Over the holiday break, I finally got around to watching Netflix’s Mudbound, last year’s period drama by director Dee Rees (who also wrote and directed 2011’s magnificent Pariah). The film was adapted from the 2008 Hillary Jordan novel about two families—one black and one white—attempting to stay afloat by sharecropping the same patch of hard Mississippi acreage in the World War II era.
I won’t drop any spoilers here, but Mudbound is a captivating watch—the film was nominated for two Golden Globes (though it ultimately lost), and Mary J. Blige is a revelation as a matriarch. It excels in large part because of its dedication to authenticity, including how whites treated black folks (and how blacks had to treat whites in order to survive) in the Jim Crow South. The rage-whitening of your black knuckles only intensifies as the movie creeps toward its climax, and once it’s done, you’re left with the residue of anger at our treatment.
Certain period films allow us to escape to days long past with a relative certainty that the technology, mindsets and quality of life portrayed have permanently evolved, but black Americans—most of whom, at the very least, have living parents or grandparents who faced legal consequences for using the same toilet as white people—aren’t afforded the luxury of viewing such things passively. Mudbound is set some seven decades ago, but in a #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, tiki-torch, George Zimmerman-still-walks-as-a-free-man America that reminds you just how little shit has changed since then, it’s not so easy to divorce oneself from the fact that it’s just a movie.
And really, there’s a metric-ass ton of films that evoke these feelings within us. Damon Young created a list a few years back, but he only scratched the surface of what could easily be a 5,000-word article. So here’s a very nonexhaustive list of films that make me kinda wanna trip Kaitlyn as she strolls out of Lululemon:
Audiences pretty much steered clear of this film, which is based on the 1967 Detroit rebellion, likely because they heard that the middle hour is like a Saw film for racially motivated police brutality. Detroit is actually a decent film, and I was one of the few black reviewers who gave it praise. But after watching a press screening, I skipped out on the star-studded world premiere for the same reason I’ll likely never watch the film again: because ain’t nobody got time to be miserable for the rest of the afternoon.
This made-for-TV movie starring Blair Underwood traumatized me when I was a young child with an inchoate understanding of racism. Based on the real-life murder of civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, the film’s protagonists inspired 8-year-old me before I had to watch them get dragged out of their vehicles and executed in the conclusion. They might as well have clipped Mr. Rogers in front of me. I haven’t laid eyes on this film for the better part of 30 years, but it’s the only reason I refused to stop for gas when driving through Mississippi at night while in my 20s.
It’s not always the films that feature explicit white-on-black violence. Dead Presidents masterfully depicts the black American condition as it’s affected by the sublimation of overt racism: Young black and brown men fight the white man’s war (Vietnam here, but isn’t every war the white man’s war?), only to return home with addictions, illness, injuries, emotional trauma and scarce financial options. Not even the liberal use of Terrence Howard’s “mayne,” Clifton Powell’s “nyuguh” or the best soundtrack ever make the conclusion less depressing.
Though it’s in my top 10 all-time favorite films, this white nationalist redemption tale is never too easy to take in. Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard is a nasty Nazi bastard before eventually becoming a sympathetic character, and Stacy Keach’s predatory patriarch motivating children to hate is infuriating. And of course, there’s that curbside scene—hit the “play” button on the above video if you, too, wish to be pissed off.
Included in this list because I can’t think of a series that better personifies the unbridled caucasity that is the Hollywood machine than one that portrays the “competitive” world of collegiate a cappella as comedy. The industry is doing a better-than-ever job of green-lighting the stories of marginalized voices, and Moonlight getting the Oscars drop on Fluffernutter-sandwich-turned-cinematic-experience La La Land was monumental. But it’s still tough to see Pitch Perfect films being made even when no one asked for them.
Pretty much every white person in Jordan Peele’s blockbuster is written to appall. But there’s a unique animus that should be reserved for Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage, the (spoiler alert) main cog in the machine of a family that subverts and “transforms” black folks into modern-day slaves. I’m sayin’ … she should’ve gotten it much worse in the end.
Much has been written about Quentin Tarantino’s liberal use of the n-word in his films, but few will argue that the man can’t write a good revenge tale. Leonardo DiCaprio’s unctuous plantation owner is impressively reprehensible as a man who forces his slaves to participate in some ungodly mixed martial arts for his amusement. But it’s the scene in which dogs tear a slave to pieces that makes us root for Jamie Foxx’s Django to snatch the life of every human of European descent on-screen.
An entire movie centered on rich white men (and Charles S. “Roc” Dutton) hunting a homeless black man for sport. Get past the action-thriller aspect of the film (which isn’t too shabby for the early 1990s) and focus on the optics of Ice-T’s down-on-his-luck widower thinking he’s catching a break at the hands of some well-meaning white folks who are all betting on being the first to off him. It’s fitting that Rutger Hauer, the poster boy for Hollywood bad guys whom you’d probably steer clear of in real life, plays the main antagonist.
Yeah, I know Damon has this on his list. But John Singleton’s best film not named Boyz n the Hood remains the gold standard of don’t-bring-your-Anglo-ass-anywhere-within-10-yards-of-me-after-I-watch-this filmmaking. Based on a real-life 1920s massacre following the lie of a white woman on a black man, not many films before or since Rosewood have so unflinchingly depicted raw white brutality on black bodies. Every time I find myself thinking I want to rewatch it, I think about how I actually plan to walk outside my crib and interact with these motherfuckers again at some point.