The movies have been warning us for decades
As America burns, there’s not much we can do about it here at this little pop-culture website. But we can remind people to remain aware of why the conflagration started in the first place: Police brutality against black people. This isn’t a new problem, nor is it one that will go away easily or quickly. But because of that, we also have a long legacy of films about the topic. Here’s a list of excellent movies you can turn to for an education, or entertainment of sorts. At least none of these films involve a pandemic, so we can look at them as reminders of a world where racial violence was our major issue. When a film about police violence seems like an nostalgia piece, you know you’ve got trouble.
Do The Right Thing (1986)
The violent death of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s signature joint eerily presages the suffocation of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The scene is serious and upsetting, as is the rioting that results. But it’s telling that 35 years ago, Lee was able to make something approaching a comedy about racial tension in big cities. Such an approach would be impossible today. Yesterday, on his Twitter account, Lee released a short documentary film called 3 Brothers, tying together the fictional death of Radio Raheem with the real-life murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd.
Hate (“La Haine) (1995)
Police brutality is hardly just an American problem. This groundbreaking film from Mathieu Kassovitz about life in an outer-ring Parisian suburb housing project laid bare the staggering inequality and racial violence at the heart of French society.
Training Day (2001)
“Son, this is the game, I’m playin his ass.” Denzel Washington’s brilliant Oscar-winning performance in Antoine Fuqua’s exposé of corruption and police brutality in Los Angeles shocked audiences and served as a mirror into the hypocrisy and violence inherent in our system of law. And it also showed that our problems go a lot deeper than just matters of black and white.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee and Denzel Washington again, in this powerful scene from Lee’s biopic of the murdered civil-rights leader. “We haven’t broken any laws–yet,” Malcolm X says to the police chief, played by Peter Boyle. The large, well-ordered crowd is peacefully protesting police brutality. The cops attacked a Black Muslim named Brother Johnson. These sorts of peaceful protests are going on around the country right now. But so is violent, lawless looting. Strange times indeed when a Malcolm X protest against a police beating can seem like the good old days in America.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Time marches on, but nothing changes. The debut film from Ryan Coogler also widely introduced audiences to Michael B. Jordan. But this was no superhero movie. Jordan plays a regular guy from Oakland who San Francisco transit police murdered on a train platform one New Year’s Eve. Fruitvale Station is a brilliant and beautiful slice of urban realism that strongly brings home the human cost of police brutality.
The Hate U Give (2018)
And so we come as close to the present day as we’re going to get, with this beautiful adaptation of Angie Thomas’s best-selling young-adult novel. The film and book both depict the police murder of an innocent young black man and also riots that result in the burning of black-owned businesses. Highly recommended and strangely optimistic. If only we listened to the movies. If only movie theaters were open right now.