9. Mississippi Burning (1988) – Alan Parker
Three young civil rights activists go missing in Jessup County Mississippi. Two FBI agents, Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward – played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe respectively – are sent to investigate. When they arrive in Jessup, they soon realise that almost all of the people in authority are somehow involved with the Ku Klux Klan. This makes the interviews very difficult to conduct as all the black citizens who are brave enough to speak to them seem to suffer terrible fates shortly after.
Anderson and Ward also find themselves under fire as they start ruffling feathers and trying to break this unspoken vow of silence about the racial hatred in Jessup. Realising that they will get little to no help in their investigation from the townsfolk, the two agents decide to take matters into their own hands and concoct a plan to bring the Jessup KKK down.
This film was based on true events surrounding the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. In 1964, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner went missing in Neshoba County. It was later revealed that the local KKK, involving the Sherriff’s Office, as well as the Philadelphia Police Department, murdered the boys. At the time of the killings, the three activists were campaigning for the registration of African Americans to vote, after their disenfranchisement since 1890.
There were some discrepancies between the true story and the events in the film, including the change of names of the murderers as well as the identity of the informant. At the time of this movie’s release, the informant was only known as “Mr. X” and his true name was not revealed for 40 years after the events.
10. Do the Right Thing (1989) – Spike Lee
In the heart of Brooklyn, New York, a racially diverse collection of people are trying to survive one of the hottest days of the year. Despite everyone having lived together in the same neighbourhood for years, racial tension is prevalent and folk seem to prefer sticking to their own.
The plot is mainly focussed on Mookie (Spike Lee), a young black man working at a local pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American. As the day progresses, events intensify as people grow increasingly more hot and bothered and intolerant of each other.
Critics unanimously met this film with praise and enthusiasm. The cast consisted of a staggering number of well-known names and prominent performances. Rosie Perez’s debut alone as a woman dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is mesmerizing from the first moments of the film.
Arguably, Do the Right Thing is one of the most important films to have ever been made about racism. It is an organic entity, an embodiment of the neighbourhood it’s set and filmed in, punching us right in the gut and making it impossible to look away from the issues we, as a society, are still facing today. Truly a cinematic paragon, this film will not be forgotten in the annals of movie history.
11. Romper Stomper (1992) – Geoffrey Wright
Set in a working-class neighbourhood of Melbourne, Australia, the film stars Russell Crowe as Hando, the vicious leader of a violent Neo-Nazi gang. They encounter some Vietnamese teenagers in a subway, and physically assault them. They later meet a troubled young woman named Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie) who is trying to get away from her abusive father Martin (Alex Scott), and Hando begins a relationship with her.
Due to their altercations with the Vietnamese, the gang are attacked and their squat is destroyed. As their antics spiral out of control even further, and Hando becomes increasingly unstable, some members start questioning their lifestyle.
Russell Crowe’s character was based on an Australian Neo-Nazi skinhead Dave Sweetman. Wright had written to Sweetman while the latter was in prison for murder. Sweetman was responsive to the director’s requests and provided him with a transcript of the murder trial. Some of the events and quotes in the film came directly from Sweetman’s life.
Although the film was received well, there was some controversy around its release. The violence was deemed over-the-top and there were fears that it would incite more of it in an already troubled time for Australian Vietnamese.
12. Schindler’s List (1993) – Steven Spielberg
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German and a member of the Nazi Party, arrives in Krakow, Poland. He is hoping to make some money by producing enamelware in a factory. He hires Jews to work there because the labour is cheap, and this prevents a lot of them from going to concentration camps.
Schindler is also helped by Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a Jewish accountant. After witnessing the mass murder of Jews due to emptying of a ghetto by the Nazis, he is deeply disturbed by the experience. He begins a mission to save as many Jews as possible from extermination and ends up spending all his money and resources on it.
The movie is based on the life of a real German businessman, Oskar Schindler. One of the Jewish workers employed by him, Poldek Pfefferberg, was set on sharing this story with the world and a novel, Schindler’s Ark, was eventually penned by Thomas Keneally.
Schindler was virtually bankrupted by his actions during WWII, and after attempting to open a number of unsuccessful businesses afterwards, he was eventually supported by Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews” i.e. the people whom he saved) until his death. Oskar Schindler was buried in Jerusalem in Mount Zion in 1974 and his funeral was attended by all the surviving Schindlerjuden as well as the cast of this film.
13. A Time to Kill (1996) – Joel Schumacher
A young African American girl, Tonya (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly), is brutally raped and beaten by two white supremacists in Canton, Mississippi.
They attempt to kill her but are unsuccessful and the girl survives. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson kills both rapists as he realises that they may walk away from the charges. He is then put on trial and is helped by Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) who is a white lawyer. Both men’s lives are threatened as the Ku Klux Klan in the area begins to make waves.
The movie is based on a John Grisham novel who felt that the film was good, but not great. It caused a stir in France in particular, as people felt that it justified vigilantism and the death penalty. The French title was even altered to “The Right to Kill?” in order to prevent a backlash from the audience.
Despite this, the film was mostly well received, and the performances of Jackson and McConaughey were considered to be strong. The actors did a fantastic job of portraying their characters’ relationship.
14. American History X (1998) – Tony Kaye
Danny (Edward Furlong) is a budding Neo-Nazi whose brother Derek (Edward Norton) has just returned from prison for killing a black man. Danny has been given the task of writing a paper on Derek, by his African American principal Dr Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks). The film, through a series of flashbacks, reveals the story of Derek’s rise and fall as the leader of a violent racist gang named the D.O.C.
While in prison, Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood, but is disillusioned due to a horrifying ordeal they put him through. He changes his ways, keeps to himself, and befriends a black man with whom he works in the prison laundry. Derek returns home and does everything in his power to stop Danny from repeating his mistakes.
Edward Norton received accolades for his portrayal of tattooed up, fear-inducing Derek Vinyard. His failure to receive the Academy Award for Best Actor was met with disappointment and is considered to be unjust.
15. The Green Mile (1999) – Frank Darabont
Paul, an elderly man in a rest home begins to tell a story to his friend Elaine (Eve Brent). He tells her that he used to be a prison guard in Cold Mountain Penitentiary in 1935; we see young Paul played by Tom Hanks. A new inmate arrives in the form of a huge African American man named John (Michael Clark Duncan). He is accused of raping and killing two white girls and is on death row.
However, John comes across as very gentle and seems to possess special powers that allow him to heal and even reverse death. John and Paul strike up a friendship and John uses his abilities to help some of the staff at the prison.
Adapted from a Stephen King novel, this film has divided audiences in their interpretations of its racial themes. Overall, the film had a positive effect, but some have deemed it racist for its portrayal of John as a gentle black giant who submits to his fate. The bond between Paul and John has been viewed favourably, but also as a cliché where John swans into Paul’s life and magically solves all his problems.
Interpretations of The Green Mile are highly subjective, as is the case with any film, but there is no denying that at the heart of its plot lies the ever-present issue of racism.
16. East is East (1999) – Damien O’Donnell
In 1971 England, George Khan (Om Puri) is a Muslim Pakistani who has emigrated in the late 1930s. He has married an English woman, Ella (Linda Bassett), they have seven children, and run a local fish and chip shop. George is overbearing and traditional when it suits him, and the children find it hard to comply with the Pakistani way of life dictated by their father.
George has a wife and kids in Pakistan as well, and this also causes discourse within the family. Whenever things go wrong, George seems to resort to blaming his English wife and her upbringing of their children. As well as the racial tensions within the family, the Khans are on occasion a target of racial slurs and prejudice from some of the locals.
The movie is based on a play by Ayub Khan-Din and the title comes from a Rudyard Kipling poem The Ballad of East and West. The West has long had a bizarre kind of love affair with the East, lured there by exotic spices and a unique new world, yet reluctant to fully accept it into their own.
The Khans represent one of many mixed British families, as colonisation of Asia by the British Empire has inevitably lead to some fusion of cultures. The periodic spike in popularity of nationalism brings new problems with it. In present day, we are seeing a renewed distrust of immigrants in the Western world due to a variety of complex events of political nature. There are aspects of East is East that are relatable for many modern British families.
17. Monster’s Ball (2001) – Marc Forster
A widowed corrections officer, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) lives with his archaically racist father, Buck and his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), who also works in the prison. Hank is part of the team responsible for the execution of Lawrence Musgrove, a convicted murderer played by Sean Combs.
Sonny is a lot more sensitive than his father and grandfather, and there are tensions within the family. After a series of tragic events, Hank meets Leticia (Halle Berry), who is now the widow of Musgrove. They begin a relationship and unexpectedly find comfort within each other.
Sporting an impressive cast – some of whom are sadly not with us anymore – Moster’s Ball is moody and challenging. It is a sobering love story that despite its dark and sometimes hopeless atmosphere portrays a very real and raw connection of two grieving people.
It is hard to figure out whether Hank is really racist or if he is just giving in to his obnoxious father’s demands. His true feelings and attitude are never fully revealed in the film, apart from his very genuine care for Leticia. Although the movie leaves a lot up for the viewer’s interpretation, it is clear that Hank’s relationship with Leticia has improved his life and perhaps even softened him.