At the height of the protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury and Rayshard Brooks, streaming giants like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime showcased their selections of films featuring Black actors, directors and writers.
Emory University Professors Nsenga Burton, co-director of the Film and Media Management concentration, and Dehanza Rogers, filmmaker and assistant professor in the department of film and media studies, joined Lois Reitzes on “City Lights” to discuss a list of films that are front and center for them during the era of Black Lives Matter.
Do The Right Thing
Released in 1989, Spike Lee created the movie as a reaction to the murders of Black people at the hands of white mobs and police during the 80s. The movie takes place on one city block in Brooklyn on a hot summer day, during which tensions escalate to the point of a Black man’s murder by a white police officer.
The film raises questions that are still being asked today.
“Is it really necessary to kill someone because they won’t turn down their radio? Is it really necessary to kill someone because they’re running away from you? Is it really necessary to kill someone over a verbal dispute?” Asked Burton.
Burton notes that although the film culminates in tragedy, there is also plenty of comedy throughout. She says that people who are marginalized in society survive through humor.
“If you don’t laugh, you’re gonna cry,” echoes Rogers. “It just comes down to that.”
Rogers says that the film still resonates today because before, during, and after it, these were issues.
“There is something happening right now that comes from ‘Do The Right Thing,’” Rogers said.
The Spook Who Sat By The Door
The film based on the book of the same name written by Sam Greenlee tells the fictional story of the first Black man in the CIA, Dan Freeman. Once he leaves the agency, he takes what he learned to Chicago and leads an uprising against the government.
The title of the film includes a racial slur, which at one point was used to disparage Black people.
“It’s an embrace and inverting of the meaning of the word ‘spook,’” explained Burton.
After its release, the movie was pulled from theaters due to “anti-police” elements and disappeared for years.
It was also released during the Blaxploitation era of filmmaking. Something that demonstrated the director’s, Ivan Dixon, priorities.
“’ The Spook Who Sat By The Door’ is probably one of the most important films of that era,” said Burton. “For [Dixon] to choose to do this film in the midst of that also speaks volumes about his priorities but also his idea of who he was as an artist and the ways in which art can be used to create social change.”
As the uprising led by Freeman take hold in Chicago, the National Guard, and Army are sent in to respond. Rogers says that this imagery is reminiscent of what we see during Black Lives Matter protests today.
“We have a police force that is in full riot gear as if they’re going into battle,” said Rogers. “We have well-equipped police officers on the street for peaceful protesters.”
The Battle Of Algiers
The Italian film “The Battle of Algiers” recreates part of Algeria’s fight for independence from France during the 1950s. The film was released in 1966 only four years after Algeria had won its independence. It was subsequently banned in France.
“It brings to light what colonialism looks like and what imperialism looks like and France did not appreciate that,” said Rogers.
Burton says the film also displays Black people in a powerful way, full of humanity. That’s another reason it made those in power uncomfortable.
“It really debunks all of the stereotypes and myths that you have about these folks, you know, these black people, people of color,” said Rogers. “That is unsettling, so of course, it would be banned.”
The Black and white French film “La Haine” follows the story of three young immigrants during riots in a Paris suburb. Released in 1995, it is similar to “Do The Right Thing” because it is another example of a movie being written in direct response to the killing of a Black man while in police custody, albeit in Paris.
While set in another country, Rogers says that the oppression of Black people is a universal experience.
“It was one of the first films I saw where blackness was attacked outside of America,” said Rogers. “White supremacy and racism isn’t just an American thing; it’s a global thing. And that film solidified that for me.”
Upon its release, the film was criticized as being anti-police. Burton says it clearly resonated at the time because the police turned their backs on the filmmaker and the cast during the Cannes Film Festival.
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Fred Hampton was a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Under J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, the FBI infiltrated the Black Panthers in order to undermine the Party as a whole and Hampton, specifically, eventually playing a role in his assassination. “The Murder of Fred Hampton” is a documentary released two years after Hampton was killed.
“It blows my mind that he was 21,” said Rogers of how old Hampton was upon his murder. “He said, ‘you can jail the revolutionary, but you cannot jail the revolution,’ and that line has always meant so much to me.”
The documentary also impacted Rogers because it made her realize what the “system” is capable of.
“This was one of those first moments of ‘Oh, wait, the system, the institution, it will kill you if you don’t agree with it,’” said Rogers.
For Burton, “The Murder Of Fred Hampton” was the precursor to social media. Hampton was being filmed for a documentary at the time of his murder. Upon learning of his death, the filmmakers went to the crime scene and filmed the aftermath.
The story the police told did not match the story told by survivors of the shooting or what the filmmakers had captured on camera.
“Those filmmakers released that footage, and that is the footage that really exposed the lie and restored Fred Hampton’s name and showed him as the victim he was,” said Burton.
Burton and Rogers both expect more films to be made in response to recent murders of black people, but caution that can also mean profit through black trauma.
“We’re not making progress as much as people are feeling pressured,” said Rogers. “If enough people are asking the question of ‘where is this money going on the back of our black trauma?’ then maybe someone will say ‘we’re gonna give a portion of this to this organization.’”