Everyone who knows me (not that many people really) is probably completely fed up with me talking their ears off about the new unit we are teaching called Law and Race.(No, I haven’t heard of it either…) Because, I think all visual media makes significant contributions to knowledge, I have included several films in the reading. In this I have been inspired by one of my own lecturers, Dr Agata Fijalkowski whose lectures included 3 films. I have never forgotten that experience. Thank you Agata!

This is a list of films relevant to Law and Race – not all of them are included in our reading, and some of them I have written about before. There is what you may call an over-representation of movies about apartheid. I think it is important that apartheid be studied closely. I have said so before. Apartheid South Africa is just one manifestation (an extreme mutation if you will) of the racial formations present all around us. If you know of any others films which could be added to the list, comment below. Danke schön

Amazing Grace [2006]

Director: Michael Apted

Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano and Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce

This is a story of how William Wilberforce maneuvers his way through Parliament, endeavoring to end the British transatlantic slave trade. There are a number of interesting notes to this film. Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano was great – should have had more screen time. The film makes the distinction between the abolition of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery (by the Emancipation Act). These two are often conflated, even though separate legal arguments were made for the ending and continuation of the two. Wilberforce campaigned to end the slave trade. Not slavery. It is very much a story of William Wilberforce and not a story of the slave trade or of slavery. But it is an interesting insight into the legal arguments made against slavery. Interesting to note those arguments that failed… and those that succeeded.


Black Panther [2018]

Director: Ryan Coogler


T’Challa, heir to the hidden but advanced kingdom of Wakanda, must step forward to lead his people into a new future and must confront a challenger from his country’s past. There is not much to add to what I have said previously written about this movie. An essay which seemed to emerge from me rather than be written by me.


Gandhi [1982]

Director: Richard Attenborough

Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi

This film is based on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, (who I have also written about in the context of the movie) the leader of India’s non-violent, non-cooperative independence movement against the United Kingdom’s rule of the country during the 20th century. I include this film for two reasons, first its lessons on resistance and second its depiction of the massacre at Armritsar, carried out by British colonial Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. (There is also a lot to be said about Gandhi’s documented anti-blackness, which is not addressed in the movie. However, note that when he works in South Africa, he does not associate with black people, but he does organise with white people. I will say no more on that, for now.)


Cry Freedom 1987

Director: Richard Attenborough

Denzel Washington as Steven Biko & Kevin Kline as Donald Woods

Tells how South African journalist Donald Woods is forced to flee the country, after attempting to investigate the death in custody of his friend, the black activist Steve Biko. (I have written about Steven Bantu Biko, and how the manner of his death and the manner in which the story of his death is told, means that we must tell his story with the information that we have.) It is essentially the story of Donald Woods, but we also learn whose voice has power and why it is necessary for those who can to speak out, even when their lives are not directly affected, even if they put themselves at risk by speaking out.


Cry the Beloved Country [1995]

Director: Darrell James Roodt

Richard Harris and James Earl Jones

A South African preacher goes to search for his wayward son, who has committed a crime in the big city. The movie is how two fathers confront in the personal tragedy the structurally supported implications of racial formations. The personal is political and the political is personal. This is the second cinematic outing of Alan Paton’s book of the same name. The book (which I have written about) opens with a magnificent paragraph which starts: ‘There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it…’ Watch either of the films, but please if you have not done so yet, please, please read ‘Cry, Beloved Country.’


Skin [2008]

Director: Anthony Fabian


This is the telling of the true story of a white South African couple who give birth to a black child in apartheid South Africa. We follow Sandra Laing as she tries to navigate the absurdity in which she is born into, an absurdity that means she can never fully enjoy the privileges that her own parents take for granted. This film, more than most, disrupts the falsehood upon which the world has built its exclusivities. For most of the film Sandra is caught between two world, neither of which is she fully belongs to. Social construction in all its ridiculousness. In the final scene we meet the real Ms Laing and for me that was the most powerful scene. We are reminded that our exclusions along imagined have real implications for actual people. People like us. But Skin.


Concerning Violence [2014]

Director: Göran Olsson


Narrated by Lauryn Hill, this documentary is a visual narrative on Africa, based on newly discovered archive material covering the struggle for liberation from colonial rule in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It is an exploration into the mechanisms of decolonization through text from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It includes a foreward by Gayatri Spivak (If you have not yet read her paper, Can the Subaltern Speak?, please stop reading this and go and read that.) As an avowed pacifist, I am completely against the use of violence, but as a realist who is not into self-delusion, I realise that most successful freedom campaigns have involved some form of violence. So this documentary is a good place to start thinking about freedom and self-defence. It also explores the effects of violence, who wields violence as a tool and different forms of violence. Trigger warning: contains violence. Duh.

Amandla: A revolution in 4-part harmony [2002]

Director: Lee Hirsch


A documentary collection of interviews, archival footage, and filmed performances highlight the role of music in the South African struggle against apartheid. I bought this DVD twice, because I lost my first copy. As a massive music lover and an eternal student of racial formations and resistance to racial formations, this documentary is one of my favourite cinematic products. I guess for those of us who were alive in the 80s, the music of the anti-apartheid struggle was really the soundtrack of our lives. The final scene in 1994 celebrating the election of Nelson Mandela as first black president of South Africa was so emotional for me, I could not speak for a while.


Have You Heard From Johannesburg [2010]

Director: Connie Field


A 5 or 7 part (depending on which copy you get) documentary series exploring how a violent and racist government was destroyed by the concerted efforts of men and women working on multiple fronts inside and outside South Africa for more about 45 years. To me this is the definitive documentary about the international anti-apartheid struggle and I wish every human being on this earth would watch it. A significant contribution of this documentary is that it tells of the important role played by Oliver Tambo. He literally gave his life to the anti-apartheid struggle. The documentary also shows the lethargy of non-African governments in the face of the obvious violence of the apartheid government. It also illustrates how the back of legitimate apartheid was broken by little drops of financial abstinence that became a flood. Nevertheless, I think that is part of the weakness in our resistances, they often do not come with an overwhelming and universal acknowledgement of the evil of oppression as well as a change of course. So the evil just changes form. (I have written about that.)


The Power of One [1992]

Director: John G. Avildsen


An admittedly watered down cinematic version of the book of the same name by Bryce Courtenay. We follow some of the early years of PK, an English boy, living in South Africa during World War II, who through his boxing prowess, is co-opted as a symbol of hope. I would watch and recommend it for the burial scene alone. If you have watched it, you know exactly what I mean. Floods of tears. The music is good too. I think you should really read the book and its [not as good as the original] sequel, Tandia.


Loving [2016]

Director: Jeff Nichols


This movie tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple whose arrest for interracial marriage in 1960s Virginia began a legal battle that would end with the Supreme Court’s historic 1967 decision. I have also written about this film before. I was really impressed by the acting and how it depicts the personal becoming political and how politics becomes very personal for the Lovings.


A United Kingdom [2016]

Director: Amma Asante

Rosamund Pike & David Oyelowo

In this film we are told the true story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana (then Bechuanaland – a British protectorate) and how him falling in love and marrying a British white woman, Ruth Williams, upset the British and the South African governments who put his kingdom into political and diplomatic turmoil. This film explores similar themes to Loving (above) and I comment on the parallels between the two in a previous post.


Palm Trees in the Snow [2015]

Director: Fernando González Molina

Palmeras en la Nieve (2015)

After the death of her father, a young Spanish woman discovers a partial letter, that hints at some family secrets. As she searches for the answers, she embarks on a journey that takes her back to Bioko (Fernando Po), back to a colonial plantation that her family used to work on, and family secrets begin to unravel. When I reviewed this movie earlier, I mentioned how stunningly beautiful the cinematography is and how melodramatic the story. But I think the true value of Palm Trees is that it gives us an opportunity to revisit an era that we think we know, and in our revisiting question how our gaze sometimes skips over the detail to focus on the décor.


Selma [2014]

Director: Ava DuVernay


This movie is a snapshot of a very brief period in an icon’s life. It chronicles a three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. This film illustrates how socially constructed racial lines are maintained by law and how race is changed to in reaction to the racial conflicts that arise therefrom. Especially riveting is the theme song ‘Glory’. Not surprising that Legend and Common won the Oscar for it. Selma is important viewing in this moment not just because it tells of a moment of vital history, but it also shows us that freedom is an eternal battle, as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has now been severely gutted. One day, the glory will come and be ours.


The Thirteenth [2016]

Director: Ava DuVernay


25% of the global prison population is in the U.S.A. But the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s population. The documentary takes its title from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which freed the enslaved population and prohibited slavery… with one important exception…the exception of slavery as punishment for a crime. It is Ava DuVernay’s intention in this documentary to show  how the practices and conclusions of slavery are maintained through the prison industrial complex despite the formalised and apparent prohibition of slavery. The message of the Thirteenth for law, race and social change is powerful. Sometimes what is call progress, is just the devil changing his face.


Country of My Skull [2004]

Director:  John Boorman

Juliette Binoche and Samuel L Jackson

Also called In My Country, this movie is based on the 1998 non-fictional book of the same name by Antjie Krog. The book is mainly about the findings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The movie dramatises the process of the TRC bringing together a white South African woman, black South African man and an African American man, all covering the proceedings of the TRC. The movie using their coverage of proceedings to explore the various impacts that apartheid and racism has had on these characters and how they have responded. And the effect of their responses. The private lives of the characters tend to take centre stage and push the TRC a bit to the background. But the many many testimonies taken from the actual TRC proceedings which I watched on CNN illustrate why the TRC was an important process, which should be explored more. (Another movie based on the TRC which I also recommend is Red Dust [2004].)


Half of a Yellow Sun [2013]

Director: Biyi Bandele

Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor

This is another one which I have reviewed before. It is based on the novel of the same name written by Chimamanda Adichie. The film departs from the sequence of the book, but tells essentially the same story of how two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, experience the Nigerian  Civil War. By starting with the Independence celebrations, including non-Nigerian characters and exploring the academic debates of the Nigerian lecturers, the film places the stories of both the Civil War and the sisters within the larger global context that includes Empire, international interference and international inaction.


Roots [1977]

Roots [2016]

You can read my review of Roots [2016] here. Both miniseries are more or less the same story. They are both based on the same book Roots by Alex Haley. Roots follows Kunta Kinte from his home in Juffreh, Africa (present day Gambia), where he is kidnapped and sold into slavery and transported to America. The miniseries follows the lives of his descendants as they pass the story of Kunta Kinte down the line. The story survives slavery, as do they… eventually. I read Roots when I was 8 years old. And I don’t think the horror of it, and the horror on learning that it was based in fact will ever leave me. An additional recommendation: I suggest you watch Roots: The Next Generations [1979]. It is not as popular as the original, but I think it is quite a good watch.


Detroit [2017]*

Director: Kathryn Bigelow


I have written about Detroit (a Fanonian reading) in a different post. The movie is a fact-based drama set in 1967 Detroit, during one of the rebellions of the era. The focus of the movie is the events at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25–26, 1967. On that night, armed officers from various units enter the motel and, at the very least, interrogate 12 people, 2 white women and 10 young Black men. By the end of the night, 3 of those Black men are dead and the rest severely traumatised and/or injured. 3 members of the Detroit Police Department and a private security guard were charged with their murders. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. The movie is very emotionally affecting and stark and it shows us how far we have not come. Please watch it.


Amistad [1997]*

Director: Steven Spielberg


My mother reminded me of this movie. We watched it together a few years after it came out. It is based on a true story – though it apparently departs quite a lot from the source material. The plot of the film surrounds events in 1839.  A ship, La Amistad, was being used to during to transport kidnapped Mende people to be sold. The kidnapped population aboard La Amistad were able to gain control of their captors’ ship off the coast of Cuba. An international legal battle followed their capture by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841. This film is an eloquent illustration about the necessity of the law to the process of racialisation. The central question of the actual case was not freedom – as the film benevolently claims – but a question of classification of human beings by geography. The film’s plot highlights the conflation that many engage in between ‘the slave trade’ and slavery. At the time the movie is set in, the trade had been abolished, but not the practice of slavery. If the Mende had been kidnapped from Africa, then they were free. If they had not been, then they were not free. Thus the actual court case was not concerned with freedom at all. The case was concerned with the normativity of how certain bodies occupy certain spaces, how the legal meaning given to bodies give legal meaning to the labour produced by those bodies and and how that labour helps accumulate/maintain capital. This is not about freedom. And in the matter of La Amistad, the law is not innocent.


Death is Part of the Process [1986]

Director: Bill Hays


This one is extra special to me. Based on the novel of the same name written by Hilda Bernstein, the movie follows the struggles of white anti-apartheid intellectuals and their black activist friends in the apartheid of South Africa during the 1960s. Indres joins a group of dissidents while at University. They initially work for peaceful change, but deciding more force is needed, start a bombing campaign, unaware that they are under surveillance by Special Branch. The group of dissidents are picked up by the Special Branch under the ‘Ninety Day Act‘ and realise that one of them is leaking information. [I put in a special request to Box of Broadcasts and both parts of the movie are now available on that platform. Part 1. Part 2]*

In terms of law, race and resistance the book and movie engage with the beginning of armed struggle against the South African apartheid (racist) state. Bernstein’s narrative explores the early actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and through the story-telling illustrates the fact that revolutionaries are never perfect people. Some are deeply flawed. Some have romanticised the ‘struggle.’ There will be bad allies. There will be uncommitted allies. There will be false allies. There will be those who turn back. There will be those whose self-interest will win out over the ideal of freedom for all. And ultimately there will be those for whom death will be part of the process.


Let me know what you think about the list, what you think about the ones you have watched, and any suggestions for additions.


*Post-publication Additions

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