"The movies are like a machine that generates empathy," the late great film critic Roger Ebert famously said. "It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."
Movies can feel very slight during these current times, when many in this country are being confronted by the ugliness and racism of our political and social systems, shortcomings of which Black people are all too aware and confronted by on a regular basis. But as Ebert said, film can be an essential empathy machine, one that can help educate viewers on other people's experiences and about the issues in our world – and hopefully turn that education into actions, both big and small – after the credits roll.
Here are ten movies – from non-fiction documentaries to narrative stories – all available on streaming platforms (or even temporarily for free on rental services, like the timely legal drama "Just Mercy"). All are exceptionally gripping works that engage and inform the heart as well as the brain. Hopefully, these viewing options help illuminate these dark times and move audiences toward understanding – and hopefully toward a better world for everyone. After all, the very least we can do right now is listen and learn, and these provide ten good places to start.
(And please don't stop with these ten; for more recommended viewing, read part one of excellent Vanity Fair film writer K. Austin Collins' guide of Black voices and experiences on screen.)
Available to stream on: Netflix and YouTube
Director Ava DuVernay (whose name will make another appearance on this list, so stay tuned) made her Netflix Original debut with this potent Oscar-nominated documentary that dives into the legacy of the 13th amendment, which ended slavery but left a loophole that currently allows prisons to use criminal labor, leading to the prison industrial complex. DuVernay grippingly and methodically traces through the history of the United States, from the end of the Civil War to modern times, to uncover how racial inequality has found new methods of imprisoning and subjugating Black citizens for profit.
"The Blood is At the Doorstep"
Available to stream on: Sundance Now, Amazon with Sundance Now and IMDB.tv
Milwaukee plays the unfortunate backdrop for local director Erik Ljung's outstanding documentary, following the aftermath of the police killing of Dontre Hamilton at Red Arrow Park in 2014. Ljung breaks down what happened that tragic night and the fateful mistakes made by both the officer and the twitchy Starbucks employees at the time. The heart of the doc, however, is what comes after, staying on the ground with Hamilton's family as their loss turns them into protest leaders, learning to use their spotlight to hopefully save more lives and trying to pull the growing movement toward productive protest methods and reforms. It's emotional and essential viewing about a family trying to rebuild and reform themselves after a brutal loss, the system that caused their pain and the city they call home. Most poignantly, it's a difficult conversation cities and families are still having years later.
Available to stream on: Amazon Prime Video and Kanopy
Amid three years of significant violence on the streets of Baltimore, Marilyn Ness' documentary follows three different groups trying to change the city's path, from a community activist and leader holding court on the sidewalk every day and teaching those young and old about nonviolence and improving their neighborhood, to police officers fighting crime while also fighting their ugly reputation amongst the Black community and local politicians looking for answers to reform Baltimore toward a brighter future. It's a sympathetic look at an entire city trying to find the right way to solve its plague of violence – even when the trust between various groups is held together by a thread.
Available to stream on: Netflix
This mesmerizing Sundance award-winning doc takes audiences behind the scenes at the Oakland Police Department as it attempts to reform and clean up a history of bad behavior and abuse amidst growing protests across the city and nation against police brutality. Director Peter Nicks gets incredible access, riding with the police, walking through protests and sitting in on classes as officers are taught about bias and negotiating the difficulty perspectives and decisions made on the job – only to have all of their progress toward improving community relations disintegrate with new transgressions and shocking discoveries of corruption. Nicks' film is a gripping but grim look at the state of the crumbling social contract between police and citizens, a relationship that may be broken beyond saving.
"The Hate U Give"
Available to stream on: Cinemax Go, Amazon with Cinemax, DirecTV and free on most digital rental platforms
Director (and Milwaukee native) George Tillman Jr.'s moving adaptation of Angie Thomas' hit YA novel was unfortunately overlooked when it came out in the fall of 2018. It's impossible to overlook now, telling the story of a Black high school girl named Starr (Amandla Stenberg) who finds her political voice, battles her once-stable sense of identity and challenges those around her after witnessing the police murder her childhood friend after confusing a hairbrush with a gun. It may be based on a book for young adults, but "The Hate U Give" delves into its central issues of racism and police brutality with surprising nuance but also rousing passion and righteous anger. It also features a great cast – including an underrated supporting performance from Russell Hornsby as Starr's ex-con father who tries his best to help his kids how survive both the streets and the cops. Whether young or old, it's an excellent entry point into the issues – and underrepresented perspectives – discussed today.
"I Am Not Your Negro"
Available to stream on: Amazon Prime Video, Hoopla and Kanopy
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck's poignant and pained Oscar-nominated documentary essay chronicles Black life in America through the eyes of James Baldwin, a writer and activist whose words have lost none of their power or importance as America continues to fail in protecting Black lives. Combining archival footage of Baldwin's probing and powerful televised speaking appearances along with Jackson reading excerpts from Baldwin's unfinished final novel, "I Am Not Your Negro" is a haunting perspective on the hurt, sadness and even the fleeting hope of the Black experience in the U.S. – written in the past, but all too relevant to the present and still trying to reform the future.
In addition to its place on streaming services, "I Am Not Your Negro" is also available to watch and purchase at Milwaukee Film's Sofa Cinema virtual movie platform, either on its own or as a bundle with fellow documentaries "Whose Streets?" and "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am."
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
Available to stream on: Hulu
Speaking of James Baldwin, his 1974 novel received a breathtakingly beautiful adaptation from writer-director Barry Jenkins with his 2018 follow-up to his Best Picture winner "Moonlight." The romantic drama follows Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne), two young Black lovebirds whose sweet swooning future is altered and changed forever when James' Fonny is wrongfully accused and imprisoned by a racist cop and an uncaring legal system, no matter the lengths made by Tish's mother (Oscar-winner Regina King) to clear his name. It's a wounded movie – Brian Tyree Henry threatens to steal the movie with his brief mid-film appearance as Fonny's parolee friend, haunted and shaken by his experience in prison – but also a wonderful one that leaves room for the joy, love, exuberance and passion of its characters, resulting in a movie full of heart and heartbreak, of life's warm potential and lives coldly restricted.
"Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992"
Available to stream on: Netflix
Milwaukee native and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave") takes a deep dive into the infamous Los Angeles riots, not just the fiery explosion but the slow-burning decade-long fuse that eventually ignited the uncontrolled outrage. Interviewing individuals both on the ground from all sides of the story and taking a microscope to the context of the situation, Ridley's doc takes a complex, multi-faceted and difficult chapter in recent American history and tries to unpack it all in fascinating, immense detail, finding and learning from the many nuances and perspectives of this polarizing story. Because you know what they say about those who don't learn from history ...
Available to stream on: Tubi and Kanopy
In 2008, Dub Lawrence's son-in-law was killed in a standoff with the county's SWAT team – the very team that Lawrence helped found and create 30 years before as an Utah police officer. Confused, Lawrence investigates his son's death and finds an alarming culprit: the increased militarization of local police across the nation, decked out as soldiers of war, given equipment ready for battle and trained in might over humanity. The informative and engaging "Peace Officer" follows him down this rabbit hole of the modern police mindset, of units that inherently escalate conflict with little training or interest in de-escalation tactics.
Available to stream on: FX Now and for free on most rental platforms
It took all too long for the quintessential Martin Luther King Jr. biopic to finally hit theaters; but it was worth it for Ava DuVernay's smart, nuanced and immaculately crafted "Selma." Instead of trying to track his entire life, DuVernay's film hones in on MLK's work during the year prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, reaching its infamous boiling point during the confrontation between peaceful protestors and violent police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"Selma" is no simple and easy hagiography, however; instead it shows its iconic subject as a man of moving words, powerful presence and impressive tactical savvy. A highlight is him explaining to local SNNC leaders about the strategy of their peaceful protests – nonviolent but engineered to draw violent mistakes from their oppressors in the hopes a camera is rolling – but also often tired from the fight, wary of the endgame and flawed in his personal life. The end result is a powerful tribute not to a monument on a pedestal but to a real person – an icon but foremost a human – as well as the messy, exhausting and essential fight for justice that continues to this day.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.