Trudell, directed by Heather Rae (2005; Boise, ID: Appaloosa Pictures, 2005), DVD. Heather Rae’s documentary tells the story of the iconic Native American activist and performer John Trudell. Trudell was a half-Sioux and half-Mexican child who rose to prominence as a leader of the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement in the late 1960s. After experiencing personal tragedy in 1979, he turned to writing and performing poem-songs. He appeared on over 15 albums and toured both the nation and the world. While Rae’s film has been attacked for being a one-sided biopic that is uncritical of Trudell’s life, it is still a fascinating watch.
Reel Injun, directed by Neil Diamond (2009; Montreal, Quebec: Domino Film, 2009), DVD. This documentary by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond explores historic and contemporary representations of Native American people on the silver screen. It traces how non-native filmmakers and actors have portrayed Indians in stereotypes like the Noble Savage or the Drunken Indian. But it also explores the ways in which native actors subverted those intentions and found humor, nuance, depth, and meaning in roles that were either written superficially or explicitly designed to challenge harmful stereotypes.
Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind, directed by Stanley Nelson (2000; New York City, NY: Firelight Media Inc, 2001), DVD. This documentary narrates the life and legacy of the early-twentieth-century pan-African and black civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. Born in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey co-founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a social and political organization for global black self-determination. Nelson’s film traces the rise and fall of that iconic organization, as well as the enduring effect that Garvey’s ideas had on future leaders and movements, including Malcolm X and the Rastafari Movement.
Iron Jawed Angels, directed by Katja von Garnier (2004; Los Angeles, CA: HBO Films and Blue Dominion Productions Inc., 2004), DVD. This feature film interprets the history of the American women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s, part of what is often known as First Wave Feminism. Garnier livens up the traditional story of radical activists like Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Inez Milholland with her modern cinematic style. While some have critiqued the result as feeling a bit too much like Sex in the City, many others have delighted in the ways that Garnier has translated the historical struggle for women’s rights for our age.
Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America, directed by Peter Getzels and Eduardo López (2011; Paris, France: Onyx Films Production, 2012), DVD. Based on a book of the same name by the journalist Juan González, Harvest of Empire traces the historical relationship between the United States of America in the twentieth century and the various Latin American and Caribbean nations that have contributed immigrants, both legal and undocumented, to its population. One of the most important films of our time, Harvest of Empires reveals the historical factors that have brought Latinos to the US.
12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (2013; Los Angeles, CA: Regency Enterprises, 2014), DVD. This Oscar-winning film about black slavery in the American South during the 1840s and 50s was based on the historic slave narrative of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Though hard at times to watch because of some particularly brutal scenes, 12 Years A Slave has raised the bar for historical films about the institution of slavery in the Deep South during the antebellum era.
Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, directed by Llewellyn M. Smith (2009; San Francisco, CA: ITVS, 2010), TV Episode. This film uses the career of a Jewish-American anthropologist to ask questions about race and identity. In iconic works like The Myth of the Negro Past (1841), Herskovits broke new ground in the exploration of black cultures. However, as a white intellectual who specialized in this subject when blacks were largely excluded from academia, Herskovits walked a fine line between cultural liberation and intellectual colonialism.
I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck (2016; at the Heart of Blackness, directed by Llewellyn M. Smith (2009; USA: Velvet Film, 2016), DVD. The Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck interprets the late novelist James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript for the screen in this documentary. Baldwin’s work, Remember This House, featured his penetrating observations of race in America based on his reminiscences of three assassinated Civil Rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. With narration by Samuel L. Jackson and material from Baldwin’s life and works, Peck’s film is a haunting commentary on America benefiting Baldwin’s artistry and intellect.