10 films to understand what’s going on in America

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While these days we watch America go up in flames and for once we realize that the expression is used literally and not as a rhetorical shortcut, the biggest mistake we can make is to have a strong opinion on the matter when the best thing to do would be to be silent and listen.

CHANDAN KHANNAGetty Images

I use the plural but it is obviously a speech addressed primarily to me, who is a Caucasian guy who lives in Italy and who is therefore missing at least two fundamental conditions to really understand not so much the news of these days, but the system behind it and that has led to the current situation. It is a golden rule applicable in many different cases, but here, basically not belonging to the same ethnicity as George Floyd and not being an American citizen – the insistence on nationality is not a habit, racism, in short, exists everywhere , but racism in Italy is different from racism in the States, not necessarily better or worse, simply different – any opinion of mine would smell like a sofa in the living room and would have the same value as an Australian opinion on the southern question in Italy.

Listening does not mean not participating, if you want to read, inform yourself, donate, do something active you can go for example here https://blacklivesmatter.com/ and make yourself a culture, but being silent and learning is a fundamental requirement not to end up in whitesplaining. And a nice way to stay silent and learn is to watch a few films that talk about the racial issue in the United States, not from the traditional point of view of the majority but from what is still struggling to make itself heard today. Here are ten of them, carefully chosen among those that have come out in the last 100 years.

within our gates

Courtesy of Micheaux Book & Film Company

Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920)

Oscar Micheaux was the first color filmmaker in the history of American cinema, writer, screenwriter, director, producer and founder of the Micheaux Film & Book Company. Within Our Gates it is his second film and the first in history (among those of which we still have a trace) shot by an African American director; critics at the time described it as “the answer to the birth of a nation” (one of the very first blockbusters to deal with racial issues albeit from a point of view, let’s say, not very shareable), and Micheaux himself had to suffer a year earlier to be able to distribute it, because the Chicago Censor Board had labeled it “dangerous” and capable of reactivating the fire of the protest a few months after the 1919 riots.

shaft

Courtesy of MGM

Shaft the detective (Gordon Parks, 1971)

It could have been in Shaft’s place Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles, supported by the Black Panthers and more or less unanimously referred to as the first blaxploitation film, a curious consideration considering that it is an extremely militant film in a genre that has often lived on the subtle thread of stereotype and cultural flattening . Shaft is the perfect example of this contradiction, a film made by blacks but written by whites, which has contributed decisively to forming a certain image of the black person in Hollywood (in particular in the main role) but which has made it by exploiting at least partly stereotypes and cultural appropriation; a film beloved by its target but also by the white audience, whose protagonist is a «A hero that has never been seen before» in the words of the director Gordon Parks, but he is also hypersexualized, sexist and misogynist, because no matter your ethnicity, patriarchy is always lurking. Many of the racial issues that Hollywood has been facing in recent years (also and above all in terms of production, casting, writing, directing …) have their roots in Shaft.

freeman

Courtesy of United Artists

Freeman – The Harlem agent (Ivan Dixon, 1973)

Indicated by many as another example of blaxploitation, Ivan Dixon’s film tells the story of Dan Freeman, a black extremist who manages to join the CIA, where he discovers that he has been hired only to fill the role of “representative black” “(The institutional version of the classic” I’m not racist, I also have black friends “); Freeman then trains silently to become a secret agent, after which he drops the CIA and leads a group of guerrillas who call themselves Freedom Fighters, and who begin an armed revolution that from Chicago expands to the rest of America, and which leads to violent clashes with police and national guard. Sound familiar?

dtrt

Universal

Do the right thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Spike Lee would come sooner or later, and obviously the choice falls on his film that talks about street riots triggered by the death of a black boy at the hands of a policeman. Spike Lee tells an interesting thing about the film in the extras of the home video edition: all the people who over the years have asked him if according to him the protagonist Mookie “does the right thing” at the end or not are white people.

boyz

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)

Less radical than Do the right thing, Boyz n the Hood however, he has a resounding epic breath of social fresco, helped by the fact that he tells a seven-year long story. The racial issue is always present but it is never the focus of the film, which at times looks rather like a black version of Stand By Me and that focuses little on the relationship between ethnic groups and much on the phenomenon of neighborhood gangs that exploded in the early nineties in South Los Angeles.

fruitvale station

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

With Ryan Coogler, who a few years later will even manage to be granted the direction of a Marvel cinecomic with a colored protagonist, thus placating for a few years the still limited desire for wokeness of the middle dem elector, we open the long parenthesis of modern and contemporary films , which are fortunately multiplying after years and years of repeating that we collectively broke the cock to see only movies made by straight white males talking about straight white males, the Hollywood-and-surroundings system realized that focusing on diversity is at least a way to postpone the resolution of deeper and more systemic problems for some time. Which means that an industry that has always been stubbornly and fiercely clinging to its roots made up of straight white males is increasingly accepting to finance films made by non-white and / or non-straight males, and even in some cases not -maschi. Coogler is not the first but is one of the symbols of this gracious concession passed off as revolution, and apart from everything Fruitvale Station it’s a film about the (real) murder of Oscar Grant, which occurred in 2009 by the hand, guess what? of the police.

12as

Fox

12 year old slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

A bit of a bit of a twist (Steve McQueen is English, not American), but we make it go well first because it is the first film in history for which a black man won the Oscar for the best film, then because it is a raw portrait and fascinating about the life of black Americans slaves on cotton plantations. That the film is not that great and that McQueen’s previous works (in particular Hunger) are much more interesting is a secondary detail.

ianyn

Amazon Prime

I am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

James Baldwin was one of the most important black writers of the last century, who also wrote the novel If Beale Street Could Talk from which the homonymous film by Barry Jenkins and friend of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X was taken. One of his latest works, which has remained unfinished, is called Remember This House, and it is the text behind Raoul Peck’s documentary, a little biography, a little historical film on the American racial question.

13

Netflix

13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)

About documentary: by Ava DuVernay – the only woman on the list, for historical reasons but also for my shortcomings in the selection, since works like Mudbound by Dee Rees o Harriet by Kasi Lemmons could have appeared – perhaps it would have been even better to report the miniseries When They See Us, which speaks of the so-called Central Park Five, a news story on which the President of the United States is still convinced that justice has been wrong and that the five black boys are guilty, and here I take this opportunity to remind you that this is the same person who should keep America in check these days. But it has been called “film”, so here is this documentary (you can find it on Netflix) that talks about what is one of the main causes of the riots of these days: the mass imprisonment of black people in the United States, a Country that hosts about a quarter of the total of all people detained worldwide and where in 2010 blacks represented 13% of the total population and 40% of the prison population.

get out

Universal

Get out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

It is not correct to say that we had to wait for Jordan Peele to see the racial question being treated also in the metaphorical genre par excellence that is horror (without going to bother Romero, Candyman is from 1992), but it is true that Peele is perhaps the first black director to deal with the racial issue also in the genre etc. That he did it with an Oscar film, and with a great film, moreover, is an added bonus: Get out it’s a work that will be discussed for years, perhaps even more than Peele’s second film, Us, which is better as a simple cinematic object, but which has the defect of going back to talking about the same themes, widening the perspective and unnecessarily complicating the reading of the metaphor, which seems to remain clinging to the racial question a little forcibly when in reality it dreams of become a class issue. In reverse Get out it is explicit and militant, and very clear even for us who look across the ocean, in silence, to learn.

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