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Stay Woke: 8 Must-Watch Social Justice Movies, Docs & Shows

Within a short span of time, we have witnessed a rise in social causes, move to the forefront of our global-social consciousness. Social media has served as an impetus, allowing movements to reach far and wide, from the #MeToo movement in 2017 to the Global September 2019 Climate Strikes.

Through a continuous series of similar, but unrelated killings that recently took place in the USA, the world has unfortunately been reminded again how deep the roots of racism are embedded into the systems and institutions that still govern most of Western society today. Thousands of people around the world have taken to the streets, in protest of unjust, racially-motivated killings surrounding black lives, and against police brutality.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a few entertainment companies are offering small gestures, to further encourage learning of these issues. For example, Paramount Studios are allowing free streamings of Selma (2014), a movie that explores racial injustice, for one month.

Over the years, filmmaking has become a tool used as a medium for social commentary, and to raise awareness of social issues; providing a space for discourse. We have compiled a short, non-conclusive list of must-watch films, documentaries, and shows to help you stay woke, and most importantly, to encourage conversations and positive actions that lead to change, towards a better future for all.

1. Queen & Slim (2019)

Director: Melina Matsoukas
Starring:  Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson and Indya Moore

Slim and Queen’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a policeman pulls them over for a minor traffic violation. When the situation escalates, Slim takes the officer’s gun and shoots him in self-defense. Now labelled cop killers in the media, Slim and Queen feel that they have no choice but to go on the run and evade the law.

2. Hidden Figures (2016)

Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst

Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson —three African American women working as mathematicians at NASA– to life. Set in 1960s Hampton, Virginia, the three women use their mathematical skills to help the United States achieve one of the things it wants the most– a victory over the Russians in space—even as they fight against the barriers of racial segregation in the Jim Crow south and struggle for professional recognition from their male colleagues.

3. 13th (2016)

Director: Ava DuVernay
Featuring: Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones

Along with scholars, activists, and politicians, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, analyzes the criminalization of African Americans. DuVernay also explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans, in this thought-provoking documentary.

Watch on Netflix or for free on Youtube

4. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier

Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective, embarks on a mission to infiltrate his town’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group.

5. When They See Us (Netflix Series – 2019)

Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Felicity Huffman, Michael K. Williams and more

In 1989 a jogger was assaulted and raped in New York’s Central Park, and five young people were subsequently charged with the crime. The quintet, labeled the Central Park Five, maintained its innocence and spent years fighting the convictions, hoping to be exonerated. This limited Netflix series spans a quarter of a century, from when the teens are first questioned about the incident in the spring of 1989, going through their exoneration in 2002 and ultimately the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

6. Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

When Django, a slave, is freed, he joins forces with a bounty hunter to rescue his wife, who has been captured by a hard-hearted plantation owner.

7. Dear White People (Netflix Series – 2017)

Creator: Justin Simien

Comedy-drama and satire, based on the acclaimed film of the same name, this Netflix-original series follows a group of students of color at Winchester University, a predominantly white Ivy League college. The students are faced with a landscape of cultural bias, social injustice, misguided activism and slippery politics. Through an absurdist lens, the series uses irony, self-deprecation, brutal honesty and humor to highlight issues that still plague today’s “post-racial” society.

8. Selma (2014)

Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey

Selma is a historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay. It is based on the marches from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965, which led to voting rights, led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis.


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