Amid the protests in the wake of George Floyd's death, African Americans have sought to explain the racism they say they experience on a daily basis, from police stops to job discrimination to health care.
Many have expressed their fears on television news, others have mounted calls to action on social media. But pervasive as TV news and Facebook may be, neither can capture the sweep of history nor the profound emotional impact that deaths like Floyd's or Ahmaud Arbery's in late February have had.
Television, however, can and has — with growing frequency in recent years, and availability too, thanks to the advent of streaming TV. On Wednesday, Netflix launched a "Black Lives Matter" collection comprising 45 titles about racial injustice, while Amazon Prime launched a similar slate this past weekend.
Now, my turn. I've assembled an idiosyncratic and far-from-comprehensive list that includes series and documentaries about racism, police brutality, Reconstruction and Jim Crow Laws, and offer insight into the anguish that many Americans are feeling.
THE BOONDOCKS (Adult Swim; YouTube), Aaron McGruder's fish-out-of-water series (2005-'08) about a grandfather, and his two grandchildren, the Freemans (voiced by John Witherspoon and Regina King) who move to the all-white community of Crestwood, was a scathing (and funny) takedown of systemic racism. But it did get around to over-policing now and then, most notably in the first season when truculent Uncle Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams) is shot at 118 times. The episode, "The Block Is Hot," is otherwise about appropriation of black culture, when Jazmine (Gabby Soliel) loses her lemonade stand to Crestwood plutocrat Ed Wuncler (Ed Asner).
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (Netflix)
One of 2017's best comedies was also one of its most controversial (that title). But Justin Simien's series spinoff from his movie of the same name was, and is, a congenial provocateur preoccupied with identity, assimilation and the raw nerve-ends that have energized movements like Black Lives Matter. Not always congenial. Not remotely. Those raw nerve-ends are what stick, what really matter most here.
AMERICAN SON (Netflix) From acclaimed Broadway director Kenny Leon, this two-hander is about a mother (Kerry Washington) who calls the police about her missing son. Afterwards, she calls her estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) to come over to her house — he's an FBI agent and she thinks he might have better luck dealing with the police, who patronize her. Yes, "Son" can be talk-y and the dialogue sometimes makes it seem as though you've wandered into a "town hall" debate on racial injustice. But Washington is terrific as a desperate mother in search of answers while the heartbreaking climax packs a real punch: What does loss of this magnitude actually feel like?
RECONSTRUCTION: AMERICA AFTER THE CIVIL WAR (www.pbs.org/weta/reconstruction/) Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s four-hour tragedy could and maybe "should make us weep for ourselves — the reversals, crimes, perfidy, injustices of a long benighted history, the blatant effrontery to a nation’s self-identity," as I said in my 2019 review. Or maybe it should just spark outrage because this remarkable film does in fact insist that the past is not entirely in the past.
EYES ON THE PRIZE (YouTube, Facinghistory.org)
Henry Hampton's 14-hour tour of the Civil Rights movement from the late '80s begins with the murder of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955 then wraps in 1983. The greatness of one of TV's crowning glories is both the breadth and tone — Julian Bond's imperturbable narration, which makes the pictures all the more shocking. If you watch anything, watch the first hour on Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART (Amazon Prime) “Each piece of our living is a protest,” playwright Lorraine Hansberry once wrote, then assembled those pieces in "A Raisin in the Sun," which ran on Broadway for 530 performances in 1959-60. Sidney Poitier starred in both play and movie, so after watching this "American Masters" portrait, read his self-described "spiritual autobiography," "The Measure of a Man."
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE (Netflix) Where to begin with Nina Simone (who died in 2003)? Right here — Liz Garbus's Oscar-nominated 2015 portrait which explores the whole life, but doesn't get to the activist phase until midpoint. Great clips, exhaustive reporting, and recollections — searing ones — from her daughter, Lisa Simone.
TIME: THE KALIEF BROWDER STORY (Netflix) Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old Bronx resident when he was stopped by police and wrongly accused by someone in the squad car of stealing his backpack. He spent three years at Rikers, then two years after release committed suicide. This Jay-Z-produced six-parter about a travesty of justice leaves you with this — how many other travesties?
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (Amazon Prime); WHEN THEY SEE US (Netflix) Sarah and Ken Burns' 2012 film on the five teens wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park should be seen before watching Ava DuVernay's 2019 dramatization of the 1989 case. If there are lingering doubts about how far her dramatizations strayed from the truth, the inescapable conclusion based on the Burns' film is: Not an inch.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Amazon Prime; PBS.org)
In 1948, James Baldwin returned home from France because "everyone else was paying their dues and it was time I went back and paid mine." Using outtakes from the writer's many talk show appearances, Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck gives us that payback while Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin's words. They soar off the pages of his unfinished memoir, "Remember This House," to lodge in our collective conscience, as immovable objects bound to a terrible history.
13TH (Netflix) The power of Ava DuVernay's "13th" — named for the 1865 amendment that freed slaves "except as a punishment for crime …" — lies in its simplicity. This 2016 film draws a straight line from the crack epidemic through "Three Strikes and You're Out," "Truth in Sentencing" and, finally, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which helped privatize prisons. Bottom line: A vast population of incarcerated African American men. "13th" does speak of reform efforts, but activist Angela Davis offers a hard reality check: "Those inevitably lead to more repression." Not just powerful but especially moving.