Ed McNulty: Ten films that explore the sin of structural racism

Presbyterian News Agency

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty, a Presbyterian pastor and film critic, has selected 10 films dating back to the early 1990s that expose and explore the effects of structural racism.

McNulty is the author of four film books (including Jesus Christ Movie Starwhich is available from Amazon)—and is the editor/reviewer of Visual Parables, a leading resource for faith-and-film reviews and study guides.” Throughout his career, he often has highlighted films that explore racial and cultural diversity.

In coming up with this new 10-film list, McNulty said, “It was hard deciding what to leave out. There are so many available.”

Following are McNulty’s 10 films, with excerpts from and links to his online reviews published at the Visual Parables website. McNulty said the films are “in somewhat historical order.”

  • 12 Years a Slave” (2013)—“12 Years a Slave rips the cover off the phrase “the Southern way of life” to reveal the brute force upon which it was built. To his credit, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchainedattempted to do this, the whippings and lynching shown in gory detail, but the film turned out to be a blood-soaked revenge fantasy so out of touch with reality as to make it more of a Marvel Comics tale than a slice of history. … Alan Dershowitz called this film the African American “Schindler’s List.” A pretty good comparison, though I think a more apt one would be to the popular 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots. A few days after that acclaimed series’ airing, a white funeral director said to me on the way to the cemetery, “Now I understand why so many Blacks are so angry.” I hope there will be a similar reaction among white viewers to this film.
  • Selma” (2014)—No film in the past year comes close to being both as inspiring and to being—in the light of ongoing protests against police abuse of Blacks (in communities that then included Ferguson, Missouri)—as relevant. Although the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson in the first half of the film is flawed, the film is still the finest and most nuanced film depiction of Dr. King, and, important to note, also of those around him … The film is appropriately titled because it does not attempt to tell the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. but to focus on a pivotal moment in U.S. history. The filmmakers wisely show us through a series of cameo performances that the movement was not a one-man affair, but a team effort with many members playing important roles.
  • Malcolm X” (1992)—And at three hours, 21 minutes, epic it is! For me the time sped by swiftly, especially after the first hour chronicling Malcolm Little’s life of crime and drugs. My main criticism is that spending so much time on this meant that (director Spike) Lee had to rush through the life-transforming pilgrimage to Mecca. Without the book the viewer would not know how lavishly Malcolm X was received by Arab leaders, including Prince Feisal, and that he also visited several West African leaders, including President Nkrumah of Ghana … One of the most stirring scenes is the one in which the leader strides at the head of 50 members of the Fruit of Islam through the streets of Harlem after a brother is beaten and arrested by the police. For the first time, someone rises up in protest against such treatment, so that a large crowd gathers behind the calmly arrayed lines of well-dressed and disci­plined men. Inside the police station the white officers disdainfully refuse Malcolm’s demands, until they follow his suggestion and look out the window. The huge crowd makes them realize they are dealing with a man with power. The clean-cut young men stand­ing proudly and calmly in the street are beautiful to behold; little wonder that the Nation of Islam’s teachings of Black pride and self-reliance drew so many converts. Or that a white cop commented, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” Of course, he meant, “Black man.”
  • Boyz n the Hood” (1991)—This remarkable film should be seen by whites as well as African Americans, for it not only shows what is happening to too many families trapped in our urban (poor areas), but it also portrays a strong parent trying his best to keep his son on the right path. There are so many good scenes! Such as when the three friends are small and they go to view a dead body and then resume playing ball; no one thinks of calling the police. Or when teenage Tre gives in to momentary despair because his concentration on his homework is broken so often by the sound of nearby gun shots, police sirens and the roar of helicopters; rushing over to the home of his girlfriend he seeks her embrace as he bursts into bitter tears of rage and frustration. Or big, tough Doughboy, the only one with presence of mind to get his youngest brother out of the room when the bloodied body of Ricky is brought home.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018)—The film ends somewhat on a positive note years after it begins. Tish, accompanied by their young son, visits Fonny in prison where the three are able to share a makeshift meal together. A positive ending, but not a just one because of what Fonny had been required to do in order to escape a much longer prison sentence. The “principalities and powers” are white: the cop, the prosecutor (whom we never see), the entire legal system, (author James) Baldwin asserts, are not interested in justice, but in order, in preserving the status quo of white domination. Again, I think of Baldwin’s words in “I Am Not Your Negro”: “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free; it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.”
  • I Am Not Your Negro” (2016)—When I was in seminary and early ministry, James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement that being a Black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical “The Fire Next Time” I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director-and-prophet Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half- century ago … Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order”).
  • Detroit” (2017)—It has been more than 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12thStreet in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. “Detroit” focuses upon three of the deaths, the murder of three Black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of Black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.
  • Do the Right Thing” (1989)—It was such a prophetic (and controversial) film that it merits attention even today, not just for its historic significance—the third in director Spike Lee’s oeuvre, it catapulted him to international fame—but because it so clearly foretold the future of interracial relationships in America. Its climax focuses upon the death of a Black youth at the hands of a zealous white cop, a tragedy that has been repeated over and over since then. My first review, written for the Catholic magazine “Marriage and Family Living,” has been lost, but my initial reaction of wonder and admiration that a filmmaker could be as powerful as a Hebrew prophet in exposing the dark side of our society still resonates within me.
  • The Hate U Give” (2018)—This is one of the most marvelous coming of age stories I have seen, with (16-year-old) Starr gaining great insight as the days go by. The conversation she has with her father about whyKhalil was driven to sell drugs leads her to a deeper understanding of society’s systematic racism ensnaring so many young Blacks in its tentacles … Starr certainly stands as a symbol of the emergence of youth as advocates for justice, as seen in the real life of the Parkland (Florida) students calling out the cowardice of adults caving in to the commands of gun fanatics. This is the kind of leadership I saw over 50 years ago in Mississippi when Black teenagers stepped forward to demonstrate against racial injustice.
  • The Banker” (2020)—I love it that director and co-writer George Nolfi has released a civil rights-themed film that is new and fresh. There are no picket lines with signs “I Am a Man” and no hooded KKK members gathered around a burning cross. Nor do we ever hear the strains of “We Shall Overcome” or hear the prophetic voice of Dr. King. But of racism there is a plenty, and the wonder of the film is that it makes some of the intricacies of real estate and banking transactions not only understandable (almost), but suspenseful and exciting … I recommend the film because of its unique contribution to our knowledge of some of the “hidden figures” of the civil rights era who fought the less glamorous fight for racial equality in the real estate and banking businesses. Dr. King taught that equality was crucial in finance and real estate if ever his dream of The Beloved Community were to be brought into being.


Originally published by the Presbyterian Church (USA) under Racial Justice Resources. Republished here under the PC-USA’s Creative Commons license.


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ED McNULTY, for decades, has published reviews, magazine articles and books exploring connections between faith and film. Most of his work is freely published. Ed supports his work by selling the Visual Parables Journal, a monthly magazine packed with discussion guides to films. This resource is used coast-to-coast by individuals who love the movies and by educators, clergy and small-group leaders.

6 Great Social Justice Films You Might Have Missed (PechaKucha style)

This week, Visual Parables film critic Edward McNulty presented a PechaKucha for an audience in Dayton, Ohio. What is “PechaKucha“? It’s a presentation format in which 20 images are shown, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and speakers talk along with the images. The format was devised by architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham to force rambling speakers to be more concise. They held the first PechaKucha Night in Tokyo—and now encourage such presentations worldwide. 


Cover Edward McNulty Jesus Christ Movie Star

Click on the cover to learn more about my most recent book, full of thought-provoking study guides on faith and film.

I love films that challenge the mind and explore important social issues. From the thousands of films I’ve reviewed, I’ve compiled a list of over 700 dealing with social justice issues. Here are six that should be on your bucket list.

1.) SALT OF THE EARTH (1954) is the only film to be banned by theater owners. Its director Herbert Bieber was one of the “Hollywood 10” accused of being Communist. The film is about a strike by a miners’ union. A court forbids the men to picket their unsafe mine, which means scabs can get through to break the strike.

The miners’ wives volunteer to walk the picket lines, but one man objects. “The women aren’t strong enough. And who will cook and take care of the kids?” The women don’t accept that answer, and the next day the women, carrying signs, march around the mine’s gate. This delightful film celebrates the dignity and power of women, as well as the union to stand up to oppression. We see how Esperanza, an under-appreciated wife, learned to do this, and also help her patriarchal husband to grow up.

2.) SIN NOMBRE (2009) involves Sayra, a Honduran teenager riding on top of a freight train with her father, uncle, and many others. Hoping to escape their homeland’s violence, they plan to join relatives in the U.S.. After the train enters Mexico, a gang of young toughs clambers aboard to rob the refugees.

One of the robbers is the troubled Casper, upset because Lil’Mago, his leader has killed his (Casper’s) girlfriend. When the leader tries to rape Sayra, Casper intervenes and shoves Lil’Mago off the train. Although her father and Uncle still are suspicious of him.

A friendship develops between the two young people as the train continues north. This blossoms into a romance when the two become separated from her relatives. But can it last with Casper’s former friends urging other gangs all along the way to spot him and kill him?

3.) THE LONG WALK HOME (1990) focuses on the foot soldiers and not the generals in the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the late 1950s. Whoopi Goldberg is Odessa, who walks miles back & forth to the home where Sissy Spacek’s Miriam employs her as a maid. In church scenes we hear but never see Martin Luther King, Jr. inspiring the walkers.

Slowly naïve Miriam becomes aware of her maid’s hardship and the cruelty of the racist system her husband accepts without question. Meanwhile Odessa and the two other house servants have to listen in silence to the racist comments of the husband and guests.

Miriam begins to give Odessa rides, and there is all hell to pay when her angry husband is told about this and orders her to stop. The film shows the cost to America’s blacks, and even to a few whites, for standing up to –or should I say walking against–injustice.

4.) PHILADELPHIA (1993) is a story about a young lawyer fired by his bosses when they discover he has AIDS, then the scourge of the gay community. Originally, I was intending to use Broke Back Mountain for this list, but I decided to include the Tom Hanks film because it shows that minds can be changed by a well-made film.

While speaking about films at a college, a young Christian student came up to thank me and said this film showed her that her church was wrong about homosexuals. Tom Hanks as Andrew Becket opened her eyes to the humanity of gays and that they were not the demons her church had claimed.

She also saw the irony in Denzil Washington’s homophobic Joe Miller, who at first refused to accept Andrew’s lawsuit against his former bosses. At a time when most people were still prejudiced against gays, this film dared to affirm fellow human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity.

5.) THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON (1993) stars Danny Glover as Jerry and Matt Dillon as Matthew, two homeless men trying to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan. They meet after the mentally disturbed Matthew is turned out of his public housing apartment because the decrepit building is to be demolished.

Jerry, suffering from his Vietnam War wounds, becomes a mentor to the naive Matthew. He shows him how to survive by washing windshields; finding shelter on subway trains late at night; nursing a cup of coffee for as long as the restaurant will allow, and dealing with unfriendly cops.

The film’s title refers to Matthew’s healing power that helps Jerry’s knee pain and the arthritic hands of a shoe shiner named Spitz. It also refers to the city’s Fort Washington Shelter, located in a large armory. Here on some nights the two can find a bed. But there’s a bully who does not like Matthew!

6.) THE IRON GIANT (1993) is my final film on this list because I wanted to include a movie for children, but did not want to choose a Disney or Pixar hit. Set in Maine during the Cold War when fear of Communism and the Bomb set people at each other’s throats, this is the story of a strange friendship between a boy and an alien robot.

Young Hogart one night sees what looks like a giant meteor falling into the woods. Venturing forth, he discovers a huge robot. Knowing how fearful adults are, he keeps his discovery secret, though because the Iron Giant must eat lots of metal, he does ask Dean if his friend can hide in his junkyard.

Federal Agent Kent Mansley is after the alien and comes close to setting off a nuclear explosion when he orders government forces to attack the I.G. Only the boy’s pleading with his friend not to fight back with his weapons avoids catastrophe. This is a great film for all ages about fear, violence, & what it is to be “human.”

All of these films expand our horizons, calling us to enlarge our hearts and make room for those whom the powerful would exploit. These films make us aware that as humans we are all bound together.


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