Essential Movies To Watch Juneteenth

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Ever since Juneteenth became a national holiday, corporations have been trying to do to it what they’ve done with Pride: strip it of its roots and turn it into a commercialized holiday to sell more stuff.


There’s a scene in
American Fiction in which Jefferey Wright’s character is appalled at the suggestion that his book is promoted for a Juneteenth holiday release. Yet, the white corporate executives are so pleased with themselves for the idea: how inclusive, they thing, how perfectly celebratory.

And while now that Juneteenth marks a national day off, it will be marked with gatherings and celebrations, it should be a day of remembering. Celebrated on June 19th (hence the portmanteau), Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 (almost 160 years ago) when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed of their freedom. More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had legally freed them, these were the last enslaved people to be legally free citizens. Therefore, the holiday marks the actual end of slavery in the United States — unless you count prison labor and other forms of legal enslavement (I do).

Many people are still confused as to how the Emancipation Proclamation had failed to be delivered to all enslaved people. But it wasn’t like there were Apple News alerts. News took time to speak. Major General Gordon Granger’s announcement of General Order No. 3 in Galveston delivered the long-overdue message that all enslaved individuals were free, symbolizing a critical turning point in American history.

It’s a holiday that doesn’t just celebrate the freedom of formerly enslaved people but also recognizes the system’s failure to actually deliver on its promises.

Though the holiday was celebrated informally, Juneteenth is also entangled with memories of summer 2020 during the Global Black Lives Matter protests. After George Floyd was murdered by police in May 2020, protests erupted all summer and marked a shift in the conversation about race in America and beyond. This momentum culminated on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

For the first time, we were talking about racial as a structural institution rather than a series of small actions. We were finally addressing the deep-seated roots of racism in our systems and in ourselves. But of course, this all got gentrified fast. People started putting “anti-racist” in their Instagram bios and thought that was enough. And don’t even get me started on the Black squares on Instagram.

It was Biden’s alleged intention for recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday to not only honor the historical significance of the day but also underscore a commitment to acknowledging and addressing the legacy of slavery and the ongoing pursuit of equality and justice in the United States.

However, just four years later, what have all those promises for change accomplished? Many companies promising to do good have since fired their DEI staff. Many copies of bell hooks and anti-racist books bought during the first wave of support are sitting dusty on bookshelves somewhere. And now we have Juneteenth. But is it enough?

But activism can only be diluted if our commitment to it wanes. Every year, I challenge us all to strengthen our commitment to the values we purported to support in 2020. Read those books. Ask yourself if you’re living up to your #antiracist Instagram bio. And consume media by Black people that actually aims to educate its audiences — not just placate them with mediocre claims of representation.

From documentaries to narrative features, here are some films to inspire your activism and anti-racism this month:

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin is one of the most insightful voices from the Civil Rights era. His writing, as well as his interviews, challenged American society and politics through both fiction and non-fiction. But many often forget that he spent the last years of his life in Paris in fear that the US government would literally murder him as they had his contemporaries. Directed by Raoul Peck, the film is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House,” which was intended to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. By juxtaposing Baldwin’s commentary with images from the Civil Rights era and contemporary times, “I Am Not Your Negro” becomes both a commentary and call to action urging us to acknowledge the truth of the system and also do what we can to change it.

The 13th

We can’t talk about Juneteenth without talking about the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery in the United States “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” With the problem of mass incarceration disproportionately affecting Black Americans, it has become a form of legalized slavery. No amount of Juneteenth merchandise will disguise the fact that the freedom we celebrate is conditional. Ava DuVernay’s seminal 2016 documentary takes this loophole as its starting point – tracing the many ways it’s been hideously exploited from the Civil War onwards to maintain a racial hierarchy with commentary from Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Michelle Alexander, and more.

Origin

A narrative can be as educational as a documentary when done correctly. Ava DuVernay’s most recent drama
Origin (2023) chronicles the journey of reporter Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It follows Wilerson’s investigation to how caste systems shape social hierarchies in the United States to parallels with caste systems in India and Nazi Germany. Through a blend of personal narrative and historical analysis, the film interweaves Wilkerson’s interviews, archival footage, and acting inspired by true events to highlight insidious caste-based discrimination that plagues societies around the world.

Rustin

Celebrate the intersectionality of both Juneteenth and Pride month with
Rustin (2023), a biographical drama that brings to life the story of Bayard Rustin, a key architect of the Civil Rights Movement. He helped organize the March on Washington and was one of MLK’s key advisors for a time. But why haven’t you heard of him? Because he was gay — and he was ousted from MLK’s inner circle due to homophobia. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film stars Colman Domingo as Rustin, capturing his dynamic and often challenging role as an openly gay Black man fighting for social justice in a time of profound prejudice. It’s a reminder of our interlinked struggles and how all justice depends on each other. It’s also a call to action to be more inclusive and intentional in our activism.

Judas and the Black Messiah

One of the most powerful voices of the Civil Rights movement and chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, Fred Hampton was assassinated by by members of the Chicago Police Department as part of a COINTELPRO operation. COINTELPRO, Counterintelligence Program, was an FBI program investigating “radicals” — which mostly amounted to Civil Rights Leaders. In this dramatic retelling of Fred Hampton’s story and murder, director Shaka King focuses on the involvement of LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers and ultimately betrayed Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Watch for Kaluuya’s compelling portrayal of Hampton that makes you understand the impact of this rousing leader, and inspires all of us to engage in our communities rather than pick the ebay way out like O’Neal.

Genius: MLK/Malcolm X

The acclaimed Genius series turns its eye upon these two Civil Rights leaders in this biopic series. It underscores their differences and their similarities, while exploring what made them so effective. It focuses on their formative years, how they became the leaders they were, and who they were in their personal lives — often imperfect but still determined to create change. By focusing on their humanity, it stops them from being over-mythicized and reminds us that we too can create change if we are committed to it.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

As the first major documentary on the Black Panthers,
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is directed by Stanley Nelson examines the Party’s rise of in the 1960s and its impact on the Civil rights and American culture. It clears up some myths about the Panthers while emphasizing what they actually stood for. Emphasizing both forgotten heroes and familiar faces.

The Black Power Mixtape

The Black Panther Party is chronically misunderstood. This compilation of tapes come from videos shot for Swedish television between 1967 and 1975, capturing the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement; the shift away from Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent policies to a more militant approach; and the brutal oppression faced by the leaders of the Black Power movement. Weaved between commentary from Erykah Badu, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael’s mother, these tapes tell the Black Panthers’s story from their Point of View.

Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play.

One of the most controversial and talked-about Broadway plays,
Slave Play ignited public interest and ire in equal measure. It was the most Tony-award nominated non-musical play in history in 2019. Though it was too controversial to actually win any Tonys. It was also Julia Fox and Kanye West’s first date. Do with that what you will. Written by Jeremy O. Harris, it investigates the way that racism and the lineages of slavery are still pervasive in our society — and our intimate relationships. But this is not a film version of the play. It’s a genre-bending exploration of the production of the play, as well as a conversation about its themes.

Black Barbie

Coming to Netflix on Juneteenth, the follow up to last year’s
Barbie phenomenon: a documentary on the origin of the Black Barbie. “If you’ve gone your whole life and you’ve never seen anything made in your own image,” says producer Shonda Rhimes in the trailer, “there is damage done.” The documentary follows how the Black Barbie came to be. Written and directed by Lagueria Davis, Black Barbie takes audiences through first-person perspectives of three Black women who worked at Mattel during the iconic doll’s incubation: Kitty Black Perkins, Stacey McBride-Irby, and Davis’ Aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell. “I’m excited for people to know their names, a part of their story, and this part of history,” says Davis.

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