5 Documentaries to Watch Now You’ve Watched 13th
Print Screen Editor Francesca Sylph shares 5 documentaries to aid you on your anti-racism journey.
The past month has seen people all across the globe attempting to educate themselves in matters that we really should have been educated in already. As our Instagram feeds slowly return to normal and lockdown restrictions ease (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the biggest civil rights movement of our lifetime coincided with a global pandemic), we need to ensure that the movement doesn’t lose momentum. We need to ensure that our activism is not performative. When the virtue signalling Instagram stories are no longer a trend, will you still be doing your part? Ava DuVernay’s essential documentary 13th has been recommended countless times over the past few weeks. It’s practically mandatory (and rightly so). But your work isn’t over after the credits roll. Anti-racism work is a constant journey of unlearning and relearning. Hopefully, these documentaries will allow you to dig a little deeper and aid you on your journey.
Your work isn’t over after the credits roll. Anti-racism work is a constant journey of unlearning and relearning.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Told entirely through the words of James Baldwin (and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), I Am Not Your Negro is a mediation on what it means to be black in the United States, interweaving both archival and modern footage. The sole narrator and lack of ‘talking heads’ create a deeply personal and intimate portrait. However, despite a few ambiguous comments about Malcom X’s long arms caressing his ankles and pondering the lack of male kissing in American cinema, James Baldwin’s queerness is largely ignored. The struggle of ‘conflicting’ identities means that Baldwin is often represented as either a black man, or a gay man, but rarely a gay black man. Nevertheless, despite the disappointing erasure of his queerness, I Am Not Your Negro is still a stunning documentary that will hopefully encourage people to delve further into Baldwin’s work.
Minding the Gap (2018)
United by their love of skateboarding, three young men growing up in Rockford, Illinois bond together to escape their volatile families and difficult hometown, hit hard by decades of recession. Minding the Gap brings together over a decade of documentary footage to create a poignant picture of young American lives, touching on class struggles, racial identity, domestic abuse, modern masculinity, father/son dynamics and the precarious gap between childhood and adulthood. Intertwining his own story with those of childhood friends Keire and Zack, Bing Liu tells a deeply empathetic and intimate story about the trauma we inherit from our parents and surroundings, the painful journey of forgiveness and the lengths to which we go to find some form of escapism.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (2011)
From 1967 to 1975, Swedish journalists and filmmakers travelled across the world to discover the black power movement in America with the intention of “showing the country as it really is.” 30 years later, this disturbingly relevant documentary was created after the footage was rediscovered. From the formation of the Black Panthers to the Attica prison uprising and the trial of Angela Davis, The Black Power Mixtape traces the movement across that pivotal time period. Perhaps the most touching scene in Mixtape is when Stokely Carmichael, often remembered for his militant, confrontational views and rejection of nonviolent protest, interviews his mother, Mabel, gently pushing her to talk about the devastating effects of systemic racism on her family. The Black Power Mixtape not only tells a story of defiance, pride and revolution, but simultaneously one of defeat, frustration and bitterness.
Paris is Burning (1990)
This landmark documentary provides a vibrant but intimate look at a world infested with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS and poverty through the eyes of a primarily African-American and Latinx community of voguers, drag queens and trans women. A chronicle of the New York drag scene in the 1980s, Paris is Burning dives into an often forgotten subculture, allowing its people to speak, dance and flourish. Directed by a white filmmaker and therefore an outsider, there are debates surrounding the intended audience. Was this film always intended to be consumed by a white audience who, from a distance, can revel in the exotic and outlandish nature of drag, before retreating back into their own privilege after the credits roll? Today, drag culture (particularly the language of drag) is mainstream, yet its history remains obscured. Paris is Burning ultimately offers a tender and warm portrayal of a community who remains joyous in the face of discrimination and oppression.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
The story of the Black Panther Party is one that is often told through myths and legends. Weaving together rare archival footage with the voices of surviving Panthers, FBI agents and journalists, Stanley Nelson creates an essential history of the pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary culture in America. Documenting the rise and fall of the party, which was in part caused by internal conflicts as a result of an insidious culture of paranoia created by the FBI, Vanguard of the Revolution tells the whole history in all its complexities and contradictions, making no effort to conceal even the ugliest parts. Vanguard also seeks to dispel the white narrative that violence is never the answer. There is absolutely no way to watch this documentary without feeling the very justified rage of the Panthers and understanding their response. As white people, we have no right to police, control or judge black people’s response to centuries worth of oppression.