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50 movies that address the history of racism in America

  • 50 movies that address the history of racism in America

    Movies give us perspective and allow us to watch certain events play out in front of our eyes. They can be educational and entertaining, making proper representation a significant factor in filmmaking. Black representation in Hollywood was almost nonexistent in the early 20th century, and when images of African Americans were shown, they were given negative stereotypes and criticized with racist imagery and oppression.

    Years of systematic racism riddle the Black community today, but it was even more blatant back then. Young Black children around the country would turn on the television to a lack of positive images outside of racial stereotypes. As the years went on, Black representation slowly but surely began to make its way through the airwaves, and it started to educate people on the realities of Black lives as many Black filmmakers, actors, and writers created a new cycle of Black cinema with a variety of genres.

    Black films have become a staple in the Black community, leaving long-lasting impacts on the culture for years to come. Black artistry continues to rise in theaters and on television as the industry learns to cater to different skin types, film angles, genre diversities, and plot lines within Black culture.

    Stacker extensively researched the history of Black filmmaking and Black lives captured on screen in both fiction features and documentaries, and compiled a list of 50 diverse films that address the history of racism in America in one way or the other using IMDb data as of June 3, 2020. To amplify Black voices and firsthand experience, the overwhelming majority of the films on this list are made by Black filmmakers. The films are organized chronologically.

    Check out these stories that shine a light on Black voices throughout cinema.

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  • Within Our Gates (1920)

    - Director: Oscar Micheaux
    - IMDb user rating: 6.3
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 79 min

    "Within Our Gates" follows a mixed-race woman who ventures North during the Jim Crow era in hopes of raising money for a Black school in the South. Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American feature-filmmaker, portrays racial violence and strict contrasts between the Black people who lived in rural areas to those who migrated to urban cities. The silent film is highly critiqued to be a response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," and a turning point for African American cinema.

  • Shadows (1958)

    - Director: John Cassavetes
    - IMDb user rating: 7.3
    - Metascore: 86
    - Runtime: 87 min

    Leila, a white-passing, Black woman in New York City, falls in love with a white man, but the relationship ends when he meets her dark-skinned brother and realizes she is Black. Leila and her two brothers navigate their racial identity with their skin complexion at the forefront of their narratives. This movie brings awareness to the multifaceted issues that surround Black livelihood.

  • A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

    - Director: Daniel Petrie
    - IMDb user rating: 8.0
    - Metascore: 87
    - Runtime: 128 min

    Attempting to fulfill the American dream in a racially segregated Chicago, a Black family looking to buy a home in a white neighborhood becomes a victim of housing discrimination and racial threats. The film addresses the racial injustices Black people face when attempting to follow their dreams, bearing the question, "what happens to a dream deferred?"

  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

    - Director: Stanley Kramer
    - IMDb user rating: 7.8
    - Metascore: 63
    - Runtime: 108 min

    This classic film depicts a couple's interracial love as they confront each other's family members' initial disapproval. Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier's characters dive deep into the anti-miscegenation laws of the time and explore certain hypocrisies that potentially stem from white-liberalism.

  • In the Heat of the Night (1967)

    - Director: Norman Jewison
    - IMDb user rating: 7.9
    - Metascore: 75
    - Runtime: 110 min

    In this five-time Academy Award-winning movie, a Black detective (Sidney Poitier) gets caught in the middle of a murder investigation and eventually proves his innocence. After his release, he's now in charge of the case but faces difficulties when he's partnered with the racist sheriff (Rod Steiger), who accused him of murder. The film was shot during the civil rights movement and examined racial policing and bigotry.

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  • Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)

    - Director: William Greaves
    - IMDb user rating: 7.3
    - Metascore: 71
    - Runtime: 75 min

    William Greaves experiments "a film within a film within a film." While at times baiting his predominantly white crew over political topics, Greaves allows the actors to follow their narratives on issues of race and sexuality. In fact, the lack of direction is how he wanted to bring out the reality of his crew's thoughts on screen.

  • The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)

    - Director: Melvin Van Peebles
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 87 min

    An African American soldier named Turner is stationed in France and struggles with his own identity as a Black man in the army. After meeting and spending the weekend with a French woman, Turner finds that he is not exempt from racial prejudices, and he's forced to face his lack of freedom and discrimination within the military.

  • The Learning Tree (1969)

    - Director: Gordon Parks
    - IMDb user rating: 7.1
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 107 min

    Gordon Parks tackles adolescent sexuality, morality, and racism, centering a young Black teenager in 1920s rural Kansas. The tragic trial of events portrayed in the film speaks volumes to the harsh realities Black Americans face beginning at a young age.

  • Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

    - Director: Ossie Davis
    - IMDb user rating: 6.5
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 97 min

    This slapstick comedy is widely known as one of the earliest examples of blaxploitation. Popular throughout the 1970s, the genre has been criticized but also praised by the Black community for characters who, at their core, promote messages of Black empowerment. The story follows a man attempting to raise money to return to Africa (mirroring the teachings of Marcus Garvey), all of which was actually an elaborate scam.

  • Sounder (1972)

    - Director: Martin Ritt
    - IMDb user rating: 7.5
    - Metascore: 80
    - Runtime: 105 min

    A Black sharecropping family and their dog experience extreme poverty during the Great Depression. They fight to survive after the father is jailed for stealing food. Starring Cicely Tyson, the story themes prison labor, Black poverty, and access to education within the Black community.

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