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25 Great Movies About Racism That Are Worth Your Time

20 June 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Bela Adash

9. Mississippi Burning (1988) – Alan Parker

Mississippi Burning (1988)

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

Do The Right Thing (1989)

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

Romper Stomper (1992)

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

Schindlers-List

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 Time to Kill

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

American History X (1998)

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

The Green Mile

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

East is East (1999)

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

monsters-ball

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.

 

 

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  • Nacho Rockatansky

    a day without a mexican and dear white people?

  • afrangov

    I would add these four:

    http://mustseecinema.com/?s=racism

    La Haine
    In The Heat of The Night
    Michael Haneke’s Cache
    The Searchers with John Wayne

    • Ian Paul

      Ditto on La Haine.

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  • chuwie18

    Pleasantville is probably the best movie that deals with racism, and it’s not in the list. That’s quite disappointing.

    • Keepin’ItReal

      And how is that considering that there is not ONE PERSON OF COLOR OTHER THAN WHITE IN THE MOVIE?

      • chuwie18

        The movie deals with the aesthetics of 50s TV shows. And everything goes from Black&White vs Color (the same way it happened in real life). The movie shows the irrational fear againts the “color people”, the discrimation, the fake trials, It is a movie of NonColor vs Color People. And how you can only see things with all of the spectrum after you leave your prejudice.

        I actually believe the movie is more powerful because you don’t realise that it’s about racism after you already make your mind about the topic. That way, racist people can find themselves cheering for the color people, and that can be a breaktrough.

        Did I Answer your question? (I’m respecfully asking this, english is not my native language and my vocabulary is limited… )

      • Nemesis_Enforcer

        It’s like “Mad Men”: Its about racism because only whites are in it, and its set in a time when only whiteness as culture mattered. Kinda like if #MAGA could be a real place one could journey to (as much as some folks today really want that). Hence why – to some people – its called “Pleasantville”; i.e. its pleasant because only whites live there.

        Everything chuwie18 said still fits and it pertinent to that analysis of “Pleasantville” as racial commentary. But its also a racial commentary as it ignores diversity altogether. White racial ubiquity makes the commentary harder to discern for some folks (particularly for whites oftentimes) in the same way its hard for fish to tell how wet they are.

  • Klaus Dannick

    The Searchers definitely belongs on this list.

    Also, the author’s list is in error in the summary of Hairspray. Divine did not play the lead role (or any role, for that matter) in John Waters’ 1977 film Desperate Living.

  • Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)

  • Dimitar Kovachev

    8 mile and The pianist are not about racism

  • Nuno Freixo

    Gone with the wind
    Giant

  • Grace Skerp

    Gentlemen’s Agreement

  • Brian

    The Defiant Ones

  • Susan F

    You are antisemetic. The Eugenics movement has been long discredited. Judaism ins not a race. Its a religion. Hitler tried to justify exterminating the Jews by saying they are a separate inferior race and not a religion. Your are perpetrating the lie that was used to justify genocide and the Shoah. Shame on you. And you didn’t even have the decency to list Gentleman’s Agreement, The Pawnbroker or Crossfire on your list of “Jew Movies.” So you are not only antisemetic, you are not knowledgeable about film.

    • Jewish is an ethnicity, Judaism is a religion. So a better suited title for the list is ” 25 Great Movies About Xenophobia”.
      But I do not understand the argument here. You think it antisemitic that they included films about the hatred towards Jewish people, at the same time criticize them for not including enough examples?

    • Richard Anderson

      I have no idea why you think the author of this list is antisemitic. Is it because he included films about racism towards Jews or because he didn’t include enough?

  • Bryton Cherrier

    I always wanted to watch This Is England. I always found the plot interesting. Especially since there are skinheads who are apolitical like me (I’m not a skinhead). That makes me more interested in this film. Cheers.

  • On no…where’s THE COLOR PURPLE??

    • Nemesis_Enforcer

      The Color Purple was really only kinda tangentially about racism, as with Oprah’s character’s story arc. Its fairer to say TCP was about misogyny than to say it was about race.

      • While I definitely see your point, one cannot argue that racism is not a theme. Not only in Oprah’s storyline, but the entire film shows the difference in social classes regarding race throughout.

  • Daxton Norton

    Imitation of Life is a must. Interesting choices.

  • Gabi Hanauer

    “The Help”?

  • Ozz Wald

    Higher learning

  • Ted Wolf

    Great list, although I do agree with In The Heat of the Night and The Searchers as being great movies about racism. The one I will take exception to is A Time To Kill, one of the most cliched legal soapers ever filmed. If I were on the jury the “impassioned” summation would have left me cold.

  • Linda Conley

    Sorry. Too poorly written to finish. Do these pieces have editors? The grammar is atrocious.

  • benicethinktwice

    An interesting article, thanks for posting. Although Hollywood and the film industry has come a long way, stereotyping can still be an issue. We still see times where the white, black, Hispanic, Arab and Asian people are shown as stereotypes. A lot of the time we see it today, it’s for comedic purposes. Nowadays, a lot of the racism in the industry can in fact happen behind the camera. David Oyelowom Chris Rock and many more have come out in recent times to say this.

    It’d be interesting to explore why it still exists in the film and television industry. Perhaps one of the worst on screen examples recently is 2 Broke Girls. Their portrayal of the Asian boss and the comments on the Aborigine in particular, was quite distasteful.

    benicethinktwice

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  • Bobby Calloway

    Pocahontas is another good one, teaching that racism can cause unnecessary violence and bloodshed – and that innocent people are going to be hurt no matter how justified either side feels they are. A message that’s unfortunately still relevant today.

  • Ian Paul

    What about In the Heat of the Night?

  • Alkis3

    To Kill a Mockingbird?

    • Nancy Hall

      It’s included.

  • Nancy Hall

    Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, Fassbinder’s Ali Fear East the Soul, and two films by Stephen Frears…My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things.

  • Jimbo Cayetano

    Remember the Titans

  • Pica Lima

    How you can make such a list without including “The Heat of The Night” says a lot about this site…

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  • David Johnson

    Why isn’t Pinky listed????

  • lauramoreaux

    Super list ! 🙂

  • La Condenada Nausea

    “Bamboozled”…

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