The film industry, though often slow to adjust to progressive ideology, has the power to comment on societal issues in ways that reach millions of people at a time. Writers, directors, producers, and actors can make us think critically about topics difficult to discuss in everyday conversation. These movies, though diverse in their story lines and settings, all seek to change the way we think about race and ethnicity: 10 Films That Changed The Way We Think About Race.
Sources: Entertainment.Time.com, BachelorsDegree.com, Voices.Yahoo.com, Wikipedia.org, IMDB.org, TheGuardian.com, Edition.CNN.com, Standard.co.uk, TheAustralian.com
From noted director Ousmane Sembene, “Guelwaar” is actually a murder mystery but it focuses on telling the story of modern Senegal, and the underlying tensions that exist between the country’s Islamic and Roman Catholic communities. The film demonstrates the relative harmony that exists between the two groups, and shows that controversy only arises when political demagogues attempt to stir it up. Also among the film’s messages is a commentary on African countries accepting international aid, and the economic and personal difficulties associated with a dependent state.
Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” takes a look at a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood on the hottest day of summer where a small conflict over loud music erupts into a racially charged riot. Beyond commenting on the relationship between the black community and the police in New York, “Do the Right Thing” slips in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes about a variety of races and ethnicities in the city and exposes the prejudices we all have against one another.
Three young Zulu boys are introduced to surfing — a world previously populated in South Africa by whites. The story is set in 1989 during the anti-apartheid struggle. Otelo, one of the boys, realizes his gift for surfing, but tensions emerge not only with those unaccustomed to seeing blacks finding success in surfing, but also within his own community as resentment and jealousy grow. “Otelo Burning” is a commentary on the difficulties of breaking racial barriers, but also on the difficulties finding success when others in your own community have not.
The year was 1839, and a ship traveling to Cuba experienced a slave mutiny that resulted in one of the most important slave-related legal battles in history. “Amistad” tracks this true story of captured Mende slaves who seized control of their ship before being captured by American forces, and the court case to determine whether they should be freed. The slaves won the case, but the groundbreaking narrative came in the relationships of trust and eventual friendships that formed between the leader of the mutiny, Cinquè, and the white lawyers who fought his case. “Amistad” was one of the first films to develop this story line.
“La Noire de…,” which can be translated to “The black girl of…,” is another film by Senegalese director Ousamne Sembene, and centers on a Senegalese woman who moves to France to work as a nanny for a rich French couple. The woman, Diouana, struggles upon her arrival in France, and finds that her dreams of a free, cosmopolitan life are dashed as her employers treat her more like a slave than an employee. The film’s commentary on slavery and the lasting effects of colonialism is intriguing, and deals with the lingering racism in today’s society.
It’s hard to imagine anybody not being thrilled if Sidney Poitier showed up at their dinner party, but the story of the pending interracial marriage between the most popular black actor of the times and leading lady Katherine Hepburn was groundbreaking for its era.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was released in 1967, the same year that interracial marriage was legalized by the federal government in the U.S. The film spoke to the dual lives many African Americans were forced to live during that time, and the racial prejudices that many held despite legal advancements in civil rights.
John Newton, the man who wrote the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” began his journey as a slave trader who arrived in Nigeria to buy slaves. Upon his arrival and discovery of the brutal nature of the slave trade, he became an Anglican priest. This story is well documented in Michael Apted’s film, “Amazing Grace,” but this is not the film in question. The 2006 film, “The Amazing Grace,” is in fact a Nollywood film that tells the story from the perspective of the slaves. It shows the contributions of enslaved Africans to their own freedom.
“Hotel Rwanda” tells the story of a hotelier (played by Don Cheadle) who goes to drastic and dangerous lengths to save his fellow countrymen from violence as the Rwandan genocide breaks out. While Cheadle’s character is Hutu, his wife Tatiana is Tutsi, and they put aside ethnic tensions to harbor friends and neighbors in a hotel.
Many films that deal with slavery examine tensions between slave owners and slaves who are of different races. “Adanggaman” is the story of a West African King, Adanggaman, who captured members of a neighboring tribe to sell to European slave traders in the late 1600s. It is a difficult reminder of the diverse stakeholders who were complicit in slavery, and the depth to which it was embedded into social consciousness during that time.
One of the more recent additions to this genre, “Half of a Yellow Sun” is the film adaptation of a novel by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2006. It follows two well-educated Nigerian sisters after they return to their country during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s. As the Igbo people struggle to establish Biafra as an independent republic, the sisters and their lovers get caught up in the shocking tribal violence, exploring the themes of ethnicity and race that underlined the war itself.
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