Cinema has always been a powerful tool for political mobilisation due to the immediacy of the medium. As such, it has been used for various purposes and by people with widely differing intentions – ranging from fascist organisations to marginalised political activists. The works of the latter have proven to be far more interesting and impactful, serving as incisive commentaries on issues such as civil rights and human rights.
Even in the modern era, the question of civil rights has continued to dominate sociopolitical conversations with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more traction with each passing day. In the current cultural climate, cinema has continued to play a major part by spreading awareness and pointing out the hypocrisies of those who are denying the constant marginalisation and oppression of minorities.
While many popular cinematic projects such as 12 Years A Slave and Selma have managed to do just that in the mainstream domain, we wanted to highlight some modern masterpieces that continue the conversation of civil rights in today’s world. These gems might have slipped under your radar but now is the time to add them to your watchlist.
Check out the full selection below.
10 modern films that continue the civil rights conversation:
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson, 2011)
One of the greatest documentary projects of the last decade, Göran Olsson’s 2011 masterpiece is an unprecedented endeavour. It chronicles the machinations of the Black Power movement during the 1960s and the ’70s through a very specific analytical lens.
It was shot by Swedish journalists who travelled there in order to understand what was going on and as such, provides a very objective take on a volatile situation. A mammoth achievement in uncovering archival footage and combining them into one coherent vision, this film is indispensable to the conversation.
Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013)
Another incredible documentary, Let the Fire Burn is a fascinating work that focuses on the events that led up to the conflict between the Black liberation outfit MOVE and the police forces in Philadelphia during the year of 1985.
The MOVE group was focused on spreading environmental awareness but because they were a radical Black outfit, the police attacked them with gunfire and teargas and even dropped explosives on their house. This atrocious act resulted in the death of eleven people, including children.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015)
Any discussion about the civil rights movement would be incomplete without taking the undeniable impact of the Black Panthers into consideration. This recent documentary by Stanley Nelson does just that, constructing a compelling account of one of the most important political organisations in American history.
Using a combination of footage from the archives and interview, Nelson explores the unique climate from which the Black Panthers emerged – at a time when riots were happening, the Vietnam war was raging and fundamental human rights were being routinely violated.
13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
Ava DuVernay is a towering figure in the landscape of modern cinema and 13th is definitely an essential Ava DuVernay work. This 2016 documentary explores vital questions that have been investigated by scholars who have extensively studied the prison industrial complex in America.
The title is an ironic reference to the abolishment of slavery because there is overwhelming evidence that America’s prison system have disproportionately incarcerated minorities while the justice system has actively worked to disenfranchise those same people.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
One of the most celebrated horror films in recent years, Get Out is featured on this list as Jordan Peele found a unique way to address vital issues through unconventional lenses. Presenting the story of a Black man who has a bizarre encounter with his girlfriend’s white family, Get Out is nothing short of a modern gem.
By indulging in an overt commentary about racism and slavery, Get Out raised the right questions in the most horrifying way possible by conveying that overwhelming sense of terror to audiences. That is why it actually got the award for Best Screenplay of the 21st century recently.
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)
An example of masterful modern surrealism, Sorry to Bother You is a strange parable about a Black man who works as a telemarketer and finds it difficult to land customers. However, he soon discovers that the key to success is pretending to be white.
Featuring stellar performances from immensely talented stars such as Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson among others, Sorry to Bother You is a wild ride and a truly unique take on contemporary issues that have plagued society for a long time now.
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)
Starring John David Washington as a Black detective, Spike Lee’s 2018 dark comedy follows his adventures as he manages to infiltrate the local chapter of the most notorious white supremacist organisation in the history of America – the infamous Ku Klux Klan.
The film received multiple nominations and accolades, including several bids at the Academy Awards but it lost out to Green Book just like Do The Right Thing had to a similar film. “I mean every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Lee said at the time.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)
Barry Jenkins received a lot of attention after making Moonlight but his 2018 adaptation of the eponymous novel by James Baldwin deserves just as much praise. The film tells the story of a woman who has to confront the severely flawed institutions of America.
She has to embark on an odyssey to ensure that her lover gets justice after he is wrongfully committed of a crime he never committed. If Beale Street Could Talk highlights the deficiencies of the justice system and how we haven’t resolved them even after all these years.
Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada, 2018)
A truly under-watched gem that was definitely one of the finest cinematic projects of the year, Blindspotting features Daveed Diggs as an ex-con who is trying to see out the last days of probation while navigating the tiresome labyrinths of modern society.
However, everything reaches a breaking point for him when he sees a white cop murdering a Black suspect on the streets in front of him. Unable to deal with the gentrification all around him and the trauma of witnessing such a tragic event, he finds it hard to come to terms with his own existence.
Ultraviolence (Ken Fero, 2020)
Ken Fero’s 2020 documentary is an essential watch for anyone who is interested in learning more about police brutality. Some 19 years in the making, the documentary tells the stories of those who were treated as less than humans by an irredeemably broken system.
Oscillating between different narrative techniques, the film grapples with the problem of filming the injustice of death. Fero reflects: “The filmmaker Pasolini believed that the long take was the central element of cinema. In filmmaking, death is often displayed as sudden. Here, we watch death happen. It is not cinematic. It is brutal.”