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The vast majority of Hollywood films over the past hundred years were made by, about and for white people. The industry’s first blockbuster — 1915’s The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith — was a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film featuring white actors in blackface.
It’s also true that until very recently, the vast majority of white viewers simply have not had to develop the skill that Black people (and members of many other under-represented groups) have practiced from birth: the ability to identify with a character who doesn’t look like you in an onscreen world that often doesn’t even acknowledge you exist. This discrepancy is known as the “racial empathy gap,” a term coined by researchers to describe the fact that white audiences tend to have a much lower tolerance for viewing Black films than Black people do for seeing majority-white films.
One way that non-Black people can affirm that Black lives matter as a regular practice is by seeking out movies that center Black lives. After all, in order for Black lives to truly matter, Black stories (all Black stories) have to matter, too.
While systemic discrimination in Hollywood is entrenched and not even close to being dismantled, few would deny that more Black storytellers than ever are getting the chance to tell their authentic stories to wider audiences. Black storytellers today feel less of a need to artificially insert white characters into their narratives in order to make outside audiences comfortable. Movies steeped fully and unequivocally in the Black American experience have long existed, from filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Spike Lee and others. But many of them never got the studio green lights, theatrical releases or attention they deserved.
Any proper racial reckoning as a country will naturally have to include culture and entertainment — so more white people building the muscle of engaging seriously with films in which white characters are not the heroes is necessary.
Below are ten such films, both narrative and documentary, that hit upon a variety of aspects of Black life in America; presented in alphabetical order, most of them are smaller-budget movies that may have flown under the radar. I hope you will watch them all. (And if you are white, please consider resisting any temptation to call your Black friends and tell them that you did.)
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