As worldwide action against police violence (as well as a normalization of state-sponsored racism and armed-citizen violence) continues in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it can feel strange and perhaps inappropriate to be talking about film, or even considering it.
But although the act of engaging with film is far from activism, there is still value to be found. These events are cyclical, and painful, and exhausting; you shouldn’t insist that your Black friends help you understand, you should be doing the work yourself. One easy way to start: with the many creative and galvanizing works by Black filmmakers. The likes of Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Cheryl Dunye and so many others have already done the job, all you have to do is watch.*
And, as clichéd as it feels to invoke, the simplest reasoning comes from Roger Ebert, who said: “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes.”
A lot of Letterboxd members feel the same way. Just as cinephiles flocked to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread, viewings of the likes of Ava DuVernary’s documentary 13th, Spike Lee’s magnum opus Do the Right Thing and Raoul Peck’s elegiac James Baldwin essay film I Am Not Your Negro—along with more films focused on Black experience, history and protest—have spiked in viewing and review numbers in the past fortnight.
Malcolm X, Selma, Daughters of the Dust, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Mercy, Fruitvale Station, and more are all enjoying an undeniable surge of viewership—in some cases, an increase of a thousand percent over their historical viewership numbers. And a matching rise in the number of reviews gives us insight into the feelings, or sense of catharsis, people are seeking from these films. Here, we take a survey of recent reactions to the top five—followed by suggestions for digging deeper.