Movies With Meaning: Racial Realities Brought to Light in Film

2014 marked one of the most tumultuous and cathartic periods of time in many years regarding race relations in the United States, and the fires lit for movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe aren’t likely to die out anytime soon.

Because of this, February 2015 may just be the most bittersweet, but also most important Black History Month in a very long time.

Below is a list of the biggest movies – some classic, some recent – that have tackled the subject of race relations between America’s black and white communities. While there are many great films about America’s long history of racial turmoil, these are the ones that have had the furthest reach and have resonated with a large number of people of all races.

“Do the Right Thing

Released: July 21st, 1989


On the hottest day of the summer in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, tensions between the various racial groups within the community begin to boil over, with Mookie (Spike Lee), a young, black pizza boy, caught in the middle of it all.

Why it matters: 

Spike Lee is considered to be both one of the most groundbreaking and influential black directors ever, and one of the most provocative and politically controversial figures in the film business. This was the film that put him on the map, and though he’s released many movies since with a similar subject matter, this is still by far one of his most revered.

The film succeeds on such a raw level because while it’s very firmly anti-racism, it refuses to romanticize its characters; the white antagonists are realistic humans rather than inhuman monsters, which only makes their bigotry more real and dangerous. On that note, the black characters are just as diverse in their attitudes, motives and opinions as real people would be – we’ll never be entirely sure whether or not Mookie really is “doing the right thing” when he eventually takes a side in the turmoil.

Lee’s film doesn’t aim to tell viewers what to think. Rather, it wants to paint a harsh and visceral picture of the racial atmosphere of America, then sit back with the audience to watch the story unfold.

“Malcolm X 

Released: November 18th, 1992


A dramatic retelling of the adult life of the famous civil rights leader, Malcolm X (played by Denzel Washington).

Why it matters:

You could probably fill this list up several times over just with Spike Lee films, but if you where to boil Lee’s career down to just two films, “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” offer the two best testaments to the filmmaker’s legacy.

Whereas “Do the Right Thing” was more of a telling of the racially-charged events of the civil rights movement’s past, “Malcolm X” is a straight up retelling of the life of one of the black community’s most renowned and outspoken icons. The best part is this film keeps the controversy of the man’s politics at the forefront, while also showing the personal road Malcolm Little took to becoming Malcolm X.

“Fruitvale Station”

Released: July 26th, 2013


A dramatization of the last day of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), the victim of an infamous and deadly case of police brutality.

Why it matters:

Though this film didn’t receive the amount of buzz many people thought it deserved when award season came around, the story it tells is one that has become depressingly more common since it was released. Though it came out near the height of the Trayvon Martin case, the slew of police shootings involving young black men that have taken place over recent months make this film one that is only becoming more real for many people.

Oscar Grant, as portrayed in this movie, is by no means a perfect man, but he’s one that is flawed no more or less so than everyone else in the world. The fact that a life as vibrant and real as his was cut short and his character was defamed in the public eye is all the more tragic when he was just as human as anybody else.

“Dear White People”

Released: October 17th, 2014


This movie chronicles the intersecting stories of four black college students trying to navigate the harsh and confusing environment of their predominantly white university. Loyalties are questioned and lines are drawn when a mostly white club at the college throws a “blackface” party as their idea of a sarcastic response to the increasing racial tensions.

Why it matters:

Just how “Do the Right Thing” said what was on a lot of people’s minds in a time when many people would deny the festering racial tensions in urban America, “Dear White People” faces down the passive-aggressive threats and micro-aggressions that still persist in what many would like to believe is a “post-racial” United States. Each member of the main cast is unique in their personality and opinion, and the film never tells the audience who they should sympathize with. This is one of those movies that is more interested in raising tough questions than handing out answers.


Released: January 9th, 2015


A dramatization of the Selma to Montgomery marches headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo).

Why it matters:

“Selma” is one of those films that came out at just the right time to reflect and influence the society it portrays. As the American public heads toward what may be the biggest period of racial uprising that the country has faced in decades, “Selma” offers us the opportunity to look back on an important part of the civil rights movement – and to look forward on our own road of civil justice.