By The Washington Post · Bethonie Butler
The 1955 essay collection featured the writer's searing critiques of the deep racial injustice etched into the DNA of a nation that had continuously rejected him because of his skin color. The sentiment behind Baldwin's words - that American patriotism necessitates that we confront inequality - has since been echoed by activists, writers and filmmakers across decades.
Baldwin's words take on renewed resonance amid current protests over the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and other black men and women who have been killed by police in disproportionate numbers. With that in mind on this Fourth of July weekend, we've compiled a list of films, TV series and documentaries that offer poignant examinations of race in America.
"4 Little Girls"
In this documentary, available to stream on Hulu, Spike Lee examines in excruciating detail the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young black girls in 1963. "It's an angry movie and a tough movie, but it's not a bitter movie," noted a 1997 Washington Post review. "It speaks, ultimately, to the hope of reconciliation, and it specifies its evil in a single man, the Klan to which he belonged and to a generalized fear of change that seems now vanished."
Ava DuVernay connects inequities within the American criminal justice system - including police brutality and sentencing disparities - with the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws in this stirring Netflix documentary, which feels as relevant now as it did when the film premiered ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
"Da Five Bloods"
Few scenes in Spike Lee's well-reviewed film about a group of black Vietnam War veterans take place on American soil. But America is undoubtedly under the microscope in the Netflix movie, which shines light on the mistreatment of black veterans dating back to, as one central character declares, Crispus Attucks, a black man who is widely considered to be the first person to have died in the Revolutionary War.
"Do the Right Thing"
A hot summer day is the spark that ignites long-simmering racial tensions in Lee's visceral 1989 film, which features a scene that bears unsettling similarities to the deaths of Floyd and Eric Garner, who told New York police officers he couldn't breathe before dying in custody six years ago. The parallels were not lost on Lee, who last month released a short film juxtaposing footage of Floyd and Garner's deaths with the indelible scene in which Radio Raheem, a beloved character from Lee's notoriously Oscar-snubbed classic, is choked to death by police officers. "Do the Right Thing" is available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime.
Jordan Peele's 2017 feature directorial debut casts one of society's most terrifying ills - racism - as the apt monster in this sharp and satisfying horror film. Upon the movie's release three years ago, Peele told The Post that he began writing the satire as the nation prepared to elect its first black president. The result is a thrilling rebuke of what Peele called America's "post-racial lie." The film is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.
The racial commentary in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical - the film version of which hits Disney Plus on Friday - is subtle but manifests in its largely black and Latino cast. "This is a story about America then, told by America now," Miranda told the Atlantic in 2015 about his piece on the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Miranda - who apologized in May for not sooner using his "Hamilton" platform to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement - reflected, in a recent USA Today interview, on seeing signs bearing lyrics from his masterpiece about the Founding Fathers at BLM protests. "That's an unexpected resonance, just young people demanding change that kind of echoes across centuries."
"I Am Not Your Negro"
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday called Raoul Peck's 2016 documentary ″a stinging rebuke, searing provocation and soothing balm all in one." Peck uses an unfinished Baldwin manuscript to offer a view into one of the nation's most brilliant minds, as Baldwin reflects on his friendships with three slain civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
"O.J.: Made in America"
Ezra Edelman deconstructs the trial of the century with haunting insights on American race relations in this five-part documentary series, available to stream on ESPN Plus. "From start to finish 'O.J. Made in America' is a devastating study of a man," Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever wrote in his review, which dubbed the series "nothing short of a towering achievement."
This electrifying HBO series is fictional but begins with scenes depicting the horrific Tulsa race massacre that unfolded after a white mob descended on a prosperous black business district in Oklahoma nearly a century ago. That painful legacy is then infused into the DC Comics' franchise from which it borrows its title. "'Watchmen' had the guts to put a mask on the two biggest real-life threats to black existence - racism and white supremacy," The Post's David Betancourt wrote, "and turned those social ills into a supervillain (represented by the Seventh Kavalry) that Regina King could beat up."
"What Happened, Miss Simone?"
Liz Garbus's 2015 documentary explores the life and career of singer and activist Nina Simone, whose songbook is punctuated with urgent and devastating appeals for civil rights - including "Mississippi Goddam," the searing anthem she performed at Carnegie Hall in 1964. As Simone tells it in an interview featured in the film, available to stream on Netflix, the Birmingham church bombing inspired her to write the controversial song.
"First you get depressed and then you get mad," Simone explains. "And when these kids got bombed, I just sat down and wrote this song. And it's a very moving, violent song."
"When They See Us"
In this four-part Netflix miniseries, DuVernay highlights the staggering injustices faced by five teenagers - four black and one Latino - who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in New York's Central Park in 1989. Amid critical acclaim, the series was slammed as inaccurate by some, including former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who faced public fallout following the series' release last year.