6 Films that Explore Racism and the Experiences of Police in America

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Some issues are tough to narrow down to a sound bite, despite our media’s best efforts. There are matters that shouldn’t be watered down. They deserve a story. The power of story allows us to communicate with each other in ways that defy the articulation of human language. Not all stories are designed so we can feel good. It’s been said that some stories are meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Stories can cause us to empathize with those we don’t share backgrounds or experiences in common with.

The United States has recently been wading into deep waters that defy simple solutions. We have been called into nuanced discussions about racism and the role of authority in our culture. Storytellers have been exploring these ideas for a long time now. However, not all storytellers have had equal access to audiences in making their stories known. As we push ahead through the pain of disrespect, incivility, and violence, here are six films where storytellers have tried to provide insight into some of the areas we have been dialoguing about as a culture in recent days.

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DO THE RIGHT THING

Spike Lee’s 1989 film caused controversy from the moment it was released. The story presented issues about the Black experience in America that many were completely unfamiliar with. Some praised the story as prophetic. Others criticized it as inciting violence. But everyone recognized it was important. For those who resonated with Mookie, the film’s protagonist, it represented the expression they had waited a lifetime to see conveyed. For those who resonated with Sal, the owner of the pizza shop, the film simply asked that they listen up. The issues presented and realism portrayed in this film are just as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago.

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COLORS

Dennis Hopper’s look at the relationship between the police and gangs in L.A. managed to present the complexities police face in their jobs on a daily basis. The film shows good cops who make unforgivable mistakes and bad cops who get away with murder. No character is a caricature. Everyone maintains their humanity on both sides of the law and yet the difficulties never seem to let up. Navigating through a minefield of potential melodrama, the narrative manages to walk the line without ever crossing it in the area storytellers are most accountable for – honesty.

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FRUITVALE STATION

Ryan Coogler blew minds and won hearts with 2015’s Creed. However, the film that gave him that opportunity was an earlier collaboration with Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station. Based on the true account of the last day of Oscar Grant III’s life in 2008 before it was tragically ended by a policeman, the entire incident was caught on camera and sparked a national outrage. For many, the film was a wake up call that Black men were still facing unthinkable racism. For Black men, the film gave voice to a scenario they were all too familiar with.

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TRAINING DAY

Antoine Fuqua’s story of a Los Angeles policemen who isn’t what he appears brought home Oscar gold for Denzel Washington. His nuanced portrayal of an officer with an impossible job still shines a light on modern challenges faced trying to apprehend true criminals. After the film’s release, several officers were quoted as saying that they themselves did not relate to the character of Alonzo Harris in the film, but did know someone they served with whose approach resembled the detective.

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STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

When the rap group NWA first began discussing police brutality in the African American community, many critics claimed it was a publicity stunt – exaggerations being used to sell records. However, by the time F. Gary Gray’s film would be made about their experiences, no one doubted the truth of their laments. Straight Outta Compton’s look at the group’s difficulties with law enforcement only made their story more relevant in 2016. Many viewers saw scenes in the film not as a look back at history, but instead a reminder of a problem that is still very much with us.

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RAMPART

Set in 1999, Oren Moverman’s story of an officer struggling to make it home every night so that he might take care of his family puts flesh on the day-to-day lives of police men and women. The film provides a different angle on the equally-compelling cop stories we have seen in the past such as Chinatown, The Departed, and Inside Man. For those taken with the way Rampart explores the life of police yet wanting more, End of Watch also gives depth to their experience.

It’s also important to remember that well-rounded presentations of who people are in this world go beyond gritty dramas. Eddie Murphy and Tommy Lee Jones brought humor to the badge in Beverly Hills Cop and The Fugitive, respectively. Black men thrive in roles that defy the stereotypes they are often forced to carry in films such as Love Jones and The Best Man. Voices such as Ava DuVernay continue to bring insights to the state of race in our country, while television shows such as The Wire give us a better understanding of the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they work in – not to mention how class and economics impact that relationship.

The problems that America faces right now will not be solved quickly or as efficiently as anyone would like. Until solutions rise, one of the most important things we can do is listen – listen to each other’s stories.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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