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Must-See American Movies That Tackle Race (Part 2)

Written by Sarah Osman. Published: August 22 2017


As I completed research for Part 2 of this list (read Part 1 here), I realized that there are still very few films out there that properly take on the racism that is prevalent in America, and there are even fewer films that discuss racism against smaller minority groups, such as Native Americans and Middle Easterners. May this list provide a bit of inspiration for writers, actors, and directors, and serve as a reminder that there are still many stories to tell..


Fruitvale Station

Featuring Michael B. Jordan in his first starring role, Fruitvale Station is based on the real story of the death of Oscar Grant. In 2009, Grant, a young man living in Oakland, was shot to death by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale train station. Ryan Coogler, the director, was a graduate student at USC when Grant was shot. He was moved by Grant’s untimely death, and Fruitvale Station was born. The film is an honest and brutal look at the police brutality minorities face.





Not all films that deal with race have to be dramas or biting satires -- sometimes they’re just fun musicals. Before it was a musical, Hairspray was a comedy directed by the wonderful John Waters. In 2002, it was turned into a Broadway musical, which was then adapted into a musical film in 2007. No matter which version you prefer, it’s a fun story that takes a stand against racism and segregation. The film (and play) follow Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size teen living in Baltimore, whose biggest dream is to be on the “The Corny Collins Show”. Her salacious dancing lands her a spot, and she learns how the show has “Negro Day”, in which once a month black cast members get to do a performance (that is usually much better than the white performers). Tracy decides to fight for integration on the show, as well as to help integrate all of Baltimore. If you’re going to watch the musical, there a number of standout numbers, but my favorite is “Run and Tell That”.





Technically, there are no humans in Zootopia, but apparently the animal world deals with its own version of prejudice. Zootopia takes place in an a mammalian metropolis (aptly named Zootopia) where a bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin) has just been hired as the first bunny police officer. She’s determined to keep the city safe, and along the way befriends a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) who helps her to solve the city’s biggest crime. The movie is a surprisingly fitting metaphor for many of the same problems Americans face (for instance, the “prey” begin to fear the “predators”, going so far as to move them from jobs that require them to interact with all types of animals) and could easily be used to introduce the concepts of racism and prejudice to young children. Considering this was made by Disney, who in the past has not been known for its PC films (the “black crows” in Dumbo... the Indians in Peter Pan... all of Song of the South) is indeed a promising sign for the time (or that Disney is not completely tone-deaf). 




And my favorite scene, which reminds us that no matter our race, religion, or nationality, we can all agree that the DMV is terrible:





How Ava DuVernay did not win the Oscar (or even score a nomination) for Selma will forever remain a mystery, but one thing is for certain -- Selma is a breathtaking movie that chronicles an important part of American history. The film focuses on the seminal Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches that took place in 1965. Starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma focuses one of the most important events of the Civil Rights movement. We could all use a reminder of the rights that people fought -- and died -- for. 




Reel Injun

Although this documentary is Canadian, it focuses on a problem that is uniquely American: the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood films. Reel Injun focuses on the history of Native Americans in film, including fun tidbits such as:


- Most Native Americans were actually portrayed by Italian-Americans and Jewish-Americans

- The stereotypes of Native Americans, from “the wise noble” to “the drunken idiot”

- Even today, there are few films that accurately portray Native Americans


While researching this article, I could not find a film that was an accurate portrayal of Native Americans and their lives today (if someone knows of one, please let me know). This is frankly not acceptable, and may I suggest to the executives of studios that instead of writing your own, why not adapt one of the brilliant works by Native American writer Sherman Alexie?  




(Image via New Line Cinema/YouTube)


- Sarah Osman, YH Contributing Writer