In recent years, what had been hidden has been revealed. Issues of racism and ethnic discrimination have been elevated as a global problem, often sparking protests and violence as people seek to stand up for equal justice and treatment.
Seeking to understand these multifaceted, complex matters can mean grappling with centuries of past history—paying particular attention to minority views (ethnic, political, or otherwise) that popular narratives may have omitted. In such a process, films based on real-life events can be helpful.
Even before last year, when the killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd set off protests that impacted society worldwide, Netflix had compiled and promoted relevant films through its multifaceted Strong Black Lead initiative. Storytellers provide a new lens to see these issues of injustice and inequality in society.
Here are six enlightening films and series on race relations currently on Netflix in the U.S., with a focus on U.S.-related race issues (note that availability of titles may change.)
1. Fruitvale Station (2013, 85 minutes)
When Creed and then Black Panther came on the scene, many tend to think director Ryan Coogler, star Michael B. Jordan, and composer Ludwig Göransson (The Mandalorian) all came out of nowhere. They all first collaborated on Coogler’s debut feature film Fruitvale Station, which recreates a day in the life of a young Black father before he was killed.
Eleven years before the pivotal events of summer 2020, a similar incident occurred in 2009 when 22-year-old African-American man Oscar Grant III was gunned down by authorities. With charismatic Jordan as the lead, it draws you in—with a third act that lands like a gut punch.
2. The Best of Enemies (2019, 133 minutes)
Meticulously grounded in original sources, The Best of Enemies presents a crucial but little-known chapter in civil rights history elevated by a powerhouse performance from Taraji P. Henson (Empire) as Black community activist Ann Atwater who plays opposite Sam Rockwell (Conviction) as Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis.
Civil rights icon Bill Riddick, who at age 80 reviewed the script and was involved intimately in the film, brought Atwater and Ellis together to lead what he calls a charrette—a community gathering of opposing sides convened to solve problems. In a city where segregation persisted, the arson of a school Black children attended gave this city impetus to finally integrate … if they could learn to see difficult realities through another’s eyes.
3. Get On Up (2014, 138 minutes)
Every role that Chadwick Boseman took on is worth seeking out, a fact some have only discovered since his untimely death last year at age 43. This is particularly true of his four big-budget biopic features Marshall, 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, The Express, and Get On Up, the latter where he portrays larger-than-life singer-dancer-bandleader James Brown.
“Eerily, almost unfathomably, Chadwick Boseman embodies Brown—his electric stage persona, his incisive musical brilliance, his narcissism and the sense of abandonment that undergirds it, and most of all his singular intensity,” writes reviewer Ben Doleac. Despite those few historic figures and events given scant attention in the film, this is an epic journey not to miss.
4. Self Made (2020, 189 minutes, 4-episode miniseries)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) portrays Madam C.J. Walker, a former domestic washerwoman who builds a beauty empire through her ingenuity and knowledge of Black hair care. Viewers relive the personal trials and betrayals she faced, while gaining insight into late 19th century economics following the Industrial Revolution.
The first self-made female millionaire in American history, Walker creates an assembly-line factory for her custom-made products and gains market share through an innovative mail-order strategy. It’s an inspiring story with a compelling lead performance by Spencer.
5. Loving (2016, 123 minutes)
It’s shocking to learn that interracial marriage was illegal in the U.S. until 1967, not that many decades ago. According to recent reporting, couples with different ethnic backgrounds still face uniquely vicious hostility from strangers. This acclaimed film depicts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple who married against the law. While it’s about a legal case (Loving v. Virginia), filmmakers smartly make it first and foremost a love story.
6. When They See Us (2019, 296 minutes, 4-episode miniseries)
Few policing incidents in the 20th century have been more discussed and impactful than what occurred in New York City’s Central Park on April 19, 1989. Regardless of whether one thinks acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s four-part narrative gets the story exactly right—some details are disputed—see this for its emotional resonance and cultural impact.
When a white woman was raped, five teen boys (four of them Black, one Latino) are held as suspects and ultimately charged for various crimes. The oldest served 13 years and 8 months in prison. In 2002, DNA evidence exonerated the young men and convictions were vacated. While they received millions in settlements, it could not bring back the years lost in this harrowing miscarriage of justice.
Is an important, relevant film or series missing on this list? Comment below with your additions and feedback.