Ten films that explore the sin of structural racism

Presbyterian pastor, film critic Edward McNulty recommends seeing or re-visiting these thoughtful films

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty has compiled a list of 10 thoughtful films that deal with the sin of structural racism.

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, pastor of Blue Ball Presbyterian Church south of Dayton, Ohio, is the author of three film books published by Westminster John Knox Press and the editor/reviewer of Visual Parableswhich calls itself “a leading resource for faith-and-film reviews and study guides.”

the Rev. Dr. Edward McNulty

“It was hard deciding what to leave out. There are so many available,” McNulty said of his list of recommended films.

Following are McNulty’s 10 films, with excerpts from and links to his online reviews published in “Visual Parables.” 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 (the 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 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.

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