The second film in Steve McQeen’s five-part series, Small Axe, is set in West London in the 1980s and depicts a night in the life of Black British youth at a dance party. It is a film about joy. But it is also about danger. The dominant effect it produces in the viewer is not one of vicarious pleasure but rather of suspense. The viewer is constantly led to expect that something terrible is about to happen: that the police will raid the house or that a fight will break out or that a woman will be raped or that the group of white boys down the street will beat somebody up—or worse. Anxiety is the medium in which the joy exists. But the film is, for all that, unmistakably about good music, good times, young love, and joy.
The Good Lord Bird
For as long as the United States continues to be a country in which the majority of people identify as white, the question will remain, “What is the role of white people in the Black liberation struggle?” When Malcolm X addressed this question in 1964, he spoke of John Brown, and of Brown’s portrayal on screen:
We need allies who are going to help us achieve a victory, not allies who are going to tell us to be nonviolent. If a white man wants to be your ally, what does he think of John Brown? You know what John Brown did? He went to war. He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves. He wasn’t nonviolent. White people call John Brown a nut. Go read the history, go read what all of them say about John Brown. They’re trying to make it look like he was a nut, a fanatic. They made a movie on it, I saw a movie on the screen one night. Why, I would be afraid to get near John Brown if I go by what other white folks say about him. But they depict him in this image because he was willing to shed blood to free the slaves. And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom—in the sight of other whites, he’s nuts.
There is no telling which movie Malcom X saw—whether it was Santa Fe Trail, a 1940 western featuring Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, or Seven Angry Men, a 1955 film whose promotional materials describe John Brown as a “fanatic abolitionist” leading a band of “vengeful giants . . . storming across a terror-gripped land!”—because John Brown has always been portrayed on screen as a “nut,” that is, as a white Christian zealot who for some unaccountable reason took up arms against slavery.
The Showtime Series, The Good Lord Bird, based on the novel by James McBride, sets the viewer up to expect a similar treatment. From the beginning, its portrait of John Brown is irreverent and even comical. This might lead one to think that, although it is based on a book written by Black author, The Good Lord Bird belongs to the tradition of representing John Brown that Malcom X lambasts. But not all comedy is buffoonery. There is admittedly something clownish about the portrayal of Frederick Douglass, and many will find it objectionable. But the Douglass character is a foil to the main subject, Brown. The comedic relief that Douglass provides is needed because the portrayal of Brown is, in spite of one’s laughter, dead serious. The humor of The Good Lord Bird is gallows humor, a comedic mode which is useful in that it allows one to talk about serious things without becoming ponderous or morose. Because the final portrait of John Brown is neither as a fanatic nor as a buffoon nor, thankfully, as a white savior, the series provides excellent food for thought about a host of important questions, such as what political courage is, what it means to act on principle, how we get free, and what kind of allies we need.
Les Misérables (available on Amazon Prime)
Believe it or not, the best film about racist policing came out in France at the beginning of the year. French-Malian director Ladj Ly’s first full-length feature film follows a trio of Parisian cops on patrol in a French banlieue of Montfermeil. A strange circumstance of a stolen lion sets off a course of events that culminates in an incident of brutality captured on video. The cops attempt to work with a fragile network of different community members to try to resolve the situation of both the stolen lion and their taped violence. One of the cops, Stéphane, is even depicted as a well-intentioned “good cop,” and the film displays how complicit they are in the system of police terror. The film builds to a crescendo where the false peace cobbled together by the police and the community leaders is exposed as hollow and unable to appease the revolutionary youth who then enter the stage of history in the shocking final act. The film is semi-autobiographical based on the filmmaker’s participation in the youth uprising in Montfermail in 2005. “I want to inspire revolution,” Ly said of the film, and you feel it in its turbulent and taut story and climactic explosion.
Bacurau (available on Amazon Prime)
Death is the constant background to this surreal Brazilian acid-western beginning with the film’s opening scene of a pile of broken coffins that have fallen off a truck blocking the road to the remote community of Bacurau “just a few years from now.” Probably half the film takes place during four different funerals, and its climax is blood-soaked and violent. Despite its tremendous weirdness and high degree of camp it is also a deadly serious exploration of Brazilian politics and global capitalism. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles tell the story of a multiracial poor community literally being hunted by rich Americans in league with a corrupt Brazilian state. But they don’t know who they are fucking with.
The WNBA and #BlackLivesMatter
Many fans will look to the player-led strike of NBA teams in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a high point in social justice sports this year. While this might be true we cannot forget that the WNBA has been leading the way around #BlackLivesMatter in sports for many years. On August 25, players on the Washington Mystics kneeled at center court wearing white T-shirts printed with seven bullet holes on the back in honor of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police. That image, among the many powerful sports moments this year, still gives me chills.
Money Heist (available on Netflix)
What better premise than a group of thieves who plot meticulously to rob first the Royal Mint of Spain and then the Bank of Spain? Fast-paced and fun with just enough soapy relationship drama, this Spanish action show is a great guilty pleasure. As a bonus it also has a political arc that centers on outwitting and exposing corrupt law enforcement and military leaders and winning the masses to the thieves’ cause of taking down the most powerful institutions in finance. This show features one of the best TV characters this year, Nairobi, a badass counterfeit expert with a heart of gold and a wry sense of humor.
Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato
Lovato’s powerful story of the United States’ complicity in the ongoing violence and death squads of El Salvador is part historical reckoning and part deeply moving personal and political narrative. Connecting the rise of gang violence in Los Angeles to US imperialist policies in Central America, Lovato shows our government’s complete disregard for human lives and how we can never forget who our real allies and enemies are in the struggle for liberation. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about El Salvador’s tangled history with US imperialism. It is accessible and beautifully told.
Four-way split compilation from To Live a Lie Records
Some ostensibly radical music critics write off the entire genre of Black Metal as irredeemably backward and defined by ultraright politics. But some artists step into the breach to challenge the notion. This four-way split by some of the most notorious bands in grind, crust, black metal, and hardcore was a 2020 highlight of radical, antifascist powerviolence. The righteous anger, indignant blastbeats, and unapologetically left-wing politics of this compilation was a perfect soundtrack to the social upheavals of the past year. Extreme music fans will love it.
Black miners and their families routinely traversed the landscape of the mountain South to escape racist terror and in search for jobs. From the radical, interracial insurgencies of Blair Mountain and the Mine Wars of Appalachia to the Black communists in Alabama documented in Robin D. G. Kelley’s hallmark Hammer and Hoe, the million threads of Black radicalism might have been all but lost to history if not for books like William Turner and Edward Cabbell’s Blacks in Appalachia and Karida Brown’s Gone Home. Such scholars have made incredible contributions to the story of Black workers in the mountain South. The multimedia Black in Appalachia research project continues the deep-dive work of bringing the names, lives, and fighting spirit of Black workers back into our political memory. Essential listening!
Based in Richmond, Virginia, Nick has been a longtime chronicler of the region’s hardcore punk scene. He brilliantly captures its raw energy, creativity, and community. But during the national uprisings of 2020 against police terror and racism, his instagram photos were among the best visual documentations from a participant and artist. The rage, pain, love, and joy of the struggle are beautiful. Follow him.
Amid Covid’s health and economic crises, simple survival requires widespread acts of solidarity and carefully built commitment to dismantling oppression by reinventing community. Spade lays out a vision drawn directly from the mass struggles globally and historically experimenting in the lifegiving and deeply challenging art of mutual aid. His concise guide starts with a compelling case for alternatives to state and nonprofit efforts that impose and reinforce systemic inequalities, while the second half offers support in navigating the complex process of collaboration outside the usual hierarchies that hamper our lives. It delivers a gift of hope by making revolution something to begin practicing for and building right now.
The Essentials: Essential Workers We Love by Amanda Zappler
Kids do not miss a thing. In a year of so much doing without, waiting indefinitely, and worrying and wondering about strange new words that suddenly dominate life, here’s kid-size inspiration and comfort in the everyday heroes we depend on. Underappreciated custodian fox and sanitation worker fly are brightly and lovingly illustrated right alongside panda scientist and doggy doctor.
The Day They Took My Father by Jillian Godshall and Anlo Sepulveda
When high school student Nataly Avendano went from living in fear to having her worst nightmare come true, she fought back. When her father was arrested during a traffic stop and incarcerated by ICE, he joined tens of thousands of others facing deportation. But because his daughter took action alongside dozens of others, he was able to come home again. This short documentary lets Nataly tell her own story, which is one of hundreds of small struggles quietly transforming lives all over the country by refusing to accept seemingly inevitable injustices.
City So Real (available on Hulu)
This panoramic documentary of Chicago centers loosely on the 2018–19 city election cycle, with a final episode focused on the city under the pandemic and the events of this summer. Although it largely takes place two years ago, in many ways it reads as a window into a foreign world long forgotten. Beginning with a multi-angled portrait of a city in rapt attention as it follows the trial of the murderous Jason Van Dyke, City So Real tells a gripping story with shockingly granular realism, even while some conversations caught here on camera seem too wild to have been real. Through five episodes, we meet Chicagoans from every walk of life: the North Side dog walker, the West Side Lyft driver, the beefy Bridgeport racists, and the dim-witted penthouse dwellers. The central thread of the narrative is a tour through the labyrinthine electoral candidate process and its Kafkaesque absurdity. The intimate portraits of political candidates are quite fascinating: from Willie Wilson’s shameless bribing to Bill Daley’s idiotic blubbering and Toni Preckwinkle’s bone-deep incompetence as a public figure. The series is a masterful document of and tribute to a city where history continues to unfold, adding another worthy chapter to the mythology of Chicago.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
I Am Not Your Negro didn’t come out in 2020, but the massive upsurge of popular rebellion against police violence that swept the country earlier this year has made it more relevant than ever. The film is a documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based loosely on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s text reflects on the significance of the lives (and deaths) of three towering figures in the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s, all of whom he knew personally: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers. The film splices together voice-over narration by Samuel L. Jackson with archival news footage, interviews, clips from Hollywood films, and snapshots of recent antiracist struggles (e.g., the 2014–15 uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore). The overall effect is powerful and much greater than the mere sum of its parts. The film ends with a bang, wherein Baldwin declares that “white is just another word for power, which is just another word for Chase Manhattan Bank,” at which point Kendrick Lamar’s blistering song “The Blacker the Berry” roars as the credits roll. The film also gets bonus points for being a terrific, accessible introduction to Baldwin, in particular, and to the Black radical tradition more generally. It’s on Netflix right now and it’s worth watching again and again.
Diaspora by GoldLink
The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically curtailed social life and forced many of us to remain within the confines of small apartments and dwellings for far more time than we’re used to. During this time, music has been a key way that I’ve managed to summon the feelings of large-scale connection with others that one typically only gets from, say, attending a live concert, marching in the streets with other activists, or even riding the CTA at the peak of rush hour. GoldLink’s second album, Diaspora, manages to make the world feel both huge and small at the same time. With collaborations from artists as far flung as DC, London, Lagos, Los Angeles, and Accra, the record draws on the cultural breadth and diversity of the Black diaspora while also encouraging the listener to find unexpected links and affinities between musicians separated by oceans and national borders. Though Diaspora appeared in 2019, it is arguably more relevant and powerful in light of everything that happened in 2020.