18. The Believer (2001) – Henry Bean
Daniel (Ryan Gosling) is a violent and enthusiastic Neo-Nazi living in New York City. He begins attending the meetings of a secret fascist group and meets more like-minded people. Daniel is convinced that the group needs to start murdering Jews in order to get their message across.
We also realise fairly early on in the film, that Daniel himself is a Jew whose family finds it difficult to understand him. Daniel’s gang plans to blow up a synagogue, harassing African Americans and Jews on the streets of New York in the meantime. He runs into old friends from the Jewish yeshiva and is further conflicted internally by his racist views and true identity.
The film is somewhat based on the life of Daniel Burros, a former member of a number of right-wing US racist institutions who committed suicide after an article revealed his Jewish heritage. Much like the character in the film, Burros also displayed strange behaviour, which sometimes seemed to be at odds with his vehemently racist views.
19. The Pianist (2002) – Roman Polanski
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a Jewish-Polish pianist living in Warsaw with his family. During Nazi occupation, the family are moved to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews. When the Szpilmans are about to be deported to Treblinka extermination camp, a friend in the Jewish Ghetto Police manages to stop Wladyslaw from going and he instead becomes a slave labourer.
After moving around different hideouts, he ends up settling in an abandoned building where he meets a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) who takes pity on Wladislaw and brings him food. As the Red Army approaches, the Germans retreat and the Jews are freed.
The movie is based on a World War II memoir, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman. As a child, Polanski himself had to escape from a ghetto in Krakow after his mother died in Auschwitz.
Polanski had to survive in the Polish countryside alone, in constant fear of Nazi soldiers, being witness to a variety of horrific events. His father was also sent to Auschwitz and nearly died there, but was eventually reunited with his son after the war was over. Polanski’s experiences in WWII have long had an influence on his filmmaking, but this is the first film where he explores the subject directly.
As there is a warrant out for Polanski’s arrest in the US, when The Pianist won an Academy Award, Harrison Ford had to accept it for him.
20. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
In a remote part of Western Australia, three girls – Molly, Daisy, and Gracie – are living with their mother and grandmother. 14-year-old Molly and 8-year-old Daisy are sisters, while 10-year-old Gracie is their cousin.
The girls are taken away to Moore River Native Settlement by the local authorities, a type of camp where Australian Aborigine children are being raised to serve white families. This is all done in the hopes of eventually “breeding out the Aborigine” in the kids as this is considered to be inferior and a danger to society. The girls manage to escape from the camp and embark on a long journey back home.
The movie is based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara. It tells the true story of three girls, deemed “half-castes” by the authorities, caught up in the middle of a government programme that forcibly removed children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage from their families.
This was fully sanctioned, and was supposedly put in place to protect the children, and to eventually dilute Aboriginal genes through mixing with Europeans. Essentially, this was a eugenics programme, as well as the systematic training of Australian Aboriginal children into the European way of life.
As this went on from around 1910 right up until the 1970s, the devastating effects are still evident in present day Australia. The people involved have been named the “Stolen Generations” and despite some efforts to fix the damage done, Australian Aborigines are still vastly disadvantaged and misrepresented in Australian society.
21. House of Sand and Fog (2003) – Vadim Perelman
Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering drug addict whose husband has left her. She receives a letter about her failure to pay county taxes but dismisses it as a mistake. As a result, she is forcibly evicted from the house in which she grew up.
The house is then auctioned off and bought at a fraction of its market value by Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), who is a former Iranian army coronel. He works a number of low paying menial jobs while pretending to be a successful businessman so as not to shame his family.
Massoud plans on renovating the house and selling it off. Kathy begins stalking and harassing the family to drive them out of her former home. The Sherriff’s Deputy, Lester who leaves his family for Kathy, goes against all protocol by joining in on the harassment.
This film is a tame portrayal of casual racism compared to some of the more obvious movies on this list. Subtly, the movie points to a far larger issue of prejudice towards immigrants in the way of mispronunciation of names despite repeated corrections as well as threats of deportation as an intimidation technique.
All through the feature we wonder if things would have been dealt with differently by Kathy and Lester had the family been born and bred Americans. It is obvious that Kathy feels entitled to getting her home back and initially is dismissive of the family, self-assured in her ability to get them out.
22. This is England (2006) – Shane Meadows
The film is set in 1982 England and follows a group of young skinheads who befriend 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). The teenagers are led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun), and are apolitical in their views. They are the true skinheads, originating from the amalgamation of English and West Indian culture and influenced by ska and punk music.
When an older skinhead named Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from prison to re-join the group, he brings with him newly formed white nationalist views. The gang is divided and Shaun chooses to go with Combo but when he witnesses Combo lose control and commit a violent act, he questions the choice he has made.
In present day society, the word “skinhead” usually brings up images of heavy-boot wearing Neo-Nazis and vehement white nationalism. However, the origins of the skinhead movement couldn’t be further from this perception.
1960s England was a place of political and social change with a huge number of Jamaican immigrants arriving and joining the working class. Youth took to this new culture and were heavily influenced by West Indian music and style. The term “skinhead” was given due to very short or shaved hair, which was considered somewhat unusual for that period.
This Is England shows the eventual division between the skinheads, with the majority eventually choosing sides. Some maintained an apolitical stance and instead chose the lifestyle and music over ideals. The film was followed by mini-series, This Is England ’86 and This Is England ’88. Both followed the same characters as the ones in the original movie.
23. Gran Torino (2008) – Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who lives in a working class neighbourhood. Where formerly predominantly white families lived, Asian immigrants now populate the suburb and gang crimes are on the rise. This makes Walt deeply uncomfortable and does not sit well with his old fashioned racist views. He lives next door to a Hmong family, whose son Thao (Bee Vang) is being coerced into joining a gang by his cousin, “Spider” (Doua Moua).
As initiation, Thao has to steal Walt’s Gran Torino but fails and the gang retaliate. Walt threatens the thugs with a gun during the altercation and becomes somewhat of a hero within the Hmong community. Although initially resistant, Walt warms up to his neighbours, takes Thao under his wing and befriends his sister Sue (Ahney Her). The gang reacts violently for the incident on the lawn and Walt injects himself right in the middle of the conflict.
The writer of the script, Nick Schenk, was interested in writing about the Hmong community after getting to know their history. During the Vietnam War, the Hmongs sided with South Vietnam and the Americans, which landed them in refugee camps after the troops pulled out. In the film, Walt is clearly surprised by this when Sue educates him on her culture.
24. Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In exchange for his freedom, Django helps Schultz find and kill a pair of brothers, whom he was able to identify.
Schultz ends up making Django his partner and together, they set out to find Django’s love, Broomhilda. They find out where she lives and concoct a plan to buy her from a violent and psychotic slave owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Things do not go as planned and the pair find themselves in hot water.
The film views like a spaghetti western, which was Tarantino’s intention all along. He didn’t feel like the US has been able to deal with and discuss its horrific past effectively, and wanted to make a genre film that was able to portray a terrible time in history openly and without reservations.
Tarantino drew inspiration from a number of different films, among them Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975).
25. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – Steve McQueen
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in New York State with his family and working as a violinist. After he is drugged by two conmen who pretend to hire him for a job, Solomon is shipped to New Orleans and sold as a runaway slave. He is given a new name, “Platt” and despite attempts at explaining his true identity,
Solomon is sold from one slave owner to the next for 12 years. He spends the majority of this time at the home of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is unstable and sadistic towards the slaves. Solomon eventually confides in Bass (Brad Pitt), a sympathetic white worker at the Epps plantation with whom he is building a gazebo, and asks the man to help him regain his freedom.
The film is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name. A lot of the characters in the movie were actual people whom Northup encountered during his time as a slave, including Edwin and Mary Epps, as well as Patsey, whom he befriends at the Epps plantation.
12 Years a Slave won a number of awards from Best Motion Picture at the Golden Globes to a BAFTA Best Actor award for Ejiofor. McQueen felt that the memoir was an important account of slavery in the American Deep South in the same way as Anne Frank’s diary was of Nazi occupation of Europe.
Author Bio: Bela is a self-professed film nerd with a hankering for the macabre. she lives in New Zealand and spends far more time with her cat than she does with people.