addition to feature films there have also been a number of Black Lives Matter documentaries. Several films cataloged African American deaths involving police and the protests they inspired. Among these films is Baltimore Rising which is about the death of Freddie Gray while he was in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department and the public outcry and clashes between law enforcement and activists that followed. The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was the basis for several documentaries including Whose Streets? which focuses on community activism. Do Not Resist uses the protests following Michael Brown’s death as a way to examine the militarization of local police forces. And 2018’s Say Her Name documents the legacy of Sandra Bland who died in jail following a traffic stop.

Most of these titles are straightforward about their intention to advance the Black Lives Matter agenda. The feature films use the components of drama to lead us to empathize with their characters while the documentaries are time capsules of this era and summarize the facts in the case. But these films are also personal statements. These filmmakers, many of them African American, attempt to communicate a specific aspect of the black experience to a broader viewership. These titles offer opportunities for the audience, including the black audience but especially non-black viewers, to begin to empathize and understand what is behind this movement.

II. Historical Narratives

The Black Lives Matter films like The Hate U Give and Blindspotting are about the present but historical films are also a part of this genre. One of the primary reasons for digging into the past is to comment upon the present. These movies look to history to provide context and draw connections between what happened in the past and what is happening now. That context gives our present deeper and more nuanced meaning.

There were a number of movies about the history of slavery released in the past few years. Despite being such a critical part of this country’s history, slavery hasn’t been depicted very much in American film. These new slavery pictures were often unsparing in depicting the violence and trauma of that institution and by far the most accomplished title was 12 Years a Slave. Based on the life of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave was a brutal depiction of slavery and its dehumanizing effects on both the enslaved and the slave owners. What’s especially unnerving about this story is that Northup was a free man who was kidnapped and then sold into slavery; the fragility of Northup’s freedom and citizenship made for politically provocative viewing in the age of mass incarceration and 12 Years a Slave depicted trauma in ways that were visceral but also poetic.

Also notable is Mudbound. This adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel took place in Jim Crow era Mississippi and depicted the intertwined stories of a white and black family. Mudbound has impressive scope and an unsparing tone. Important to this story is the subplot of the African American son who combats fascism in World War II but then returns to America and faces the very kind of discrimination he fought against in Europe. It’s a powerful juxtaposition.

The civil rights era has been depicted on screen more often than slavery but the stories are frequently softened. Movies like The Help and Green Book have kept the violence of the era at a distance or depicted racism as a problem unique to backwards southerners as seen in films like Mississippi Burning. It’s a curious oversight. Other cultural events of that period, namely the Vietnam War, have been depicted on screen without softening the violence and moral ambiguity. The 2014 historical drama Selma was a refreshingly grounded take on the civil rights era. This dramatization of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama juxtaposed the strategy of the civil rights leaders with the barbarity of the resistance that they faced. 

One of the more contentious historical pieces of the Black Lives Matter era was Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization of the 1967 riots in which a group of police officers interrogated guests and staff at the Algiers Motel. The film was criticized for its brutality and Detroit is an unpleasant film to watch. As a viewing experience, Detroit feels less like Selma and more like Last House on the Left. But that’s the point.

Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman was loosely based on true events. The film depicts an African American police detective who teamed with a Jewish colleague to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Lee’s film was quite funny but it also made explicit connections between the past and the present.

Recent years also saw the release of several retrospective documentaries that provided context for the Black Lives Matter movement. The 1992 Los Angeles riots followed the acquittal of white police officers who severely beat African American civilian Rodney King. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the riots occasioned several documentaries. LA 92 was made for National Geographic and drew connections between the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 unrest while L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later juxtaposed the Los Angeles riots with more recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Another historical documentary relevant to the Black Lives Matter era was 2013’s Let the Fire Burn. The film recounts the 1985 standoff between the Philadelphia Police Department and the Black Liberation organization MOVE. The film draws entirely from archival footage and assembles it into a gripping and upsetting story.

These historical features and documentaries provide a timeline of events that contextualize the present clashes between white supremacy and the African American community. These conflicts are not new. They are part of an ongoing national narrative. The viewing experience can be disheartening; it’s easy to feel as though history is perpetually repeating itself with no progress. But these movies can also provide some perspective and even be an odd sort of comfort if we come away from them with the realization that the problems of the present are not unique and whatever stress we’re going through is survivable.

III. Ava DuVernay

Probably the single most important filmmaker in the Black Lives Matter oeuvre is Ava DuVernay. Early in her career she made a name for herself as a publicist and DuVernay began making feature films in the 2010s. DuVernay broke into the mainstream with the 2014 historical drama Selma. The movie told the story of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who campaigned for equal voting rights with a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The film broke from the sanitized and overly reverential regard for history so common to civil rights stories and dramatized history with grit and humanity and violence.

DuVernay followed up Selma with the television movie For Justice about a black FBI agent and a white civil rights lawyer who investigate the murder of an African American business leader in a small Ohio town. In 2016 DuVernay directed 13th, a documentary about the United States’ prison system, arguing that mass incarceration constitutes a contemporary form of slavery. 13th is a provocative work that strikes at the core of American identity as “the land of the free.”

DuVernay’s most ambitious project was 2019’s When They See Us, a dramatic miniseries about the Central Park Five. In 1989 a white female jogger was assaulted in New York City’s Central Park. Five African American teenagers were arrested and wrongly convicted of the crime. When They See Us tells the story of the young men from the evening of the assault through their trial and convictions and their eventual exoneration as adults. The film’s portrait of these boys is nuanced and When They See Us demands that we see them as full people. But just as the film gets us to empathize with these young men it is also makes us reexamine the ways in which the outside world looks at these African American boys. As the very title of When They See Us suggests, the film is about the way the legal system and mainstream culture regards young African American men and the presumption of guilt that is foisted upon them.

DuVernay’s work has one foot planted in social activism and the other in drama and filmmaking. She’s been successful at reconciling the two, using cinema to advance her political agenda but without allowing the craft of her work to be overwhelmed by it. There’s no mistaking that these movies are political but they rarely feel like a political film. Her work does not lecture us; instead DuVernay uses the elements of cinematic storytelling to lead us where she wants us to go. The synchronicity between DuVernay’s politics and her craft has made her one of the most effective political filmmakers at this moment and one of the primary cinematic voices of the Black Lives Matter era.

IV. Genre Films

Most of the feature films that I’ve discussed so far have been realistic stories either drawn from history or based on reality. As useful as it is to face matters head on, it is sometimes useful to do so in a roundabout way through the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Slightly disguising the material through metaphor or using the distance inherent to a fantasy can make difficult material more accessible. It can also distill complex ideas into an image.

Concurrent with the Black Lives Matter movement has been a rejuvenation of the horror genre. This should not be a surprise since horror tends to produce its most interesting work during periods of cultural stress. Among the notable new horror filmmakers is Jordan Peele who released Get Out and Us. Get Out literalizes the way mainstream white society tokenizes African Americans and sees them not as people but as accessories. Us is more abstract than Get Out and it is as much about race as it is about class as it posits an underworld populated by doppelgangers who have been forced to live underneath mainstream society.

One of the major horror franchises to emerge in the Black Lives Matter era has been The Purge series. Extended across four films (with a fifth on the way) as well as a television series, The Purge was about a near future in which American life revolves around a yearly holiday when all crime, including murder, is legal. Although the Purge films are uneven, they are politically provocative. In many cases, especially the first film, the violence is wrought by white characters against people of color. Especially interesting is the prequel The First Purge which makes clear that the annual killing spree was conceived as a way for the ruling class to thin out the black and economically disadvantaged population.

Much less horrific but no less political was 2018’s Sorry to Bother You. The movie was a surrealistic tale of an African American telemarketer who learns to use his “white voice” and the telemarketer’s success puts him on the fast track to the top of the company. The movie is a wild critique of capitalism and the way people may compromise themselves in the pursuit of upward mobility.

As fanciful as they are, these horrors and fantasies are not so removed from our lives as we might think. Juxtaposed with some of the headlines and news footage of recent years, a few sequences in The Purge films feel downright credible. Fantasy and especially horror are a way of literalizing the everyday fears of the culture. Movies like Get Out and The Purge and Sorry to Bother You were so effective because they tapped into the anxieties of our age and put them on display in a way that was accessible and cathartic.

Read the other commentary from this episode: Hollywood’s Policing Problem.

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