We're listening and we're learning. We're looking for tools to help us to understand. These documentaries address civil rights, history and racism in the US and the UK. These are our starting point.
Over the last week, nightly violent protests have erupted on the streets of American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
We need to try to understand, even when – or especially when – it feels uncomfortable.
Documentaries can be tools to understand, to learn, to empathise. By no means an exhaustive list, the below documentaries address civil rights, history and racism in the US and the UK in the recent and not-so-recent history. These films are our starting point.
On Friday 12 June, we will also be showing Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, another very relevant doc on this subject.
The Hard Stop / George Amponsah / 2015 / 85 mins
The racially charged police killing of Mark Duggan in August 2011 ignited the worst civil unrest in recent British history.
For 28 months, director George Amponsah filmed around Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, where Duggan grew up, capturing his family’s distress and focusing on two of his best friends, Marcus Knox and Kurtis Henville.
We follow the men as they attempt to get on with their lives, look for a job, talk about the discrimination they experience on a daily basis and the impact Duggan’s death has had on the community.
What emerges is a profoundly humane, thought-provoking and topical testament, which gives a voice to people who are too rarely heard.
Watch The Hard Stop on the BFI Player.
13TH / Ava DuVernay / 2016 / 100 mins
Directed and produced by Ava DuVernay, 13th explores how mass incarceration in America evolved to its current epic proportions and what the ramifications are for communities of colour across the country.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanising documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity.
Watch 13th on Netflix.
The Central Park Five / Ken Burns & David McMahon & Sarah Burns / 2012 / 119mins
Studying the same case as Ava DuVernay’s recent drama series When They See Us, The Central Park Five revisits a crime from 1989: the brutal assault and rape of a white woman in Central Park, for which five black and Hispanic teenagers from Harlem were arrested. After hours of intense interrogations, the youths confessed and were sentenced to long prison terms.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, along with collaborators David McMahon and Sarah Burns, uses revelatory archive footage and contributions from many involved in the trial, to raise serious questions concerning the criminal investigation and a flawed American justice system.
Watch The Central Park Five on iTunes.
St Louis Superman / Smitri Mundhra & Sami Khan / 2019 / 28 mins
This Oscar-nominated short follows celebrated battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr, who has won a seat on the Missouri State Legislature.
Franks had been very active in the Ferguson protests over the 2014 murder of the unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, and is now trying to get a law passed that would recognise that gun violence is a public health epidemic, and channel resources towards treating it.
The film follows Franks over the summer of 2018, as he successfully gets his bill passed – and names it after his older brother, who was murdered as a child. Franks’ activism and immersion in the world of gun violence devastation clearly takes its toll, and a coda at the end of the film notes that he has stepped down from politics.
Watch St Louis Superman on Al Jazeera.
3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets / Marc Silver / 2015 / 98 mins
After they refused to turn down their rap music, Mike Dunn fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers in Jacksonville, Florida. Three bullets hit 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who died at the scene.
Director Marc Silver skillfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the Jordan’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee.
Watch 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets on Amazon Prime.
Unarmed Black Male / James Jones / 2016 / 88 mins
In Unarmed Black Male, made for the BBC’s This World strand, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager.
For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth, Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he said in an interview. “In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.”
Watch Unarmed Black Male via James Jones’ website.
Strong Island / Yance Ford / 2016 / 107 mins
Twenty-five years after director Yance Ford’s brother was murdered on Long Island, NY, the family scars run deep.
In this stylish, searing, and accomplished film, Ford revisits the painful topic which he has so long avoided.
Unflinching testimonials bear witness to decades of grief, exacerbated by the fact the police showed no interest in investigating the murder of a young black male.
Watch Strong Island on Netflix.
Black Sheep / Ed Perkins / 2018 / 27 mins
In the wake of Damilola Taylor’s death, Cornelius Walker’s mother tried to move her family away from the dangers of London to an estate in Essex, run by a violent, racist gang.
In this multi award-winning and Oscar-nominated short, Ed Perkins tells Cornelius’s story through a potent combination of his firsthand reflections and re-enactments using ‘non-actors’ in the real locations where events unfolded over 15 years ago.
Watch Black Sheep on the Guardian website.
I Am Not Your Negro Raoul Peck / 2016 / 93mins
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. However, at the time of his death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.
In I Am Not Your Negro, filmmaker Raoul Peck reimagines Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript with this radical and incendiary examination of race in America, connecting the narratives of past and present. Using Baldwin’s words, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck crafts a lyrical and forceful interrogation of what it means to be black today.
Watch I Am Not Your Negro on BFI Player.
Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask / Isaac Julien / 1995 / 71 mins
Psychiatrist, intellectual and writer Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1961) was the pre-eminent theorist on colonialism. His two major works Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth explored the psychological effects of racism on both the coloniser and the colonised.
Artist Isaac Julien weaves together different narrative techniques including interviews, readings and reconstruction to explore Fanon’s life and works.
Watch Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask on Kanopy.
The Stuart Hall Project / John Akomfrah / 2013 / 99 mins
Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall emigrated to the UK in 1951 to take up a place at Oxford University. He soon became an influential figure in the new left, and is credited as one of the founders of contemporary cultural studies.
Using material from decades of TV work, along with film and photos from Hall’s personal archive, director John Akomfrah explores Hall’s life and work – set to the sounds of his favourite musician, Miles Davis.
The result is a profound tract on identity, memory and the second half of the 20th Century through the eyes of one of its most important cultural theorists.
Watch The Stuart Hall Project on the BFI Player.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution Stanley Nelson / 2015 / 113 mins
Master documentarian Stanley Nelson explores the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails.
Going straight to the source, Nelson weaves a treasure trove of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it.
Watch The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution on Kanopy.
LA 92 / Dan Lindsay & TJ Martin / 2017 / 114
Twenty-five years after the verdict in the Rodney King trial sparked several days of protests, violence and looting in Los Angeles, LA 92 immerses viewers in that tumultuous period through stunning and rarely seen archival footage.
Directed by Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (Undefeated), the film looks at the events of 1992 from a multitude of vantage points, bringing a fresh perspective to a pivotal moment that reverberates to this day.
Watch LA 92 on Amazon Prime.
Generation Revolution / Usayd Younis & Cassie Quarless / 2016 /
Generation Revolution brings to screen the powerful story of a new generation of British black and brown activists who are changing the social and political landscape in London and beyond.
The film chronicles the evolution of the young activists, offering a glimpse into the rewarding but difficult path that must be trodden in the struggle for personal, social and political liberation.
Watch Generation Revolution on BFI Player.