It’s the end of the decade and while it’s technically an arbitrary marker of time, it still gives us a chance to reflect on films that were forged during a particularly tumultuous time. These idiosyncratic films, which range from found-footage troves to sweeping historical dramas to deeply personal documentaries, reflect the political, social, and cultural upheaval that has shaped the times we live in now, as well as trace how past issues have come to haunt the present.
The Interrupters (2011)
This documentary, directed by Steve James, traces the lives of three Chicagoans affected by crime—the daughter of a former gang leader, the son of a murdered man, and a man who committed murder as a teen—and how they work to prevent violence in a city that they so obviously deeply love. It’s essential viewing as it reveals the ethos of Chicago that makes it so distinct: Chicagoans are here to work. There is no time to grandstand, there is only an urgent need to work to get to the bottom of things and try to prevent the problem from becoming worse.
Streaming on PBS
Central Park Five (2012)
Seven years before Ava DuVernay released her epic four-part miniseries “When They See Us” on Netflix, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns released this powerhouse of a documentary re-examining the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case and the group of Black and Latinx teenaged boys at the center of it, now more commonly referred to as the Exonerated Five. Alternating between archival footage, photos, and current-day interviews with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, this documentary made the case for re-examining the injustice the men faced as teenagers, and how a volatile mix of racism, prejudice, and public pressure from politicians and public figures like Donald Trump—who infamously took out an ad in the New York Times calling for the return of the death penalty—ensured the group were railroaded into serving decades-long prison sentences for a crime they did not commit.
Streaming on YouTube
Let The Fire Burn (2013)
In 1985, the Philadelphia police, at the behest of then-mayor Wilson Goode, dropped a bomb on a home where members of the Black liberation activist group MOVE, were living. The fire then spread through the neighborhood, destroying an entire block of homes. “Let The Fire Burn” eschews the typical talking heads format of documentary film and instead tells the whole story entirely through archival footage. It’s a horrifying but rarely talked about moment in American history of stunning police violence against Black people where the consequences reverberate to the present day.
Streaming on Vudu
Ava DuVernay’s third film, “Selma,” about the fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, is her breakthrough as a filmmaker. Starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., what makes this film so engaging is that it avoids the familiar beats of the biopic and the stereotype of the singular charismatic male leader and instead highlights how much of a group effort activism and organizing has to be for it to be successful. In particular she highlights the women who worked side-by-side with King as fellow organizers, including Amelia Boynton Robinson and Diane Nash. It’s an expansive view of the Civil Rights Movement and the recreation of Bloody Sunday, which was all too similar to photos and videos from the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore fifty years later, connects that fight to the present day.
Streaming on Vudu
Evolution of a Criminal (2014)
Ten years after a bank robbery in Texas changes the lives of everyone involved, filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe decides to examine the fallout. The twist? Monroe was one of the robbers. After graduating from New York University film school, Monroe revisited a crime he committed as a teenager, deftly weaving in faithful recreations of the day of the crime and present-day interviews with family, friends, and victims. It’s a daring and fascinating perspective of the criminal justice system made from someone who actually went through it and got a rare second chance at life.
Streaming on Tubi
Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution (2016)
“Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution” is the first full-length documentary dedicated to depicting the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in all its nuance and complexity, contextualizing its formation in Oakland in 1966 within other freedom movements in America and across the world. Featuring interviews with former Panthers like Elaine Brown and Kathleen Cleaver, journalists, police officers, and FBI informants, director Stanley Nelson Jr. paints a full picture of the group, which has often been misrepresented. There’s an emphasis on their free breakfast program, which started years before government programs, and the sense of pride and safety they provided for Black people across the United States who, for all intents and purposes, were under siege from state violence. The documentary also dedicates a section to the late Fred Hampton, the impassioned and smart leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers who was killed by Chicago police in 1969. The documentary also traces how the party was undone by FBI infiltration, the rise of militarized police forces, political assassinations and its leaders’ personal demons.
Digital download available on iTunes | DVD available for purchase
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Ezra Edelman’s absorbing, five-part documentary is about far more than the notorious and officially unsolved murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, of which O.J. Simpson was tried and acquitted in a trial that held the nation in its thrall in 1994. And that’s because the case was never just about O.J. Simpson and his fall from grace from star football player to murder suspect and pariah. “Made in America” is also about the police state Los Angeles’ Black population lived under for 70 years, the throughline between the Watts Riots of the ‘60s and the Rodney King verdict riots of 1992, the refusal of the nation to acknowledge how deeply racism is interwoven into the fabric of the country, the culture of violence that has come to define America, and this country’s desire to be seduced by celebrity, to the point where it warps reality. In short, it’s a documentary about all of us.
Streaming on ESPN
Strong Island (2017)
“Strong Island” is a remarkable documentary in which filmmaker Yance Ford explores the half-life of grief. In 1992, his 24-year-old brother, Wiliam Ford Jr. was shot to death by a 19-year-old white mechanic. The mechanic was never put on trial because a grand jury decided no crime was committed. Ford breaks with traditional documentary film beats by using long takes, where the camera lingers on a shaved head or an empty parking lot stained with grease. Every person interviewed is perfectly centered in the frame; the camera is tightly controlled and stays fixed on people’s faces and body language as they recount uncomfortable and painful memories. While recounting his family history, Ford lays out archival photographs by hand as he describes his parents’ move to New York from South Carolina in search of a better life where they instead had to confront their worst nightmare.
Streaming on Netflix
LA 92 (2017)
“LA 92” is another found-footage documentary, similar to “Let The Fire Burn”. Using archival video from news outlets and bystanders’ home recordings, LA 92 weaves a tale of everything that led to the LA riots, including archival footage from the Watts Riots and of the LA riots’ aftermath, when it was time to rebuild the city. Plenty of documentaries were released in 2017 in time for the 25th anniversary of the riots but this is arguably the most powerful and visceral one because of the images and how the unvarnished comments of people, either unaware or not caring that cameras are rolling, say more than any expert could.
Streaming on Netflix
Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (2018)
All too often, Black women are left out of the conversations around police violence. “Say Her Name,” which takes its title from the #SayHerName hashtag that first began trending after the death of Michelle Cusseaux in 2014, explores Sandra Bland’s mysterious death in Texas police custody in 2015 that the police insist was due to suicide. The documentary also examines the toll her death has had on her family, who are still searching for answers. But the film also shows Sandra Bland as she lived: she often talked about injustice in Facebook videos, revealing a passionate, warm, and charismatic person. Given the epidemic-levels of police killings in America, this documentary is a timely and necessary examination of the criminal justice system and the twin injustices of racism and misogyny.
Streaming on HBO Now
King in the Wilderness (2018)
“King in the Wilderness” chronicles the tumultuous last three years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life using rare archival footage and modern-day interviews with some of his closest confidants.
It’s a testament to the film’s strength that it doesn’t shy away from the more difficult, complicated aspects of King’s life. His infidelities are addressed, as are his battles with depression and anxiety. Most importantly, though, it reclaims King from being flattened as simply the man who gave the “I Have A Dream” speech. King was vilified and isolated for his radical vow to fight not only racism, but also the military industrial complex and poverty. He recognized that the complacency of white liberals was just as harmful and insidious as the actions of overt racists. And further still, we see lighter moments where he is joking and laughing with his friends, all of which round out King as a flawed and extraordinary man, rather than a safe and sanitized myth.
Streaming on HBO Now
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
“If Beale Street Could Talk”, based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, is ultimately a story about how life both stops but also must go on in the face of a system that was built to destroy lives—Black lives in particular. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are a young, Black couple whose love story is disrupted when Fonny goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. The movie, told from Tish’s point of view, moves back and forth in time as Tish and her family fight to get him out of jail. The director Barry Jenkins, of “Moonlight” and “Medicine for Melancholy” fame, has always handled images of Black people with such sensitivity and care while never shying away from tougher, political questions of what it means to be Black in America in his own unique and subtle way.
Streaming on Hulu
Knock Down the House (2019)
“Knock Down the House” is a behind-the-scenes political documentary that follows the longshot political campaigns of four women from working-class backgrounds: Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and a smart, bookish, straightforward and passionate bartender from the Bronx: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now known simply as AOC. The film traces the ups and downs they face against establishment politicians in the 2018 race for Congress. While “Knock Down the House” isn’t a visually exciting film, it’s thrilling and urgent because it’s ultimately hopeful, and shows a new way forward for politics.
Streaming on Netflix
What are your favorite social justice movies of the 2010’s? Anything we missed in this list? Let us know in the comments section below.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the mayor of Philadelphia during the MOVE bombing.