15 Must-See Black Films That Create Conversations About Being 'Woke'

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It seems as if wherever you turn, somebody, somewhere is talking bout being "woke." From those that have read a few politically-charged articles or finally gotten into watching Roots, folks nowadays find themselves on the front lines of the modern-day Civil Rights movement we see unfolding on all forms of media. 

*snaps* Mother Maxine!

Whether you believe you're apart of the Woke Police (who knows whether or not someone really has expanded their mind to the harsh reality of racial relations) or if you're looking for help in finding ways to educate yourself, we've put together a list of 15 films that tap into various social and political issues. Some are based on fiction; others are facts pulled straight from history books. 

Read through and see how many of these films you already have under your belt or if you need to plan a day to binge-watch the rest.

"What Happened, Miss Simone?"

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The 2015 documentary unfolds the life of legendary singer Nina Simone, highlighting the span of her career from the trials to the triumphs. Nina spent much of her life as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. In response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little black girls, Nina wrote "Mississippi Goddam," a song that was blacklisted by radio stations around the country. 

The film shows how Simone would use her performances as political platforms to share information about racism and equality with her audience. Also, the inclusion and exploration about her bi-polar diagnosis and how it effected her her entire life opened up a conversation about mental illness in the Black community.

"Fruitvale Station"

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Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar Grant III in the 2013 film adaptation of the telling of the real life story of the 22-year-old who was shot and killed by transit police in Oakland, Calif back in 2009. The award-winning, Ryan Coogler film depicts the last day in the life of Grant which included arguing with his girlfriend and attending his mother's birthday party before deciding to catch the BART train to watch a New Year's fireworks show. The movie also shows the cell phone footage of the real Grant being shot and killed while he was already on the ground after being dragged off the train following a scuffle. 

"School Daze"

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This 1998 classic Spike Lee film explores an HBCU experience told through pledging Greek Life. Lee even uses a musical dance number to bring colorism to life as dark-skinned and light-skinned women go to battle over what's acceptable in Black culture while calling each other discriminatory names. 

Not to mention the director tackles sexism, relationship issues, trying to wake up a generation that is unaware of the struggle, and trying to fit in in college. Laurence Fishburne plays Vaughn "Dap" Dunlap, a politically and socially conscious student who spends most of his time trying to educate his fellow students about black history and how to "uplift the race."

"13th"

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In 2016 director Ava DuVernay created a documentary that explained how the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution freed the slaves and made slavery illegal, unless it's used a punishment for a crime. Historians and experts talked about how the American prison system is using incarceration as a new form of slavery since the Civil War. 

The newly freed blacks in the late 19th century would often find themselves arrested on bogus charges through unfair laws that specifically targeted them in order to throw them in jail and keep them as free slave labor. The critically-acclaimed film opened the eyes of millions of people and earned DuVernay Best Documentary Feature nomination at the 2017 Oscars.

"Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out Of Town In America"

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Many people aren't aware that over 100 years ago, all across America, especially in the South, there were towns that chased Black people out of their neighborhoods in what historians say was a "racial cleansing." The 2016 film Banished tells the stories of the descendants of just a few of those families who return the towns of their ancestors looking for answers. In Forsyth County, Georgia, thousands of Black citizens were kicked out and their land was stolen through fraud. In Pierce County, Missouri, a man is getting reparations by reclaiming his grandfather's remains which still lay in the area. Lastly, in Harrison, Arkansas, white residents are still dealing with their town's racist heritage, especially it's home to the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Miss Evers' Boys"

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From 1932 to 1972, The United States government performed a secret medical experiment on poor Black citizens, studying their behavior and tracking their illnesses due to untreated syphilis. The story is told through the perspective named Eunice Evers, played by Alfred Woodard, who is sent to assist a doctor in Tuskegee, Alabama. Even after penicillin was discovered to be a cure, the government continued on with the experiment. In the real life account, a number of men died, 40 wives contracted the disease, and 19 babies were born with it. This is was known as a human experiment using African Americans as guinea pigs.

"Get Out"

get out film

Jordan Peele's 2017 directorial debut was a blockbuster hit, grossing $252 million worldwide. Considering the movie had a budget of $4.5 million, it's safe to say that it was a massive success. Peele's horror film addressed issues of race as a young Black man visits his white girlfriend's family for the weekend. What began as a sweet experience turns frightening as the family, their Black servants, and their white friends, exhibit strange behaviors. There's not another film of its kind; it hasn't even been out for a year and is already a certified classic black film.

"Panther"

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Marcus Chong, Angela Bassett, Kadeem Hardison, Bobby Brown and Chris Rock starred in "Panther," a Mario Van Peebles-directed film and was released in 1995. The movie showcased the ups and downs of the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement. When the movie was released, people were surprised to learn about how the FBI not only kept files on prominent black leaders, they created smear campaigns against them in order to nullify their messages. 

The film also alleges that the Mob worked the United States government to flood Black communities with hard drugs, creating not only a epidemic of addiction, but reasons to increase police patrol and arrests.

"A Raisin in the Sun"

a raisin in the sun 1961

A Black American classic film, the 1961 A Raisin in the Sun is even shown in English classes in high schools across the country. Sidney Poitier stars as Walter Lee, a man with a dream that is living in a small apartment with his wife, young son, adult sister, and mother. 

The patriarch in the family has recently died and left behind $10,000 in life insurance, and while mother Lena wants to buy a house for the family, Walter Lee wants to purchase a liquor store while his sister wants to use it to pay for college. The emotionally-charged film looks into the topics of family dynamics, being black in America (consider Beneatha's relationship with her Nigerian classmate), having a dream that seems just out of your reach, and toiling away on a job that has high expectations and low pay. 

"A Time To Kill"

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Set in Mississippi, two white supremacists not only kidnap a young Black girl, they rape her, beat her, and fail to hang her. She survives and they're arrested, and the film's plot centers around the trial of the girl's father after he murders the men who attacked his daughter. Not only does it bring up discussions of morality when it comes to murder, but also shows that in modern America there are still crimes that should be attributed to the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists but in certain Southern areas the racial divide is so alive and well that they get away with horrific crimes. It might be a fictionalized plot created by John Grisham in his 1989 novel by the same name, however it doesn't take away from the truth that horrors such as this still exist.

"Do The Right Thing"

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Another Spike Lee joint.

Spike Lee stars as Mookie—in his own film that he both wrote and directed back in 1989. Mookie is a pizza delivery man who comes across the many characters in his Brooklyn neighborhood on a hot, sweltering summer day. Race relations between neighbors and business owners is tense, and in the end one of Mookie's friends and a neighborhood staple loses his life because of aggressive police tactics. It's a story that we've seen far too much in the news over the last few years with Mike Brown and Oscar Grant.

"Barbershop"

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We couldn't pick out just one of the films in the Barbershop series because between all of the jokes, all of them delve into the serious issue of violence in Chicago. 

Ice Cube stars as Calvin Palmer, Jr., a family man and businessman who has taken over running his father's barbershop, trying to keep the peace between the cast of characters he employs. He's also a hands-on father who wants to keep his son away from gang life and making sure his business stays afloat, while wanting a better life not only for his immediate family, but the family he's created at the shop.

"Selma"

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David Oyelowo starts as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay's Academy Award-nominated historical drama about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. 

It's during this time in history when King (among others) are targeted by J. Edgar Hoover who hopes to dismantle protests by tarnishing the characters of Black leaders in the media. It shows the attacks on protesters, accusations against the government, and the powerful and moving moments in Civil Rights history. Common not only stars as James Bevel, but he also partnered with John Legend to create the song "Glory" from the soundtrack which earned them a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and Academy Award for Best Original Song.

"Malcolm X"

malcolm x film

In one of Denzel Washington's most incredible roles (but seriously, show us one where he failed) he portrayed Civil Rights leader and activist Malcolm X  in 1992. 

The biography-style film shows all aspects of X's life: his time as a criminal, his arrest and incarceration leading ultimately to conversion to Islam, his marriage, his militant-style views on Black rights, his rift with the Nation, and ultimately his assassination in front of his family. It's loosely based on Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" that was released in 1965.

"4 Little Girls"

16th church bombing

On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four Ku Klux Klan members executed a plot to place 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the steps of the church. Four little girls lost their lives while another one was left blinded in one eye. The 1997 documentary film covers all aspects of the racial terror attack, one of the worst crimes to come out of the era of the Civil Rights movement.

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