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25 Great Movies About Racism That Are Worth Your Time

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

18. The Believer (2001) – Henry Bean

The Believer (2001)

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

Adrian Brody The Pianist

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)

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

house-of-sand-and-fog-2003

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

this-is-england_625x352

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

Gran Torino (2008)

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-unchained

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

12 Years a Slave

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.

 

 

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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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