In the wake of George Floyd's untimely murder, all it takes is a ten-second scroll on Instagram to find out how to better educate yourself on continued racial inequality plaguing America. And while a book or podcast is a worthy idea, one of the most digestible mediums for storytelling is television. For many, TV shows and programs that focus on racial injustice have become popular educational tools to better understand the long, heartbreaking, oppressive road that has led us to present day.
Whether you gravitate toward a docu-series format, reported segment, or scripted drama, there's a show waiting to enlighten — and many are on Netflix. The streaming network recently added a Black Lives Matter collection to its offerings, featuring a number of titles that address racial injustice, discrimination, and systemic racism. For documentary lovers, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, is a series that tells the story of a high school student who was unfairly imprisoned for three years without being convicted of a crime. And if you want a crash course on the very real racial wealth gap in America, Vox's Netflix series Explained breaks it down in under 20 minutes in its episode The Racial Wealth Gap. And if a bingeable series is more your speed, try the 2018 drama Seven Seconds, starring Regina King. Although technically fiction, the tale of a deadly hit-and-run of a Black teenage boy and subsequent cover-up by a local police department features themes of race and class discrimination that are all-too relevant and familiar.
Ahead, five shows and movies that shine a light on racial injustice that are ready to be streamed.
When They See Us
Directed by Ava DuVernay, this heartbreaking series is based on the true story of the Central Park 5, the New York City teens who were wrongfully incarcerated over the 1989 rape case of a white female jogger, but exonerated in 2002 when DNA evidence was uncovered and the real perpetrator confessed.
Despite no physical evidence, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam were were charged and convicted after being coerced by police to confess — and for simply being in somewhat close proximity to the scene of the crime. DuVernay's four-part series, which spans 25 years, unpacks the racist stereotyping and values of the broken justice system that changed five lives forever.
By the time the convictions were vacated in December of 2002, all five men had completed their prison sentences. Up until then, as registered sex offenders, they'd struggled to gain employment and acquire housing, and were forced to report to court authorities every three months. More than a decade after being exonerated, the men finally reached a $41-million settlement with the City of New York in 2014 and a $3.9 million settlement with the State of New York.
In an interview with InStyle in June 2019, Santana said this of watching his and the other four men's experience play out on screen: “Here we were exonerated since 2002, thinking that we have a handle on life and we're just trying to move forward, and then we see the series and it makes us take a step back. It makes us realize that we don't fully have a handle [on all that we’ve been through], and we have to reevaluate.”
In a May 2019 interview with CBS This Morning, DuVernay said that although the events of the mini-series were some 30 years ago, it could certainly happen again, which is why stories like these need to be told and retold. "The question is, can we interrogate what's happened in the past to safeguard ourselves for what's happening in the future," she said to hosts Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil. "That's why I'm such a student of history. I like historical context in my work. We can only better a situation if we realize the details of what happened. So that's what we invite people to check out."
Time: The Kalief Browder Story
Originally airing on the Spike network, this six-part docu-series tells the story of Kalief Browder, a Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for three years — two of them in solitary confinement on Rikers Island — without being convicted of a crime and waiting for a trial that would never happen. (He was picked up in 2010 by local police on suspicion of stealing a backpack, an accusation he denied.)
The disturbing series is not a comfortable one to watch, but it's an important one for those who want (and need) to take a closer look at the unjust and discriminatory realities of present-day law enforcement practices like New York's "stop-and-frisk" policy, which allows law enforcement to detain, question, and search civilians for weapons or contraband and has been condemned for racial profiling. According to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2019, 59 percent of those stopped and interrogated by police were Black, 29 percent were Latinx, and nine percent were white. It's also worth noting that of the 13, 459 stops made in 2019, 66 percent resulted in no weapons or contraband being found.
Other issues addressed in Time is New York's often unfair and unreachable bail system (Browder's family couldn't make bail) and the harrowing mental health effects of prison life and solitary confinement. During his three-year stay, Browder spent a majority in solitary confinement, where he attempted to take his life several times, and endured extreme abuse by officers and inmates. After his 2013 release, the Bronx native continued to struggle with mental health, and ultimately died by suicide in 2015.
This documentary isn't easy to watch, but it reflects the Black experience and is vital for understanding the long-term damage of a broken justice system.
Unlike the true crime dramas that keep you guessing until the very end, Netflix's 10-part series Seven Seconds shows its cards from the jump. The series begins and revolves around the tragic hit-and-run of a 15-year-old Black cyclist in a New Jersey park. Instead of immediately reporting the incident, the white police officer driving the car calls his leader on the Jersey City narcotics unit, who arrives at the scene and begins a plot to cover up the crime in an effort to avoid the public relations nightmare for, "Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore — every white cop who ever killed a Black kid.”
As it unravels, the series tackles a number of issues that smack of real life: law enforcement's abuse of power, blatant indifference to Black lives within the criminal justice system, and the long-term devastation that comes from both. (In one of many infuriating moments, a white cop casually assumes that the slain teen was "probably a banger" because he was in the park when he was hit.) Although heart-wrenching, Seven Seconds offers viewers a realistic examination of race and police brutality and is definitely worth a watch.
Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap
Although only about 17 minutes in length, the third episode of Vox's Netflix series Explained is a good one if you want to look into systemic racism. In particular, the segment zeroes in on the roots of the ever-present racial disparities of wealth in America. According to the program, the median white household's wealth is $171,000 while that of a Black household is $17,600, "and that gap is still growing and growing. Why?"
A cast of experts, including New Jersey senator Cory Booker explain the variety of factors that go into answering this question, touching on slavery, housing discrimination, and centuries of inequality. Booker even retells a family story in which his father had a white couple place an offer on a home for him because the property owner wouldn't sell to a Black family. When the seller's agent discovered the buyer was indeed a Black couple, he punched Booker's father's lawyer and commanded a dog to attack Booker's father.
Trial By Media: 41 Shots
Another single episode within a broader series, Trial By Media: 41 Shots tackles the devastating death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of four un-uniformed white policeman in 1999. The unarmed Diallo, originally from Guinea, West Africa and living in New York City at the time, was about to enter his Bronx apartment when the plainclothes officers approached him. As he reached into his pockets for his keys, the men open fired and shot him 41 times, killing him at the scene.
What ensued was a widespread media and public outcry for justice and end to police harassment and violence, particularly against Black men. The officers were indicted and charged with murder. In footage captured for the episode, Diallo's mother Kadijatou Diallo says, "Not every Black man on the street can be a suspect. Something's gotta change."
In a last-minute twist, because of the avid protesting and public upheaval, the trial venue moved from the Bronx to Albany (which is 140 miles away). Despite the public upheaval and seemingly overwhelming amount of support, the four officers charged with Diallo's were inevitably acquitted by a Grand Jury.
This article has been updated from its original version, which did not meet our editorial guidelines.
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