12 Documentaries About Race Everyone Needs to See
While these documentaries aren't always easy to watch, they're essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the history and current state of race in America.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links. Ratings and prices are accurate and items are in stock as of time of publication.
The power of the big and small screen
Documentaries, non-fiction movies or films that document or capture the reality or a particular story or viewpoint, serve to educate and inform us. These titles offer rich insight into our society and culture and are a must-see for anyone who wants to understand this nation’s painful past, present, and the coming reckoning with systemic racism. Find out 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.
Released in 2016, the 13th takes its name from the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Fresh off the making of Selma, Academy Award nominee Ava DuVernay connects the “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” part of the 13th Amendment to the 2.2 million prisoners in the American justice system. Through interviews with politicians, historians, academics, and several members of the Black community who have experienced jail time, 13th explores how the amendment was written to set Black people free led to today’s mass incarceration. This film is one of the reasons why DuVernay is one of the most inspiring women alive.
Eyes on the Prize
Thirty-three years after its release, Eyes on the Prize remains the preeminent documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement. Narrated by political and civil rights leader Julian Bond, this six-part, 14-hour series covers all of the major, transformative events from 1954 to 1985, including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the birth of the Black Power Movement, and the courageous acts of the crusaders that contributed along the way. The film also has contemporary interviews with key figures of the period. Eyes on the Prize isn’t just a comprehensive resource for understanding this vital period in our nation’s history, it serves as a testament for future generations. Here’s how you can support the Black Lives Matter movement and become anti-racist.
The Central Park Five
Written and directed by Ken Burns and Sarah Burns, the two-hour documentary, Central Park Five, examines how shoddy police and legal work combined with sensational media coverage led to the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino youths for the 1989 rape of a white woman. After serving between six and 13 years in prison, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kevin Richardson were exonerated by DNA evidence. “These young men were convicted long before the trial, by a city blinded by fear and, equally, freighted by race. They were convicted because it was all too easy for people to see them as violent criminals simply because of the color of their skin,” said Sarah Burns. While you’re learning, you’ll also want to hear these podcasts that tackle racism in America.
The Kalief Browder Story
When he was 16 years old, Kalif Browder was accused of stealing a backpack, a charge he adamantly denied. Even without being convicted, the Bronx high school student spent three years on Rikers Island, two of those in solitary confinement, simply because Browder’s family couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail. Browder attempted suicide twice while at Rikers and finally succeeded upon his release. Using first-person accounts, archival footage, and cinematic re-creations of key scenes from Browder’s life, The Kalif Browder Story recounts this heart-rending story over six episodes and forces us to rethink the criminal justice and bail system that allows such travesties to happen. These 25 powerful quotes speak volumes in the fight against racism.
Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis captured both the bravery and the fears of participants who took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the days and weeks after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. Raw and unadorned, Whose Streets? focuses on seven main characters, including Hands Up United‘s cofounder Tory Russell, nurse and mother Brittany Ferrell and David Whitt, a recruiter for civilian organization Cop Watch, a network of activists that monitor police activity in an effort to prevent police brutality and abuses of power. Whose Streets? paints an emotional portrait of activism and activists whose credo is simple: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” There are so many overlooked facts about black history and civil rights you probably didn’t learn in school.
I’m Not Your Negro
I Am Not Your Negro is a 2016 documentary film directed by Raoul Peck and it’s based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of the iconic civil rights leaders, as well as his personal observations of American history. The documentary was nominated for Best Documentary Feature and won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Best Documentary.
Based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, this two-hour documentary tells the story of summer 1961 when more than 400 Black and white Americans boarded buses and trains and risked their lives to travel through the Jim Crow South to protest segregation. Calling themselves “Freedom Riders,” these young activists were met with bitter racism and mob violence but remained unbowed and undeterred in their quest to change history. “The lesson of the Freedom Rides is that great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people,” says filmmaker Stanley Nelson. Such efforts were successful at ending segregation but didn’t put an end to racism.
Slavery by Another Name
This documentary explores how, in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, newly freed Blacks were essentially re-enslaved back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. This 90-minute film includes moving reactions from descendants of both victims and perpetrators of the forced labor system. Slavery by Another Name gives voice to this period’s many victims and challenge assumptions that slavery ended 150 years ago. The book by the same name on which this documentary is based is essential to understanding race relations.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
The film takes its name from Rep. John Lewis’ favorite quotation: “Good trouble is necessary trouble.” It explores the Georgia congressman’s six decades of social activism on a host of issues, most notably civil rights and voting rights, to carve out his place in American history. Director Dawn Porter uses archival footage and interviews with power brokers such as Jim Clyburn, Eric Holder, and Elijah Cummings to narrate Lewis’ remarkable life. In December, Lewis announced that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, yet he remains a potent force for change. John Lewis: Good Trouble will be released theatrically and available via streaming beginning July 3. With this film, Porter reminds us why Black History shouldn’t be relegated to just one month.
In a city that sometimes seems impervious to shock, the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a Chicago police officer rocked the city to its core. Director Rick Rowley’s documentary, 16 Shots, delves into the circumstances of that shooting and the ensuing spin, attempted cover-up, and political fallout. The historic trial that found former policeman Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery stands out as a rare moment of justice in cases like this that happen too often. “We’re in the middle of a national reckoning around race and justice, and it’s not just Chicago. It’s every major city in America,” said Rowley. Here’s why you should stop saying “I don’t see color.”
Soundtrack for a Revolution
This 2009 documentary film chronicles the Civil Rights Movement and its charismatic leaders who used music to express what they sometimes could not put into words. These songs of freedom rang out on picket lines, in mass meetings, in paddy wagons, and in jail cells. It was the music that energized and empowered protesters to stand against oppression and brutality with dignity and nonviolence. The songs are reimagined and revived in stirring performances by artists like John Legend, Joss Stone, and The Roots. Soundtrack for a Revolution premiered internationally at the Cannes Film Festival and domestically at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
This four-hour documentary shows how Black Americans fought their way out of slavery and challenged the nation to make the ideals expressed at its founding a reality for everyone. Reconstruction: America After the Civil War explores the transformative but short-lived post-war era that saw millions of former slaves and free Blacks make great gains in their quest for equality under the law. The first two hours chart the progress of Black people and the accomplishments of the many political leaders who ushered in this new era of freedom. The series’ second half traces the unraveling of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow segregation, and the myriad ways black people nonetheless continued to flower. Next, marvel at these 14 vintage photos of unity that we all need to see right now.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.