7 great movies about race in America to watch instead of ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘The Help’

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (Photo: MGM/Warner Bros.)
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (Photo: MGM/Warner Bros.)

The cultural reckoning in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor has resulted in protests worldwide, major corporate and media shakeups, the termination of cast members from shows like The Flash, The Challenge and Vanderpump Rules, and the cancellation of the long-running reality show Cops. This week has also seen one of Hollywood’s all-time most popular films ever face renewed scrutiny for its problematic treatment of race.

HBO Max issued a statement late Tuesday announcing that it was temporarily pulling Gone With the Wind— the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation and whose eight Academy Award wins not only included Best Picture but the first Oscar for a black person: Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress for playing the loyal enslaved woman Mammy.

Gone With the Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible. These depictions are certainly counter to WarnerMedia’s values, so when we return the film to HBO Max, it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.

The move came a day after Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave filmmaker John Ridley wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times denouncing the film. “It doesn’t just ‘fall short’ with regard to representation. It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.” Ridley said the 1939 film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable “romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings.”

Likewise, social media has not been kind to the 2011 period drama The Help in recent days — ever since Netflix revealed the film shot to the top of its streaming charts.

For as well-intentioned as the movie may seem, the fact that so many Americans are responding to a movement against systemic racism and injustice by revisiting a story about the subservient relationships between white employers and black maids feels like a figurative expletive pie of a reaction.

Even one of the film’s stars, Bryce Dallas Howard, has told people to cool the jets on re-upping The Help, which netted an Oscar for costar Octavia Spencer and nominations for Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain. “I’ve heard that The Help is the most viewed film on Netflix right now,” Howard wrote in a Facebook post. “I’m so grateful for the exquisite friendships that came from that film — our bond is something I treasure deeply and will last a lifetime. This being said, The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further.”

Bryce Dallas Howard in 'The Help' (Universal)
Bryce Dallas Howard in ‘The Help’ (Universal)

The actress went on to list several other film recommendations made by people of color for viewers “seeking ways to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow, and all the ways in which those have an impact on us today.”

Those recs included Ava DuVernay’s stunning and unflinching 2016 Netflix doc 13th, which in my book, is hands-down THE movie to watch right now. Titled after the constitutional amendment that “abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime,” it is the most effective and eye-opening historical depiction and contextualization of America’s systemic racism ever put on screen, moving from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to the War on Drugs to our current #BlackLivesMatter battle, with each era filtered through the lens of the black experience in the U.S. justice system.

13th is one of seven powerful documentaries on race and black history recommended in a new piece from our friends at HuffPost. All are well worth the watch. In the interest of differentiation, here are seven scripted features I’d recommend watching right now for insight and perspective on the current state of race in America, laid out in a chronological timeline that reflects the format of 13th.

Time period: 1841-1853

There have been numerous potent depictions of America’s greatest stain in film and television over the past decade, from the 2016 miniseries remake Roots to the big-screen dramas Birth of a Nation (2016) and Harriet (2019). But Steve McQueen’s gut-wrenching Best Picture winner about a the true story of a free African American man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapped in Washington, DC in sold into slavery in 1841 remains essential viewing.

Watch 12 Years a Slave on Netflix or Amazon.

Time period: 1939-1940s

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, Dee Rees’ under-appreciated, gorgeously filmed, incredibly poignant drama is the rare movie to portray the hardships Southern black families endured as Jim Crow laws dominated once Confederate lands in the decades beyond Reconstruction. The black Jackson family is free, but they’re still set nearly a century back behind the starting block from the white McAllan family they share farm land with on the Mississippi Delta.

Watch Mudbound on Netflix.

Time period: 1964-1965

Two years before she made 13th, Ava DuVernay directed this absorbing historical drama – the closest thing we’ve gotten to a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic – about the efforts of the iconic Civil Rights hero (David Oyelowo) in organizing peaceful marches for voting rights in Alabama, where protestors and activists (like John Lewis) are first met with teargas and batons by state troopers on Bloody Sunday. The snubbing of Oyelowo by the Academy helped trigger the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, and the actor recently made headlines for recounting how voters blacklisted the film because the cast wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in support of slain civilian Eric Garner to the film’s premiere.

Rent Selma for free on Amazon.

Time period: Early 1970s

After the rapturous success of Barry Jenkins’ tender coming of age story Moonlight, the reaction to his follow-up, a highly anticipation adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, felt a little muted. And it’s hard to say why. It’s a deeply profound, breathtakingly beautiful film about a love story (between KiKi Layne’s Tish and Stephan James’s Fonny) tragically interrupted when Fonny is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.

Watch If Beale Street Could Talk on Amazon.

Time period: Late 1980s

To their credit, distributor Warner Bros. has treated Destin Daniel Cretton’s throwback legal thriller about an idealistic attorney (Michael B. Jordan) working to free a wrongly convicted Alabama man on death row (Jamie Fox) almost as much as a social justice platform as a movie. The film’s real-life lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, has regularly spoke at screenings since well before its release, and WB made the film free to rent on streaming platforms this month for “those who are interested in learning more about the systemic racism that plagues our society.”

And while this one might seem a little obvious, for a look up north during the same time frame, head to the humid Brooklyn block Spike Lee staged his breakout drama Do the Right Thing (1989) on. Police brutality victim Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) would become a symbol of all black men unjustly killed by police ever since.

Rent Just Mercy for free on Amazon.

Time period: 2008-2009

Before Ryan Coogler went on to direct Creed and Black Panther, he helmed this devastating indie about the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who was shot in the back by a San Francisco/Oakland BART police officer attempting to break up a fight just past midnight on New Years morning, 2009. Grant’s death was one of the first police killings widely circulated after being caught on cell phone cameras, and lead to sentencing of officer Johannes Mehserle, who says he mistook his gun for a taser.

Watch Fruitvale Station on Amazon.

Time period: Present Day

From the opening moments in which an African American father has “the talk” with his children – instructing them on how to conduct themselves when inevitably stopped by the police – George T. Tillman’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’s popular YA novel is a raw and deeply felt experience. When one of those children’s (Amandla Stenberg) friends is later gunned down by police during a routine traffic stop, it’s not directly based on any specific shooting, but representative of the epidemic our country faces as a whole.

Rent The Hate U Give for free on Amazon.

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