10 Great Movies to Watch During the 21 Week Equity Challenge
Roger Ebert wrote that “When a movie character is really working, we become that character. That’s what the movies offer: Escapism into lives other than our own.”
As you may have heard, United Way of Illinois has invited individuals across our state to take part in a 21 Week Equity Challenge, and I have it on good authority that thousands of people have signed up.
United Way’s 21 Week Equity Challenge is a great resource to help individuals spend 15 minutes a week researching, learning, and developing new understanding about racial equity. The content of the challenge is well-researched, and it has sparked great dialogue among my family and coworkers. There are even community conversations one can join that help process the information and connect it back to our local community.
Personally, I have signed-up and participated in each of the challenges provided to us each week. On top of this, I’ve also been thinking a lot more about how films I’ve seen have given me the gift of empathy, and how films can be an informative and entertaining way to gain a new perspective.
One of the early weeks of the challenge had us explore our own level of privilege, and while I was aware of my own level of privilege before the week’s challenges, it served as a reminder that it is important for me to seek out and learn from the experiences of others as I do work in my community.
That is why this month for Mitch’s Moment, I want to amplify the voices of Black artists who are doing incredible work and have helped me think about racial equity in a new way. Of course, these films below are some of my favorites, so they do reflect my tastes so you’ll find throughout the list a few dramas, a few comedies, a documentary, and one horror movie. This is not an exhaustive list of the best Black stories in film; it’s a list of movies that spoke to me. However, I’m always looking for something new to watch, so if you have a suggestion, or have thoughts on any of these movies, let me know in the comments!
*Disclaimer* Almost all of these films have mature content suitable only for adults. Additionally, many of you who set out to watch these films may be challenged by the content. However, their messages and the perspectives they provide are truly important, despite any discomfort they may cause.
1. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Streaming on Showtime and DirecTV
A conversation about race in cinema can’t be had without Spike Lee, one of the most acclaimed and polarizing directors of our time. Michelle and Barack Obama famously had their first date at a screening of Do the Right Thing, a movie that discusses gentrification, racial discrimination, and community with the no-nonsense attitude that Lee has made his trademark. The rest of this list is much more modern, but here, the late-80s depiction of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn feels as alive and colorful and vibrant as ever, and moments of levity make this one of the most watchable movies on the list.
2. Get Out (2017)
Streaming on FX if you have a cable login
In 2016, Jordan Peele was mostly known for his comedy work in Key & Peele, but when Get Out was released to the world in 2017, he became instantly recognized as an auteur. A modern classic, this film stands alongside Jaws and Silence of the Lambs as one of six horror movies to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Its stellar screenplay satirizes the pedestrian evil of white liberal racism, and its comedy cuts tension in a way that makes this a great introduction to the horror genre for scaredy-cats, without ever undercutting the emotional stakes of the narrative.
3. I am Not Your Negro (2017)
Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video
“You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.” If you’re not familiar with James Baldwin, this is an incredible entry point to his work. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, and tightly edited into a gripping and emotional documentary, this is the most digestible way to experience James Baldwin’s ideas and perspective. Always poignant and often quite personal, it sometimes feels like a peek into Baldwin’s diary. It’s not easy to watch because you deeply feel the pain and disrespect Baldwin confronted throughout his life, but it is a quite powerful experience that will surely spark discussion and thought among anyone you watch it with.
4. Moonlight (2016)
Streaming on Netflix, Hoopla, and Kanopy (the latter two are free with a Lincoln Library card)
Outside of the debacle at the end of the 2017 Oscars, in which Moonlight’s Best Picture award was mistakenly given to La La Land for a few short moments, Moonlight stands as a singular experience in film. The intense film tells the story of Chiron, a young Black child who grows up and explores his own masculinity and sexuality while coping with the trauma of living in an unstable home. It may not be as universal as many of these other films, but its specificity authentically connects the audience to Chiron, the main character who we follow from childhood into his adult years.
5. 13th (2016)
Streaming on Netflix
If you’re looking to absorb the most information in a short amount of time as it pertains to racial inequity and institutional racism, this is probably the film for you on this list. As the most straightforward documentary on this list, director Ava DuVernay explores how a particular clause of the 13th Amendment – the one that prohibits slavery, except as punishment for a crime – has been used to facilitate a system of mass incarceration.
6. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Streaming on Hulu
Okay okay, hear me out on this one. Sorry to Bother You is definitely an odd movie out on this list because of its zany tone, but Boots Riley’s “put-every-idea-you’ve-needed-the-world-to-hear-into-one-movie” philosophy truly pays off in this dramedy starring LaKeith Stanfield. It borders on the absurd, and is absolutely not safe to watch with the whole family, but this story of code-switching and “selling out” is imaginative and silly and heartbreaking and disgusting all at once. You may not love Sorry to Bother You, but I did, and you will absolutely have a reaction.
7. Blindspotting (2018)
Available to digitally rent or buy
This story of friendship has wild shifts in tone between pure comedy and stunning drama, but they are handled incredibly well in my opinion. Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (famous from Hamilton and the hip hop group “clipping.”) co-wrote and co-star in this deeply personal story that, while advertised as a drama about the fallout from a police shooting, digs much deeper into the authentic experiences of different races than I ever expected, and integrates monologues via free-verse rapping in a way that somehow never feels unnatural.
8. Mangrove (2020) (Ep. 1 of Small Axe)
Streaming on Prime Video
As part of one of the only pieces of new media we received in 2020, Steve MacQueen (12 Years a Slave) puts us into the shoes of the West Indian community in London in the 1960s, fighting for equal treatment under the law. Mangrove is the first episode in a miniseries of standalone stories that are all solid pieces of filmmaking. One half “hang-out” session, one-half court drama, this episode, “Mangrove,” filled me with righteous anger for this community that simply wanted to live freely and practice their own way of life.
9. Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Streaming on Netflix
Spike is back! Of the modern Spike Lee joints, Da 5 Bloods is my personal favorite, though BlacKkKlansman and Chi-raq are both absolutely worth watching. Not only is Da 5 Bloods a great movie about race, but it’s also a great war movie, despite most of it taking place in the modern day. It highlights the intersectionality of the Vietnam War and the difference between the actions of a government and the actions of its people. Additionally, this film provides an incredible showcase for Chadwick Boseman and several newer players like Jonathan Majors and Delroy Lindo.
10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Streaming on Prime Video or Kanopy (free with a Lincoln Library card)
Lastly, I’m bringing you one of the most touching and truly magical films I saw last year. The Last Black Man in San Francisco was the brainchild of Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, who clearly have their heart in this work, and have shared a story that is personal to them. They also hired Adam Newport-Berra, whose cinematography makes San Francisco pop with gorgeous colors and imbues the frame with a comfortable warm glow. If you’re looking for a fresh movie that explores the Black experience in a gentrifying world, take the time to watch this one.
I’d love to hear from you – what movies have given you a new perspective on race? Did you have a different take on any of the movies above? Let me know in the comments. And if you aren’t already signed up for United Way’s 21 Week Equity Challenge, get started here.
Mitch Baker is the Community Impact Manager at United Way of Central Illinois.