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Home   /   How I educated myself on Black Lives Matter through film

Amidst the pain, strife, terror and misery that 2020 offered, something inspiring happened. Black Lives Matter, for obviously terrible reasons, was thrown, once again, into the spotlight. It wasn’t just a trend, it was a movement. It made people understand that-yes-the police force is an issue.

The tragic and abhorrent murders of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson and many, many, many more black lives have been taken by police officers in positions of power in the US in the last 10 years alone.

There is so much that can be done, and yet, schools in the UK and USA are failing to appropriately teach students about black history. About black lives and about civil rights movements.

Fed up with this, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I can learn about black lives in a number of different ways but the one that immediately struck me was through film. Black writers and directors telling stories on their own terms. Setting right what has previously never been taught.

For me, I took 4 black films and explored how they treated racism, black culture and black history, all films dealing with different areas and different black experiences. There is a spoiler warning as I will be discussing these films in depth.

Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee (1989)

Of course, I would be wrong to start anywhere other than perhaps one of the greatest films of all time, Do The Right Thing. Set over the course of one extremely hot day in a black neighbourhood, tensions rise as a result of an Italian pizzeria’s refusal to place any black pictures on the wall along with other “famous faces”. The tension rises to the point of conflict, a riot that breaks out in the neighbourhood that eventually results in the murder of Radio Raheem, a mostly silent protagonist who plays his jukebox around town.

Sound familiar? Director and writer Spike Lee thought so, comparing the death of Radio Raheem with George Floyd and Eric Garner in a short film he released last year entitled “3 Brothers”. The heartless murder of Raheem leaves the city in shock. Some characters scream, others stand and watch in shock. The film ends with two quotes, one from Martin Luther King advocating peaceful protests and another from Malcolm X advocating violence as a form of self-defence. Lee refuses to answer which one is right, making the title of the movie all the more powerful and foreboding. 

BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee (2018)

Spike Lee recognises the power of a shared black experience like no other film maker alive. In 2018, he released BlacKkKlansman, the true account of a black police officer who infiltrated the Klu Klax Klan and effectively took them down from the inside. The language used from KKK members in this film is shocking.

The movie opens with an “educational video” that uses the most abhorrent, disgustingly racist terms imaginable to describe black people. This opened my eyes to a lot of the racist language that became commonplace in so much media. It taught me that the media can be racist, even looking at the treatment of Meghan Markle, who was described by the Daily Mail as “straight outta Compton”, and described her upbringing as “gang-scarred”.

Where BlacKkKlansman was most effective is in the anger it portrayed. In one scene, a domestic white terrorist is treated as a victim, and the black officer, Ron Stallworth, who tried to arrest her treated as the villain by two cops. It’s horrifying, and intense and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, take the treatment offered to Stallworth by a white cop that he works with is infuriating.

Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley (2018)

Luckily, BlacKKKlansman had a happier ending than Do The Right Thing, but my third film, Sorry to Bother You, offered the most experimental and stylistic approach to black filmmaking. Director, Boots Riley, is a rapper and activist, who’s approach to story-telling bordered on the surreal, except it’s message is shockingly true and painfully honest. It features telemarketer Cassius Green, who discovers that by using his “white voice” it will offer him more opportunities.

Immediately, this indicates the snobbery, exclusivity and racism that is on show in so many companies: be white or fake it. The opportunities that Green is offered take the film to dark (and frightening places) and features a finale so shocking, bizarre and uncomfortable that it borders on horror. Sorry to Bother You showed me that racism is not something that exists just in the past. It is real, thriving and sometimes so subtle that it creeps in on you when you least expect it.

Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King (2020)

The last film that I want to discuss also affected me emotionally the most. Judas and the Black Messiah tells the real, horrifying story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton by William O’Neal and Hampton’s subsequent murder by police officers. Hampton is the leader of the Black Panthers party in Illinois and the treatment by cops that he receives (including a prison sentence for stealing ice cream to feed starving kids) is nothing short of disgusting.

It opened my eyes more than most films to the real history of black people, the real pains that they go through, and frightening predictions of future that are likely to occur if nothing is done to change it.

I strongly recommend all 4 films that I have listed and would encourage you, the reader, to seek out more work by black artists, or, alternatively, consider donating to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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July 2024