12 Stories That Look Our Racist History in the Eye
In order to grow, we must face our flaws, not ignore them. This applies to countries, too. Look at America — we’re known as the land of the free, and as a welcoming melting pot for people from all over the world. And while diversity is one of our strengths, how we’ve arrived at this point is not so much. Our history has undoubtedly been marred by racism, but with the powerful platforms for storytelling at our disposal, we can confront this history and use it to forge a better future.
We are fortunate to have countless writers, filmmakers, and artists who have put our history front and center, shedding light on racism, injustice, and all the other dark corners of this country, in hopes of creating awareness and inspiring change. And Topic is proud to be home to some of these creators. In the spirit of growth, we are presenting 12 titles that look our racist history in the eye, because it’s stories like these that will keep us in the fight for a better America.
1. The Zo
Illustrated through artist Molly Crabapple’s watercolors and narrated by “The Wire”’s Michael K. Williams, “The Zo” refers to the Twilight Zone-like existence for American inmates. The short doc exposes horrific tactics that prison guards commonly use to intentionally disorient and punish inmates, until they are stripped of their dignity and humanity. In a county where African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, this documentary is highly relevant in the larger conversation on race and racism.
2. Silent Rose
Based on real students, “Silent Rose” is an uber-realistic portrait of a group of teens in a typical modern American high school. The issues that they are faced with on a regular basis — lockdown drills, disinformation campaigns, and racial injustice — are reflective of an increasingly divided country and a social climate that’s fraught with tension, disillusionment, and outright anger. Still reeling from the murder of Trayvon Martin and President Trump’s election win, these kids fight to be heard in a society that often leaves them out of the discussion. “Silent Rose” is a timely reminder of the power of Gen Z.
In 1946, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s great-grandfather murdered a Black man named Bill Spann and got away with it. This injustice becomes the impetus for his documentary and investigation into the case and the social climate that allowed for it to happen. The haunting doc explores how a community, and by extension the whole South, and by further extension the entire country, could be complicit in a man’s murder.
This four-part documentary focuses on a group known as “the Loving Generation,” who were born to one white parent and one Black parent. Through their stories, we learn about how they’ve grappled with their multiracial identities, what privilege means to them, and what their parents experienced in country that has only legalized interracial marriage 50 years ago.
For anyone still wondering how Donald Trump was able to win the 2016 election, this is a must watch. Based on sociologist Michael Kimmel’s acclaimed book of the same name, “Angry White Men” is a sobering but illuminating glimpse into the angry and hate-driven demographic that propelled Trump into office. The film explores how ideologies of intolerance are used to galvanize everyday people and sheds light on those trying to reverse course.
You’ve never seen a family reunion like this. “Passing” sees filmmaker and comedian Robin Cloud tracking down a group of relatives who broke off from the family tree to live their lives as white folks. She meets with one of their kids, Becky Jo, now well into her 60s, who had no idea what her parents had done and is just now learning about her true identity. It’s illuminating to see how she becomes the bridge between these white-passing relatives and their family heritage stemming from the South. Cloud’s six-episode doc proves that family will always be family, despite decades of estrangement or even racial identity.
Some photos tell stories, some define history. Each episode of this five-part documentary focuses on one photojournalist and their defining photograph. In New Orleans, Alysia Burton Moore captured the racial oppression in America’s response to Hurricane Katrina. In Flint, Michigan, Regina H. Boone captured a young boy covered in skin rashes, a striking image that helped bring public attention to the Flint Water Crisis. In Boston, Stanley Forman snapped a disturbing photo of a white anti-desegregation protester weaponizing the American flag against Black civil rights activist Ted Landsmark.
8. Black 14
In 1969, when a group of Black football players at the University of Wyoming decided to stand up to racism, they were not commended or supported, but instead punished. Executive produced by Spike Lee, “Black 14” is a disheartening example of how often history has sided against those who speak up and demand change. But on the other hand, stories like this also revealed the resilience and resolve of the human spirit, because those who want change don’t let university coaches, legal injustices, or systemic oppression stop their fight.
NFL running back Marshawn Lynch is known for dodging reporter questions and being “about that action.” But his unwillingness to talk has been twisted by the American sports-media complex as insolent and going against what’s expected of athletes, especially Black athletes. “Lynch: A History” foregoes conventional documentary format and stitches together more than 700 clips to reveal how one man’s personal ethos became a powerful form of resistance against a system complicit in racial oppression. Premiering on Topic July 9.
This quiet documentary explores the issue of mass incarceration in the US not by focusing on the prisons themselves, but by the lives affected on the outside. Twelve vignettes featuring different people across the country show how the criminal justice system impacts the underclass and the Black community the most. In Ferguson, Missouri, the African-American community is ravaged by petty laws that seem intended to criminalize and disenfranchise them, keeping them in a permanent loop of imprisonment, in and out of the correctional facilities.
Bet you didn’t think anything this short could be so haunting. In 1992, amid the L.A. Riots, 9-year-old Nathan Silver had a birthday party and decided to reenact the unrest with his friends for the camera. They went so far as to use toy guns to shoot each other, mimicking what they were seeing on the news. He then turned the footage into a four-minute short documentary 25 years later. Seeing these kids turn one of the worst moments of civil unrest into a game is bewildering and unsettling, and calls to mind all sorts of larger, uglier implications: violence in the media, white privilege, adult complicity. One thing’s certain: there’s a lot to unpack in these four minutes.
12. Edith + Eddie
Edith and Eddie are the country’s oldest interracial newlyweds, at 95 and 96. After experiencing love at first sight and tying the knot, they’re ready to live out the rest of their lives together. But then something unthinkable happens to tear them apart. This short documentary exposes one of the many flaws in our justice system, which often treats elders like second-class citizens. You will be infuriated, devastated, but you will ultimately be grateful that you experienced Edith and Eddie’s love story.