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Six powerful documentaries about race and criminal justice

Put all of these on your watch list

This autumn brings with it a host of films exploring the relationship between black people and law enforcement. In October, there’s certain to be a lot of hype around the major young adult feature film The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Issa Rae, which deals with a teenage girl’s journey into activism against police brutality. It's also a subject that’s been dominating TV: Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, the docu-series executively produced by Jay-Z, is currently airing in the US, and in its wake has come a wave of documentaries about the criminal justice system. PBS shared Whose Streets? in July, which charts the events and aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, while in August, the ID channel aired Sugar Town, an investigation into the death of Victor White III in 2014.

In light of this conversation being re-ignited through cinema and television, here’s a look back on some of the most groundbreaking films on the subject – including one that debuted at Sundance this year – that make for upsetting, but impactful and essential viewing. 


In 2016, a landmark class-action lawsuit against the NYPD alleged that it had been practising illegal policing quotas. This new documentary chronicles the real lives and daily struggles of 12 black and Latinx police officers who fought back against the covert operation, which pressured them into making arrests determined by a monthly quota, and summonses often in communities of colour which are deemed to be “high crime”. Going beyond the investigative cinema mould, filmmaker Stephen Maing achieved an introspective look into both sides of the argument. 

LET IT FALL: LOS ANGELES 1982-1992 (2017)

Academy Award winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) provides us with a comprehensive look into a tumultuous decade in LA’s history with Let it Fall. With first-hand accounts, Let It Fall chronicles the festering tensions between law enforcement and the people of Los Angeles, starting with the death of James Mincey Jr, through to the rise of street gangs, the crack epidemic, the brutality of the Rodney King beating, and subsequently ending with the infamous riots.

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967-1975 (2011)

Salvaged from forgotten archived images into a powerful mosaic of visuals, music and narration, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 showcases a pivotal turning point in black history. With commentary by the likes of Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli, this is a film chronicling the rise of the movement of the late-60s to the mid-70s, as well as candid interviews from its key revolutionary figures, such as Angela Davis and Bobby Seale.

THE FORCE (2017)

The Force chronicles two years of efforts by Oakland police to implement reforms against troubled social unrest, and to rebuild trust. Set at a time of growing tensions, and with protests demanding increased accountability, Emmy award winner Peter Nicks provides an in-depth history of institutional misconduct by the police dating back to the 1960s, through the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black Panther party. 


A film that chronicles the plight that people of colour face in regards to change in social policy, The House I Live In follows the legacy of the war on drugs in the 70s and to the present, which saw an unprecedented number of arrests and convictions, most of whom were first-time offenders and from minority backgrounds. Not only a penetrating look into the US criminal justice system, the film is a process of unravelling the profound human rights implications of US drug policy on minorities. 


The Central Park Five examines the harrowing story of five black and Latinx Americans teenagers who were wrongly convicted of the rape of a white woman. With sentences ranging from six to 13 years, the men were eventually exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. The story is a testament to the ruthless cycle of racial injustice, poverty, and a biased, broken system.