Here are 20 Social Justice-Centered Films to Watch Now
Juneteenth marks a date of major significance in American history. Why is Juneteenth so important? Juneteenth refers to the emancipation day celebrated by African Americans in the U.S. It commemorates the final announcement of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of all slaves on June 19, 1865, originally in Texas. With the incredible surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, we want to help provide resources in support of greater social and racial equality through filmmaking. There are many remarkable movies that contribute to the conversation about social justice and racial tensions through real-life stories. We encourage you to seek out these films and documentaries to better understand the historical context and significance of the Black experience. While there are many films we could have chosen, here are 20 feature films and documentaries that we feel illustrate a range of issues that can help educate and push for change.
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson.
Newly-graduated Bryan Stevenson moves to Alabama where he sets up a nonprofit organization that provides legal counsel and defense for those wrongly condemned. A true story, Just Mercy focuses on the case of one man on death row, Walter McMillian (Foxx). Walter was sentenced to die in 1987 after being accused of murdering a young girl, despite overwhelming evidence that he was innocent. Stevenson struggles through racism and legal and political battles to fight for Walter’s life and prove his innocence.
This incredible true story exposes one of the many unjust stories of Black men wrongly put on death row. It is based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same title, which we recommend reading in addition to viewing this film. By understanding Walter’s story, and so many others, we can see how our justice system is frequently corrupted by racism and political agendas.
Directed by Ava Duvernay. Starring Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander and Cory Booker.
Our prisons are disproportionately filled with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). This documentary takes a look at how racial inequality permeates our justice and prison systems. Not just that members of the Black community are more likely to be accused of crimes, but also that once they are in prison, they are continually abused by violent racism.
A powerful documentary in its own right, 13th does not mince words when it comes to discussing racism in the United States. Though Ava Duvernay’s documentary was released three years before Just Mercy, it is a good companion film. If seen one after the other, we can better understand what Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) are trying to accomplish.
Do The Right Thing
Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee.
In a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, the owner of an Italian pizzeria, Salvatore “Sal” Fragione (Aiell) refuses to showcase Black actors on his Wall of Fame. A local man, Buggin’ Out (Esposito), becomes angry and demands Sal add a few Black actors. The wall becomes a symbol of racism in the community, and tensions rise. On one of the hottest days of the summer, the tension explodes into violence. Sal destroys the boombox of Radio Raheem, who then attacks Sal. Police arrive and try to apprehend Radio, putting him in a chokehold that kills.
The police brutality and the subsequent riots are not unfamiliar to us today. The story of Do the Right Thing could happen anywhere. One of the film’s themes is the dichotomy of a peaceful movement and the idea that violence used in self-defense is appropriate.
The Hate U Give
Directed by George Tillman, Jr. Starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, and Russell Hornsby.
Starr Carter (Stenberg) is trapped between two worlds: the poor, mostly Black neighborhood where she lives, and the predominantly white prep school she attends. Starr’s worlds collide, and seem to shatter, when she witnesses her childhood best friend killed by a police officer. Pressured at school to let it go and pressured at home to speak up, Starr must decide what is right.
Another poignant story of police brutality, The Hate U Give focuses on teens and how their voices can be powerful. Even when adults are pressuring Starr on both sides, it’s ultimately her decision and her voice that makes a difference. Speaking up when there is injustice is never easy, but, as Starr discovers, is always the right thing.
See You Yesterday
Directed by Stefon Bristol. Starring Eden Duncan-Smith, Dante Crichlow and Astro.
Two teenage science prodigies, C.J. Walker (Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Crichlow), discover the ability to time travel. They initially want to use their discovery to get them out of the Bronx and into a top-tier school, when they choose a different route: traveling back in time to save C.J.’s older brother, who is shot and killed by police.
Producer Spike Lee and Director Stefon Bristol say that See You Yesterday is a social commentary on America’s past and present. They look at the implicit bias in our police system, exposing police brutality for what it is—senseless racism.
Say Her Name (documentary)
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. Starring Sandra Bland, Robert E Brzezinski and Brian Encinia.
In 2015, political activist Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell in Texas. This documentary follows her family in the moments, days, and weeks following Sandra’s death as they try to learn what really happened to her. Police claimed suicide, but the marks on Sandy’s body suggested foul play.
It was Sandra Bland’s death that sparked the refrain, “Say her name.” Her family’s heartbreaking pursuit of an explanation to a young, healthy, 28-year-old woman’s death begs the question: Isn’t it the government’s job to take care of inmates? But as her family will attest, no one in the Black community believes that.
When They See Us
Directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, Linda McCray and Ethan Herisse.
When a jogger was attacked and raped in New York’s Central Park in 1989, five young black people were accused and arrested for the crime. This mini-series takes a look at the twenty-five years it took for them to prove their innocence.
Based on a true story, the Central Park Five maintained their innocence throughout the twenty-five years of struggle. While not a documentary, it is dramatized, the story is powerful and heartbreaking as these five young people lose a quarter of a century of their lives stuck in prison for a crime they did not commit.
Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer.
After spending 22 years in prison, Oscar Grant (Jordan) is doing his best to live a clean life with his girlfriend (Diaz) and their young daughter. On the last day of 2008, Oscar’s dreams for pursuing this new life are shattered when police officers drag him and a few friends off a train. Oscar is shot on the train station platform when he was lying unarmed and handcuffed on the floor.
Another heartbreaking, real story of police brutality, Fruitvale Station’s sensitivity to Oscar Grant’s story is timely. Though he made mistakes, Oscar was simply trying to do the best he could and ended up in a situation that he didn’t deserve or ask for.
It also should be noted that Fruitvale Station was Ryan Coogler’s debut film, and he has since gone on to direct several more powerful films like Creed and Black Panther.
The Kalief Browder Story (documentary)
Directed by Jenner Furst. Documentary starring Kalief Browder and his family.
Sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested for a crime he did not commit. A high school student in the Bronx, Browder was sent to Rikers Island, a particularly violent prison without a conviction of the crime he was supposed to have committed (stealing a backpack). His family was unable to afford his bail, set at $3,000, and he spent three years in prison, two of them in solitary confinement. This series looks at his fight for justice and also what life was like in Rikers Island.
The themes of this documentary go beyond a wrongful conviction and imprisonment, though those are both poignant and important. It also looks at what extended solitary confinement does to a person. Browder’s ordeal and struggles did not end when he was finally released from prison in 2013.
Queen and Slim
Directed by Melina Matsoukas. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith and Bokeem Woodbine.
Slim and Queen are on their first date when they’re pulled over for a minor traffic violation. The officers become violent, and Slim takes one of their guns and kills a police officer in self-defense. Now labeled “cop killers,” the two go on the run. They spend the next several days evading the law and running on a modern-day underground railroad.
Writer Lena Waithe called this film a form of “protest art” as she tried to articulate the Black American experience. She wanted to “reflect the times in which we live” and show what reality is like. Queen and Slim carefully show both sides of the story, with some white Americans helping Queen and Slim escape, even a cop allowing them to run. Still, it depicts the harsh reality of life for Black Americans when they have any run-in with the law.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James and Regina King.
In 1970s Harlem, Tish (Layne) is excited about her upcoming wedding and birth of her child. But everything is derailed when her fiance, Alonzo Hunt (James), is arrested for a crime he did not commit. With her happiness on the line, Tish throws herself into proving his innocence.
A powerful romance, If Beale Street Could Talk looks at the cruelty and injustice that Black people face on a daily basis in America and the power of love and hope.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie and Algee Smith.
A fact-based drama, Detroit takes place in the summer of 1967 in the heat of the Detroit riots. A group of police officers from the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police, and the Michigan Army National Guard seize a part of a nearby hotel where gunshots were heard. Some of the police officers take matters into their own hands, throwing procedure out the window and brutally interrogating guests to get a confession.
Though a drama, this film depicts the reality of the power of police in an emergency situation. While the hotel guests were innocent, they had no power or control over their circumstances. A grisly look at a horrible situation, Detroit does not hold back on its visuals of violence by the police officers involved.
Stranger Fruit (documentary)
Directed by Jason Pollock. Documentary starring the family of Michael Brown.
On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Director Jason Pollock spent years documenting the civil unrest in Ferguson following the failed indictment of Darren Wilson as well as discussing the events of Michael Brown’s last days with his family.
Stranger Fruit successfully shows the flimsy way Michael Brown’s murder was handled. Not only was evidence withheld, but the trial itself was considered by many a joke. Michael Wilson’s family speaks not only about the pain of losing their son but also the lack of confidence and faith they had that his murderer would ever be brought to justice.
Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story (documentary)
Directed by Jenner First. Documentary starring the family of Trayvon Martin.
On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was visiting his family in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. On his way home, the neighborhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, called the police on Martin, but then approached Martin himself. The talk got physical, and Zimmerman shot Martin, ultimately killing him. This documentary looks at the events surrounding the shooting, but also how quickly Zimmerman was let go based on a lack of “unreasonable doubt” as to his guilt.
While a story of a murder and its subsequent trial, one of the poignant messages of this story is the frequent accusations against young Black men for suspicious behavior—even though they are innocent.
I’m Not Your Negro (documentary)
Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Writer James Baldwin began writing his own account of the assassinations of three of his dear friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When he died in 1987, Baldwin had only completed 30 pages of his book. This documentary includes the story of Baldwin’s 30 pages and Director Raoul Peck’s vision of what he never finished.
Using only Baldwin’s words, this documentary takes a look at the powerful fight against racism during his lifetime. With familiar figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., some might think it’s the same old story. But it isn’t. The powerful, personal connections to the Civil Rights Movement are as poignant and relevant today as they were when Baldwin was writing his book in the 1980s.
The Force (documentary)
Directed by Peter Nicks. Starring Cat Brooks, Jonathan Cairo and Ben McBride.
The Force goes inside the Oakland Police Department where a massive effort of reform is taking place. In 2003, the Oakland Police Department was under heavy scrutiny for excessive brutality, especially a group of four veteran officers known as “The Rough Riders.” Not long after, the OPD was called on to respond to an anti-war protest, where they used force and brutality to “settle the crowd.”
This documentary is a heartbreaking look at how reform in police departments is often not enough. Despite the honest efforts of Chief Sean Whent including impressing upon new recruits their responsibility and extensive training in hopes to stop the police brutality. It ends with a lot of questions on whether or not this reform has worked and if it can work for other police departments in the future.
Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot. Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors and Rob Morgan.
A third-generation San Franciscan, Jimmie Fails is pushed out of the city by his circumstances. Jimmie wants to reclaim his life in San Francisco through taking back his childhood home built by his paternal grandfather. But the house is now in a gentrified part of town and is not only beyond his means, but he is also considered suspicious in his own neighborhood.
Based on real events, this story looks at the realities of gentrification and how they favor the white middle class of America.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (documentary)
Directed by David France.
In 1992, Black gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson was found dead, her body floating in the Hudson River. Initially called a suicide, the circumstances surrounding the death of this outspoken, New York City drag queen led her family to believe that it was murder. The body showed a massive head wound and signs of struggle, and despite a long battle with mental illness, Johnson was not suicidal.
A tragic story of racial and homosexual discrimination, Marsha P. Johnson’s death was again brought to the forefront of news in 2016 when Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project tried to get the case reopened. This 2017 documentary was a part of that effort. This documentary is important to both the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ+ community.
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada. Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal and Janina Gavankar.
With only three days left on his parole, Collin Hopkins (Diggs) is ready to start a new life in his hometown of Oakland, California. While working with his volatile friend, Miles Jones, Hopkins witnesses a Black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in a park. Hopkins struggles with what he has seen and the gentrification of his community, where he feels he doesn’t fit in anymore.
Blindspotting explores race and class as the gentrification of Oakland changes Collin’s life after his time in prison.
Monsters and Men
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Starring John David Washington, Anthony Ramos and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Manny (Ramos) records a police officer fatally shooting his friend, Darius, on the streets. He is intimidated by other police officers into not posting the video but sees that they lie to the press about what happened that night. He spends the next several days struggling with what he should do, then finally decides to post the video. Two other characters, a detective and a young high schooler, become involved in an effort to find justice for Darius and expose the corrupt police officers involved.
This film explores police brutality, but through a lens often not seen, that of a police officer struggling with whether he should be true to his fellow police officers or fight for justice for his fellow Black Americans.