Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic a few years back, in response to a statement made by then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (“The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War”). In recommending several strong books that Kelly, or anyone else, could read to better understand the Civil War, Coates made a simple request: “Let’s start with just being less stupid.”
That should be the first goal of everyone who wants to see racism wiped out, but the point often gets lost. While it’s easy for Black Lives Matter allies to tweet and retweet information—or worse still, to declare that they truly understand racism from places of privilege—the truth is that unless one has been under the boot simply because of the color of their skin, we all could all stand to educate ourselves; to shut our yaps, open our eyes and diminish our stupid.
Fortunately, that’s relatively easy to do right now: Streaming services are filled with documentaries, films and series devoted to increasing our awareness of systemic racism. In keeping with Coates’ suggestion (whose Civil War reading list, by the way, can be found at bit.ly/37cUd2h), here is a by-no-means-complete list of films and programs we should all watch to improve our understanding.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (Prime Video) Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts this six-part 2013 miniseries detailing some 500 years of black life in America, beginning long before the slave trade and continuing through the inauguration of Barack Obama. Gates consulted with 30 historians to tell the stories of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and others.
Copwatch (Prime Video) This 2017 documentary explains WeCopwatch, an activist organization that “promotes the non-violent observation of the police.” It tells the story not only of those who have suffered through abusive arrests, but also the brave people who have filmed those often-lethal encounters—and paid dearly for it.
Dear White People (Netflix) Justin Simien adapted his 2014 film about racism at an Ivy League school into a Netflix series in 2017; its fourth and final season airs later this year. Coates praised Dear White People in The Atlantic, calling it “a tremendous artistic achievement. … [It] feels like it’s more about what happens when your sense of being is married to people who don’t much like you.”
I Am Not Your Negro (Prime Video) Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated 2016 documentary, based on the late James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, is a riveting history of racial injustice in America, framed by Baldwin’s associations with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Samuel L. Jackson narrates.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 and LA 92 (Netflix) Both of these documentaries about the 1992 Rodney King riots are essential, and as it happens, complementary viewing. T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay’s LA 92 retells the story of the riots with period footage, some of it previously unseen. John Ridley’s interview-driven Let It Fall traces the events leading up to the riots, including a chillingly current segment on the choke hold.
Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement (Prime Video) Originally aired on BET, this 2016 documentary explains both how the #blacklivesmatter hashtag came into being, and the system of injustice that necessitates its continued use.
Trigger Warning With Killer Mike (Netflix) In this funny and raw reality series, the Run the Jewels rapper gets hands-on with the problems affecting black America. In one episode, he vows to patronize only black-owned businesses for 24 hours; in another, he works with the Crips and Bloods on their branding. “[In Killer Mike], television has found a satirist—or more accurately an activist—for the times,” The Guardian raved
Watchmen (HBO, HBO Max) Though it’s a work of fiction, the brutal and horrific inciting incident of this “remix” of the 1987 comic Watchmen—the Tulsa race massacre of 1921—really happened. Showrunner Damon Lindelof creates an alternate America informed by its lessons—one where black superheroes Sister Night (Regina King) and Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo and Louis Gossett Jr.) end up fighting the same hate and ignorance.
When They See Us and 13th (Netflix). Selma director Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-nominated four-episode miniseries When They See Us, based on the events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, peers into the lives of the five young men unjustly charged with the crime. Watch it with DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which explores the intersection of racism and mass incarceration.
Also: 16 Shots (Showtime), America to Me (Starz), Baltimore Rising (HBO, HBO Max), Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (Prime Video),Crime + Punishment (Hulu), The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (Netflix), Just Mercy(Prime Video, Vudu), Let the Fire Burn (Kanopy), Paris Is Burning (Netflix), Profiled (Kanopy), Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (HBO, HBO Max), Tongues Untied (Kanopy), What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), Whose Streets? (Hulu, Kanopy) and many more.