50 movies that address the history of racism in America

Movies give us perspective and allow us to watch certain events play out in front of our eyes. They can be educational and entertaining, making proper representation a significant factor in filmmaking. Black representation in Hollywood was almost nonexistent in the early 20th century, and when images of African Americans were shown, they were given negative stereotypes and criticized with racist imagery and oppression.

Years of systematic racism riddle the Black community today, but it was even more blatant back then. Young Black children around the country would turn on the television to a lack of positive images outside of racial stereotypes. As the years went on, Black representation slowly but surely began to make its way through the airwaves, and it started to educate people on the realities of Black lives as many Black filmmakers, actors, and writers created a new cycle of Black cinema with a variety of genres.

Black films have become a staple in the Black community, leaving long-lasting impacts on the culture for years to come. Black artistry continues to rise in theaters and on television as the industry learns to cater to different skin types, film angles, genre diversities, and plot lines within Black culture.

Stacker extensively researched the history of Black filmmaking and Black lives captured on screen in both fiction features and documentaries, and compiled a list of 50 diverse films that address the history of racism in America in one way or the other using IMDb data as of June 3, 2020. To amplify Black voices and firsthand experience, the overwhelming majority of the films on this list are made by Black filmmakers. The films are organized chronologically.

Check out these stories that shine a light on Black voices throughout cinema.

Micheaux Book & Film Company

Within Our Gates (1920)

– Director: Oscar Micheaux
– IMDb user rating: 6.3
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 79 min

“Within Our Gates” follows a mixed-race woman who ventures North during the Jim Crow era in hopes of raising money for a Black school in the South. Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American feature-filmmaker, portrays racial violence and strict contrasts between the Black people who lived in rural areas to those who migrated to urban cities. The silent film is highly critiqued to be a response to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” and a turning point for African American cinema.

Shadows (1958)

– Director: John Cassavetes
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 87 min

Leila, a white-passing, Black woman in New York City, falls in love with a white man, but the relationship ends when he meets her dark-skinned brother and realizes she is Black. Leila and her two brothers navigate their racial identity with their skin complexion at the forefront of their narratives. This movie brings awareness to the multifaceted issues that surround Black livelihood.

Columbia Pictures

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

– Director: Daniel Petrie
– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 128 min

Attempting to fulfill the American dream in a racially segregated Chicago, a Black family looking to buy a home in a white neighborhood becomes a victim of housing discrimination and racial threats. The film addresses the racial injustices Black people face when attempting to follow their dreams, bearing the question, “what happens to a dream deferred?”

Columbia Pictures

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

– Director: Stanley Kramer
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: 63
– Runtime: 108 min

This classic film depicts a couple’s interracial love as they confront each other’s family members’ initial disapproval. Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier’s characters dive deep into the anti-miscegenation laws of the time and explore certain hypocrisies that potentially stem from white-liberalism.

United Artists

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

– Director: Norman Jewison
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Metascore: 75
– Runtime: 110 min

In this five-time Academy Award-winning movie, a Black detective (Sidney Poitier) gets caught in the middle of a murder investigation and eventually proves his innocence. After his release, he’s now in charge of the case but faces difficulties when he’s partnered with the racist sheriff (Rod Steiger), who accused him of murder. The film was shot during the civil rights movement and examined racial policing and bigotry.

Take One Productions

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)

– Director: William Greaves
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 71
– Runtime: 75 min

William Greaves experiments “a film within a film within a film.” While at times baiting his predominantly white crew over political topics, Greaves allows the actors to follow their narratives on issues of race and sexuality. In fact, the lack of direction is how he wanted to bring out the reality of his crew’s thoughts on screen.

Xenon Pictures

The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)

– Director: Melvin Van Peebles
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 87 min

An African American soldier named Turner is stationed in France and struggles with his own identity as a Black man in the army. After meeting and spending the weekend with a French woman, Turner finds that he is not exempt from racial prejudices, and he’s forced to face his lack of freedom and discrimination within the military.

Warner Bros. – Seven Arts.

The Learning Tree (1969)

– Director: Gordon Parks
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 107 min

Gordon Parks tackles adolescent sexuality, morality, and racism, centering a young Black teenager in 1920s rural Kansas. The tragic trial of events portrayed in the film speaks volumes to the harsh realities Black Americans face beginning at a young age.

United Artists

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

– Director: Ossie Davis
– IMDb user rating: 6.5
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 97 min

This slapstick comedy is widely known as one of the earliest examples of blaxploitation. Popular throughout the 1970s, the genre has been criticized but also praised by the Black community for characters who, at their core, promote messages of Black empowerment. The story follows a man attempting to raise money to return to Africa (mirroring the teachings of Marcus Garvey), all of which was actually an elaborate scam.

Twentieth Century Fox

Sounder (1972)

– Director: Martin Ritt
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 105 min

A Black sharecropping family and their dog experience extreme poverty during the Great Depression. They fight to survive after the father is jailed for stealing food. Starring Cicely Tyson, the story themes prison labor, Black poverty, and access to education within the Black community.

GHI Studios

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

– Director: Ivan Dixon
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 102 min

“The Spook Who Sat by the Door” follows the first Black man in a fictional CIA, who is aware of his token status in the agency. After learning a few techniques from the agency, he organizes the “Freedom Fighters” to help protect Black Americans and ensure their freedom. The film addresses the need for Black people’s self-defense, a notion practiced during the civil rights movement.

Kelly Jordan Enterprises

Ganja & Hess (1973)

– Director: Bill Gunn
– IMDb user rating: 6.3
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 110 min

One of the first few horror films to have Black representation, Bill Gunn plays his own lead in “Ganja & Hess” and portrays diversity and range for Black actors in cinema. The film presents two Black lovers who’ve been killed and have emerged as immortal vampires. Initially pitched as a blaxploitation film, the movie is more experimental and artistic.

Milesstone Film

Killer of Sheep (1978)

– Director: Charles Burnett
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 80 min

This black-and-white film follows a Black man who works in a slaughterhouse to feed his family. While the adults face challenges of their own, the children are almost accustomed to their dangerous surroundings. The film mirrors the harsh realities of the ghetto, trauma, and financial struggle due to racial inequity from childhood to adulthood.

Milesstone Film

Losing Ground (1982)

– Director: Kathleen Collins
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 86 min

Sara, a young Black woman, is having trouble with her marriage after her husband sparks interest in a Puerto Rican woman, causing Sara to question her own identity and self-worth being both Black and a woman. “Losing Ground” was one of the first feature-length films created by a Black woman.

40 Acres and a Mule Productions

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

– Director: Spike Lee
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 79
– Runtime: 84 min

The themes of “She’s Gotta Have It” include gender, Black feminism, and sexual liberation. Nola Darling lives a sexually liberated lifestyle with three men before she is forced to choose one lover. Spike Lee examines the representation of Black women’s wellness and freedom of stereotypes.

Frameline

Tongues Untied (1989)

– Director: Marlon Riggs
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 55 min

This documentary focuses on the expression of gay Black men and their culture. Marlon Riggs explores the intersectionality of being both Black and gay in a racist and homophobic society. Riggs shines a light on many issues the community faces, including examples of hypersexualized Black men in relation to their white counterparts.

40 Acres and a Mule Productions

Do the Right Thing (1989)

– Director: Spike Lee
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Metascore: 92
– Runtime: 120 min

A series of racially motivated events is outlined after an Italian-owned restaurant has a wall-of-fame with only Italian actors in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Believing there should be Black actors on the wall, heightened emotions on race relations lead to a race riot. This staple in the Black community is a representation of racial inequity and injustices themed across the country today.

Kino International

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

– Director: Julie Dash
– IMDb user rating: 6.5
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 112 min

This film portrays the effects of Black enslavement past the borders of America and into West Africa and creolized cultures. A family of women in the Gullah community struggles to carry on their vibrant Yoruba culture away from their homeland. Julie Dash’s film heavily inspired Beyonce’s “Lemonade” video as it explores Black womanhood and the search for freedom after slavery.

Columbia Pictures

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

– Director: John Singleton
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 76
– Runtime: 112 min

Based on his own life, John Singleton portrays three young Black men in a neighborhood riddled with poverty, gang violence, and other harsh issues that hit the community. Each man navigates their path through Central Los Angeles when tragedy strikes, symbolizing a trauma cycle of “what’s going on in the hood.”

Live Entertainment

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992)

– Director: Leslie Harris
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 92 min

Chantel Mitchell is a Black, 17-year-old high schooler from Brooklyn, New York, who dreams of going to college and hopes to become a doctor. Her plans fall short when she becomes pregnant. Mitchell copes with her fears of becoming a statistic, riddled with stereotypes that follow young Black girls.

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40 Acres and a Mule Productions

Malcolm X (1992)

– Director: Spike Lee
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 72
– Runtime: 202 min

Malcolm X was a Black activist who taught against racism and white violence while promoting Black empowerment and separation. Denzel Washington gives a powerful performance of the real-life events in the activist’s life and his impact on the Black community; many sentiments still followed and repeated to this day.

Fine Line Features

Hoop Dreams (1994)

– Director: Steve James
– IMDb user rating: 8.3
– Metascore: 98
– Runtime: 170 min

This documentary follows two Black teenage boys from a predominantly Black neighborhood in Chicago. They attend a predominately white school in hopes of pursuing their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. The film constantly touches on race, social class, and the education system with topics in code-switching, economic hardships, and racism.

TriStar Pictures

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

– Director: Carl Franklin
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 78
– Runtime: 102 min

Denzel Washington makes another appearance on the list as a World War II veteran. He finds himself entangled in a case involving a missing white woman. Racism is at the center of the story’s plot as Washington’s character is consistently demeaned and belittled, and the film portrays an overall lack of care for Black lives by society.

Peccadillo Pictures

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

– Director: Cheryl Dunye
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 74
– Runtime: 90 min

In the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian woman, Cheryl, who plays herself in the film, is a struggling filmmaker who hopes to make a film about a Black lesbian character who is often belittled to “mammy” roles in early 20th century movies. The movie explores lesbianism, Blackness, and womanhood as each can intersect and coexist to their fullest identity.

Miramax

Down in the Delta (1998)

– Director: Maya Angelou
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 73
– Runtime: 112 min

Alfre Woodard stars in “Down in the Delta” as a character named Loretta, who is sent to Mississippi from Chicago to get clean from drugs and reconnect with her family’s traditions. As a result of slavery, Black Americans have difficulties following family trees and often hit dead ends. Maya Angelou gives us a story of family, heritage, and traditions reborn.

New Line Productions

Bamboozled (2000)

– Director: Spike Lee
– IMDb user rating: 6.5
– Metascore: 50
– Runtime: 135 min

This satirical piece mirrors early 20th-century film as a television executive (Damon Wayans) decides to bring minstrel shows back to television. The film hits many racist stereotypes throughout including blackface, “jive” dances, and other racist tropes. The abstract film leans into old portrayals of Black characters as an examination of the past, present, and future of Black film.

Music Box Films

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005)

– Director: Joe Angio
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Metascore: 70
– Runtime: 85 min

This documentary discusses Melvin Van Peebles’ story and his breakthrough into Hollywood. Peebles’ filmmaking style of the 1970s is highlighted throughout the film as a call for revolution within the Black community and more Black representation in film.

ThinkFilm

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2005)

– Director: Keith Beauchamp
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 70 min

Emmett Till was a Black, 14-year-old child from Chicago who, on a visit to his great-uncle’s home in Mississippi, was brutally murdered by two white men. This documentary tells the story of Till, his murderer’s acquittal in court by an all-white, all-male jury, and the racial uprising that followed in the 1950s. The film emphasizes the injustices of the racist South and white violence against the Black community.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Great Debaters (2007)

– Director: Denzel Washington
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 65
– Runtime: 126 min

Denzel Washington directs and stars in this true story of a Black professor’s quest to begin a debate team at Wiley College, during the Great Depression. The now-legacy was unheard of at the time as Jim Crow laws were as prominent as ever, and the fear of violence against the Black community rang high. The film is a testament to the team and its coach for overcoming a racially unjust society.

Zeitgeist Films

Trouble the Water (2008)

– Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 93 min

“Trouble the Water” journeys a young Black couples’ tragedy during Hurricane Katrina. The film shows predominantly Black neighborhoods flooded, families destroyed, and people killed during the natural disaster. The film is a visual displaying the lack of government support due to racism and classism during the historical event.

Sundance Selects

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

– Director: Göran Olsson
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 73
– Runtime: 100 min

“The Black Power Mixtape” documents the Black Power movement and its turning points within Black history. The found footage touches on many topics presented during the movement, including Dr. King’s assassination, the War on Drugs, Black nationalism, and more.

Regency Enterprises

12 Years a Slave (2013)

– Director: Steve McQueen
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 134 min

This slave memoir adaptation tells the story of a free Black man named Soloman, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For 12 years, Solomon faced the brutalities of slavery, as he jumps from one plantation to the next in hopes to find his way back home. The film, which can be hard to watch, portrays some harsh realities Black people faced during centuries of enslavement.

The Weinstein Company

Fruitvale Station (2013)

– Director: Ryan Coogler
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 85 min

Oscar Grant was a Black, 22-year-old man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Oakland’s Fruitvale district station. Michael B. Jordan portrays the young man, who faced with deprivations as a Black man in America, journeyed through life as a Bay Area resident before his tragic murder. With footage caught on film, Grant’s story brought a call for change towards police brutality and racial profiling that happens every day towards Black people.

Roadside Attractions

Dear White People (2014)

– Director: Justin Simien
– IMDb user rating: 6.1
– Metascore: 79
– Runtime: 108 min

This Netflix special follows a group of Black students at a predominantly white university. The students navigate cultural biases at the Ivy League college, and the story mirrors real-life social injustices that mark Black students in similar positions.

Paramount Pictures

Selma (2014)

– Director: Ava DuVernay
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 128 min

Ava DuVernay takes us into the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma in the fight for Black suffrage. The historical context speaks to Black people’s relationship with the government as they are forced to navigate the judicial system as second-class citizens. The film follows the events of Dr. King’s eventual push towards the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Memory Production

Rat Film (2016)

– Director: Theo Anthony
– IMDb user rating: 6.6
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 82 min

This documentary examines the rat infestation problem surrounding Baltimore and keys in on topics of discrimination, redlining, and other elements that encourage racial divide. Baltimore filmmaker, Theo Anthony alludes through the study of the infestation that the city’s layout is built on the back of these racial inequities.

ARTE Films

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

– Director: Raoul Peck
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: 95
– Runtime: 93 min

In the mid-1970s, James Baldwin produced an unfinished manuscript that became the basis of the film “I Am Not Your Negro.” The film relies heavily on what was left of Baldwin’s written word to tell the story of America’s racist history and its correlation to today’s racial, political climate.

ESPN Films

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

– Director: Ezra Edelman
– IMDb user rating: 8.9
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 467 min

O.J. Simpson was arguably one of the most infamous names of the 1990s. Pieced together to make a five-part miniseries, “O.J.: Made in America” is the story that recounts Simpson’s trial and acquittal for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. A symbol of racial division, Simpson’s story left a long-lasting impact on American culture.

Focus Features

Loving (2016)

– Director: Jeff Nichols
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: 79
– Runtime: 123 min

In 2016, the real-life interracial romance between Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and a Black woman, was put on the big screen for all to see. In 1958, this romance was illegal and was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, which ultimately led to interracial laws being prohibited across the country.

Netflix

13th (2016)

– Director: Ava DuVernay
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Metascore: 83
– Runtime: 100 min

Ava DuVernay tells another story in Black history, this time of the 13th Amendment (the abolishment of slavery) and how it marked the beginning of a new type of slavery—the mass incarceration of Black Americans. The film focuses on the racially disproportionate numbers in American prisons and features interviews from prominent figures like Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, and more.

Universal Pictures

Get Out (2017)

– Director: Jordan Peele
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 104 min

“Get Out” follows a Black man (Chris) and his white girlfriend (Rose) as they travel to meet Rose’s family for the first time. This film has been critically praised for hitting numerous themes of modern America, including white liberalism, cultural appropriation, racism, racial discrimination in policing, and more.

Grasshopper Film

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017)

– Director: Travis Wilkerson
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 78
– Runtime: 90 min

“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” dives into the South during the 1940s as a man investigates the murder of a Black man by his racist, white great-grandfather. Incorporating scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the film mirrors the society that allowed racial injustices and brutal murders to occur.

Netflix

Strong Island (2017)

– Director: Yance Ford
– IMDb user rating: 6.4
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 107 min

Yance Ford documents the investigation into the murder of his brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., in 1992. It is revealed that Ford was killed by a white man who was acquitted by an all-white jury. The film takes us through the heartbreak of a family who could not escape the racial injustices that plague Black families and their lives.

Kino Lorber

The Force (2017)

– Director: Peter Nicks
– IMDb user rating: 6.7
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 92 min

“The Force” highlights the demand for police reform by the Oakland police department amid the events and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The film addresses scandals caused by the police department and encourages police accountability.

Netflix

Mudbound (2017)

– Director: Dee Rees
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 134 min

In the midst of Jim Crow, a Black family struggles to build “the American dream” while working on a farm. This film’s timeline is set in the post-World War II era, and the strict rules enforced on race relations of the time are at the forefront of the film, with classism, sexism, and issues surrounding PTSD lingering close behind.

 

Just Films

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

– Director: RaMell Ross
– IMDb user rating: 6.3
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 76 min

Critics have described this avant-garde style film as “pure cinematic poetry.” Two Black men learn to live within the social constructs of society and explore Black people’s deep-rooted history and culture. The film captures elements of life that stem from racial injustices placed on Black people.

Annapurna Releasing, LLC.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

– Director: Barry Jenkins
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 119 min

Tish and Fonny’s happily ever after is shattered when Fonny, a Black man, is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit against a white woman. The film explores topics like housing discrimination, racial violence, and mass incarceration. The film questions justice for Black people who are pinned against a society of systematic oppression.

Annapurna Releasing, LLC.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

– Director: Boots Riley
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– Metascore: 80
– Runtime: 112 min

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson make a dynamic duo in a film that studies Blackness in white, corporate spaces. Stanfield, whose character finally reaches a level of success in his career, must choose between his friends and coworkers or his achievements. The film takes a look at the double-edged sword that exists in the Black middle class.

Twentieth Century Fox

The Hate U Give (2018)

– Director: George Tillman Jr.
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 81
– Runtime: 133 min

“The Hate U Give” puts the audience in the shoes of a Black teenage girl named Starr Carter, who lives a double life attending a predominantly white private school. She is placed in the middle of protests and race riots after her friend, a Black boy, is killed by police. The story implements the strong racial tensions of today.

Warner Bros.

Just Mercy (2019)

– Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 68
– Runtime: 137 min

Based on a true story in 1989, “Just Mercy” follows Bryan Stevenson, a law school graduate, who vows to defend Black inmates falsely sitting on death row. Stevenson, who experiences racial discrimination in the workplace himself, works endlessly to fight for the justice and freedom of Walter McMillian, a Black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman.