In honor of Juneteenth, I’ve put together a list of ten extraordinary films dealing with racism that are free to stream this month. Each is powerful, a cinematic achievement in its own right, and conveys important views about race in this country. Celebrate this weekend by continuing to learn about the Black experience.
Somehow I hadn’t watched Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay (who also directed 13th and When They See Us on Netflix), until two weeks ago. Truly inspiring dramatization of the protest marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This movie is a good example of how art can be used to give the audience a new perspective. You can read about all of the events that occurred in this movie, but it’s hard to imagine much more than the result. Seeing those events acted out really emphasizes the endless cruelty and setbacks Black people had to endure at the time, which provides a better reflection on what Black people still experience today. I liked how MLK was portrayed as not just the hero he is, but as a regular human who had faults, doubts, and fears. This movie was another reminder of the importance of voting. People actually died fighting for that right. (And some continue to do so.) Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows a Black man reclaiming his childhood home, a now expensive Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood of San Francisco. Gorgeous cinematography and powerful storytelling. Difficult to compare it to other movies. Gentrification has been increasing at such a high rate that many of us probably don’t think about it that much. But this movie forces us to consider the real effects it has on Black communities. Streaming indefinitely on Amazon Prime.
In the Heat of the Night was one of the first major Hollywood films to feature a Black hero. Sidney Poitier plays a detective who must solve a murder and overcome prejudice in rural Mississippi. The film won a bunch of Oscars and remains on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list. I have a soft spot for movies from the 60s, but they obviously show hardly any diversity, so this one definitely stands out. Though the hero is a detective, the plot treats law enforcement as the complicated system it still is today. Most millenials probably don’t know that the quote “they call me Mister Tibbs!” comes from this movie and not The Lion King. Streaming on Amazon Prime through June 30.
I generally despise YA books, but I have to give credit to The Hate U Give for teaching me something new and not completely annoying me with the first person teenage narrative. The protagonist witnesses the death of her Black friend at the hands of a police officer, and the story follows her fight for justice and reexamination of her own place in life. It prompted me to watch the movie version, which also does a great job of conveying the grief and confusion. What makes this most unique is probably the fact that it features a young, black, female perspective, which unfortunately is still uncommon in mainstream literature and film. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.
American Son was based on the Broadway play, featuring the same four-person cast. (Wish I’d gotten to see the show live, but unfortunately it ran before I moved to NYC… Otherwise you know I would’ve seen it!) Kerry Washington plays a mother waiting at a police station, trying to locate her missing son. The movie feels a lot like a play, with essentially only a single scene, allowing for a more nuanced perspective on the struggles involved in raising a half-Black son in the U.S. today. The tension builds to a predictable ending, but the frustration, regret, and helplessness she portrays are the movie’s biggest takeaway. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.
Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about a gay Black man growing up in Miami, was the first film with an all-Black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Remember the awkward mix-up with La La Land…) It’s a little more “indie” than most of the others on this list, but undoubtedly beautiful. And A24 has been killing it lately, both in the mainstream and independent crowds. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.
I almost didn’t watch Just Mercy because the trailers alone made me cry every time I came across one, and I felt like I already got the gist from Googling the true story. But I’m glad I did because it was extremely inspiring, though also completely heartbreaking. The plot follows a Black man on death row, who appeals his murder conviction with the help of a young defense attorney. Highly recommend for lawyers, but also everyone else. Michael B. Jordan stars (along with Jamie Foxx), and I want to mention another important movie he is in, Fruitvale Station, which I couldn’t find for free, but is honestly worth renting. I also want to mention that the death penalty still exists in some parts of the country, and that is absolutely barbaric. This movie confirms that. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.
Mudbound follows a white family and a Black family living on the same land in the Mississippi Delta post-WWII. As you can imagine, racist drama ensues. In addition, the story challenges preconceived notions about race and our role in tolerating or even encouraging racism. Though all of the movies on this list contain some level of violence (no surprise, considering everything that Black people have suffered through in American history…), this one has the most explicit scene. I guess that is a warning, but we are now at the point where if you don’t like seeing or thinking about it, imagine having to live it. Streaming indefinitely on Netflix.
Blindspotting is the funniest movie on this list. But still pretty intense, since the plot follows a Black parolee with three days left on his sentence, who witnesses a police shooting and also has to deal with his white friend who is out of control in every sense of the phrase. A unique take for those who are interested in thinking more about the relationship between law enforcement and Black America. Free to rent on Amazon Prime through June 30.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (who also directed Moonlight), If Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s book about a young expectant woman who tries to prove her lover’s innocence when he is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Another film with excellent cinematography. Really makes you wonder who the “American dream” was actually meant for… Streaming indefinitely on Hulu.