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What to Read and Watch to Learn More About American Racism

Alongside protesting, supporting mutual aid and bail funds, and listening to Black leaders and organizers, one small thing that we can all do in the fight against the institution of American racism is try and learn more about it. Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, below is a selection of books, films, and documentaries to check out in the interest of learning more about how to overcome obstacles in the fight on behalf of Black lives.

Books
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Fantagraphics

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Malorie Blackman laid the groundwork for much of the YA landscape as we know it. Noughts and Crosses is one of her most engrossing and vital pieces of work, set on a reimagined world where white people (noughts) are segregated and treated as lower class citizens and Black people (crosses) rule with an iron fist. The first novel in the series centers on two star-crossed young friends whose experiences are the lens through which Blackman explores racism, violence, and the danger of governments built on the back of both.

You can buy Noughts and Crosses here.

Bttm Fddrs by Ben Passmore and Ezra Clayton Daniels

One of the best graphic novels of the last decade, Passmore and Daniels create something truly unique with Bttm Fddrs. At once both a searing satire about gentrification and white violence and a beautiful sci-fi comic, Bttm Fddrs is a must-read from two of the best living cartoonists. While you’re at it, you should also grab Passmore’s Your Black Friend and Other Strangers and Daniel’s Upgrade Soul.

You can buy Bttm Fddrs here.

As Black as Resistance by Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson

Reimagining the U.S. as a truly liberated space can be hard. But this book from Samudzi and Anderson pushes you to conceive of just that whilst also educating on the anti-Blackness inherent to America and capitalism. It’s nothing short of a vital call to action that I would encourage everyone to read. I’ll allow this quote from the creators to speak for itself:

“So, we’re working here. Not because the work is something that’s essentially beautiful, but because we have to for the sake of what we want. Our words here may be ugly, scary, or even hurtful but we have surely written them out of a desire for the true freedom of oppressed people worldwide. We do not operate under the mythology of absolute truths, but instead we write according to the lessons of every yesterday before today. In this determination, we believe we can find our freedom, which is hard to define because Black America like many other peoples around the world have never truly experienced it.”

You can get As Black as Resistance from AK Press for just $1.99 right now.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

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Headline Books

When we talk about dystopian fiction we often talk about how books are “scarily prescient” and “before their time.” When you read Parable of the Sower, there’s no question that you’ll feel a sense of true horror at the similarities between the world that Butler crafts and the state of society in 2020. As a Black science fiction writer who shaped much of what would become common in the genre, all of Butler’s work is inherently radical. But this tale of a young woman trying to make a better world in the face of the horrors that have come before is a masterpiece.

You can get Parable of the Sower here.

Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

If the concept of abolishing the police makes you think, “Well, what would I do if I needed to call 911?” this collection offers up a selection of ideas about what accountability can look like without the carceral state. This isn’t just an essay collection, though, as it includes tool kits, interviews, and resources from a selection of incredible writers, activists, and grassroots organizers.

You can get Beyond Survival from AK Press for just $1.99 right now.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

If you’ve been wondering what the term “abolition” means and what a world without prisons and the carceral system might look, like then this is a must. Davis’ short, accessible, and in-depth look at prison abolition was built on years of organizing and is, without hyperbole, a life-changing read. Are Prisons Obsolete? shines a harsh light on the human rights abuses that are inherently tied to incarceration and the truth that the prison industrial system has enabled a culture of modern day slavery since its inception.

You can buy Are Prisons Obsolete? here.

Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers

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Drawn & Quarterly 

This award-winning collection of cartoons heralded the arrival of one of contemporary comics’ brightest stars. Hot Comb features eight stories that span the autobiographical and the fictional, all centered around “how Black cultural memory, intergenerational trauma, collective healing, and female friendship are inextricably linked to hair.” With stunning art and storytelling, this is an engaging book that speaks to an incredibly specific experience whilst also feeling universal.

You can buy Hot Comb here.

Hair Love by Matthew Cherry, Vashti Harrison

Recently adapted into an Oscar-winning short film, Hair Love is a gorgeous kids book about a Black father creating an extra special hair style for his daughter. Cherry crafts a sweet story and Harrison offers up stunning illustrations, making this a heartfelt, feel-good book about self-confidence and familial love for all ages.

You can buy Hair Love here.

Movies
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Kelly-Jordan Enterprises

The Story of a Three-Day Pass

Melvin Van Peebles’ contribution to the French New Wave canon is often unfairly overlooked, but the imaginative and thoughtful film about a Black soldier stationed in France and his three-day romance is a crucial addition. Made in France after Van Peebles struggled to find a home as a feature filmmaker, The Story of a Three-Day Pass is inventive, achingly cool, and deeply impactful.

You can watch The Story of a Three-Day Pass on Prime Video/Fandor now.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

There’s no other film quite like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. Melding narrative and documentary cinema, this is an experimental filmmaking touchstone. William Greaves shoots as the film crew sits in the park, left to wonder and decide on what film is being made. More crews film crews filming the crew. A counterculture gem and innovative exploration of what filmmaking can be, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is finally available to watch, so go and watch it.

You can watch on Symbiopsychotaxiplasm on The Criterion Channel now.

Ganja & Hess

This (almost) lost horror masterpiece should be at the top of any film fan’s watch list. Bill Gunn’s beautiful, surreal, and subversive take on vampire lore was nigh impossible to find for years but thanks to the work of film archivists you can now watch it again. Ganja & Hess stars Duane Jones as an anthropologist who becomes a vampire after discovering an ancient dagger. Marlene Clark is his titular co-star and arguably the model for final girls everywhere.

You can watch Ganja & Hess on Shudder and Kanopy now.

Daughters of the Dust

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Kino International

With this lush and experimental 1991 film, Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to direct and produce a feature that got a nationwide U.S. theatrical release. In 1902, “a multi-generational family in the Gullah community on the Sea Islands off of South Carolina—former West African slaves who adopted many of their ancestors’ Yoruba traditions—struggle to maintain their cultural heritage and folklore while contemplating a migration to the mainland, even further from their roots.” Led by the narration of an unborn child, Daughters of the Dust is full of beautiful, non-linear, and immersive storytelling that still feels completely radical today.

You can watch Daughters of the Dust on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy now.

Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s groundbreaking black and white film is a must-watch for students of cinema everywhere. Set in Watts during the 1970s, Killer of Sheep turns the camera onto the Black working class experience. Another movie that was almost lost to time, Burnett’s study of masculinity, class, and race was shot for $10,000 and is not only a great film but also a landmark moment in American cinema, even though you’ve likely never seen it.

You can rent or buy Killer of Sheep from Milestone Films now.

Rafiki

Rafiki is a life-affirming love story that highlights the burgeoning Afrobubblegum film scene. Zena and Kiki live in a housing estate in Nairobi and this film chronicles their friendship and romance against the backdrop of their family, politics, and local community. Despite the struggles they face, this is a happy, celebratory film that belies the tragedy we’re often served up as queer viewers. It’s also a visually stunning showcase for Wanuri Kahiu.

You can watch Rafiki on Kanopy now.

Documentaries
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Shudder

13th

Ava DuVernay’s searing look at the horrors of the prison industrial system is a great place to start your education about abolition and the shame of the school-to-prison pipeline. The title relates to the 13th Amendment, but as this documentary explains, slavery has actually been alive and well in America all this time due to the prison industrial system. 13th is a hard but necessary watch. It’s also a good, accessible introduction for family members who might be completely unaware of the exploitative and racist prison system.

You can watch 13th on Netflix now.

Horror Noire

Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, this awesome Shudder documentary looks at horror through the lens of Black filmmakers, fans, and the Black experience. A vital exploration that will delight all fans of horror as well as educate them, Horror Noire is a radical watch that features some of your faves while also peeling back the racist myth of genre filmmaking being an exclusively white endeavor.

You can watch Horror Noire on Shudder now.

I Am Not Your Negro
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Magnolia Pictures, Amazon Studios

Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, this documentary works as a visual essay imagining the book that might have been. Originally planned as a revolutionary account of the work, lives, and assassinations of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr, Baldwin died before he could finish, but this doc from Raoul Peck—narrated by Samuel L. Jackson—uses letters and writing by Baldwin to create something truly unique.

You can watch I Am Not Your Negro on Amazon and Kanopy now.

Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers

This short film is an educational trip through the mind and work of the man who held the title of Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. Juxtaposing the art and words of Douglas against the background of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, this is a short but concise celebration of the power of Douglas’ art and activism.

You can watch Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers on Vimeo now.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

Shola Lynch’s documentary about Angela Davis is a tightly edited doc that is stacked with conversations with the iconic leader and archival footage of the Panthers. It’s rare to find any film focused solely on a Black woman and her huge political impact. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners aims to change that by centering Davis and her experiences as a political prisoner.

You can watch Free Angela & All Political Prisoners on Tubi and Vudu now.

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

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ABC Studios

Much has been said about the similarities between the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd and the response to the police beating of Rodney King, which makes John Ridley’s film about the decade leading up to the latter even more of a vital watch. Interrogating the tensions between police and Black communities in LA, Let It Fall adds a vital context to the conversation around the historic moment in Los Angeles and US history.

You can watch Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 on Netflix now.

Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers

Centering on the 1968 Oakland protests to free founder Huey P. Newton, Agnès Varda turns her camera on the Black Panthers in this powerful political piece. Offering up an objective and somewhat hopeful view in a time where the group where criminalized and sensationalized in the media. Newton speaks from prison, whilst Kathleen Cleaver gives a stunning interview. There’s also plenty of footage that showcases the energy and organization around freeing Newton.

You can watch Black Panthers on The Criterion Channel now.

Features Image: Kino International, Shudder, Drawn & Quarterly