The Most Powerful Films About American Protest

With the nationwide protests in response to racial injustice, police brutality, and the killing of black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, the conversation about property damage has resurfaced. These “peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike,” as explained by the historian Kellie Carter Jackson in The Atlantic, have exposed “the double standard of the American riot,” eliciting controversy over what are considered morally appropriate forms of protest. This debate also has roots in popular culture, where white riots in film are often glorified, while black riots are criticized, further exposing the discursive discrepancy between the value of material and the value of black lives.

Hegemonic representations of white violence in film spectacularize riots and lionize vigilante justice. D.W. Griffith’s landmark and racist epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is a case in point. In its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as American heroes, the film’s formal devices, narrative strategies, and thematic motifs sensationalize and champion white mob violence in response to enfranchised black masses. While controversial at the time of its release, The Birth of a Nation was also hugely popular. For white critics and audiences, Griffith did not depict a riot, but a righteous cause, one that helped revive the KKK in American society and birth modern cinema at the same time. The glorification of white rage extends to more contemporary films: David Fincher’s 1999 cult film Fight Club, for example, critiques and valorizes white male violence, vandalism, and domestic terror. And the seemingly innocuous treatment of city destruction in white superhero films such as 2013’s Man of Steel suggest that, in white men’s efforts to “save the world,” cataclysmic mayhem is wholly justified.

In sharp contrast to Griffith and these contemporary works, Lee and other black filmmakers have had to navigate the ideological paradoxes of violence and nonviolence in their depictions of riots on screen, lest their spectacles be seen as endorsing or inciting meaningless revolt in the real world. While there is no singular formal style or narrative tactic, in response to racial violence, these filmmakers have crafted textured, polyphonic films that examine the social, political, and historical forces that precipitate moments of unrest. These films highlight the structural neglect, social alienation, institutional poverty, political disenfranchisement, and rampant racial violence that grips urban post-industrial communities. As a result, their representations of unrest not only show black insurgency as militant responses to exploitative capitalism, but also frame urban uprisings as just actions against brutality and as catalysts for change.