Documentary + Social Justice



The Recall: Reframed key art (abstract graphic of chart). The film's central question: how to increase justice for sexual violence survivors without contributing to a racist criminal justice system, is at the heart of a 4-part collaborative journalistic series im the Boston Globe.

Central Question of doc The Recall: Reframed Explored in Four-Part Collaborative Series

  • 7 months ago

The quandary at the heart of The Recall: Reframed (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 26 mins, SDFF 2023) is at the center of a four-part collaborative series…

Mimi Chakarova's new feature, The Apology, examines racist 60s Era Bay Area relocation policy & reparations. The doc has spurred the Alameda Board of Supervisors to pass an official apology, which recognizes their role in the racist destruction of this community.

New Doc on Racist Forced Relocation In Bay Area Helps Spur Action & Official Apology

  • 7 months ago

The Apology (Mimi Chakarova), an upcoming doc about the forced relocation of Russell City, a majority Black and Brown community in the 1960s Bay Area,…

Docs + Social Justice: Focus on Race + Representation

A mode of representation defined by its relationship to reality, documentary has a troubled history in connection with race and racism. It is a genre that for a number of reasons is tightly bound-up with science, and developed alongside, and as evidence for, racial pseudo-science. From the motion studies of Félix-Louis Regnault to the commercial ethnography of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, the first documentaries were tethered to racial pseudo-science and early, racist forms of ethnography that were used to bolster and justify the colonial project. At the same time, documentary films have also long been concerned with progressive social values, and are frequently used as a way to explore or uncover the truth of a problem in hopes of spurring political action and/or changing its audience’s perceptions. In the present day, the online archive of documentary evidence of videos of young, black men being murdered by police perform a function that is completely antithetical to the racist purposes of early documentary, while at the same time functioning as evidence, as an inscription of reality that defines this genre of media-making.

Our news page has always attended to the impact SDFF films and filmmakers have had on the world. But at this pivotal time in which image-making, identity, ideas about truth and their relationships to reality are crucial, we have decided to add a page focused on the relationship between documentary media and social justice. You can find it below, and it includes the following:

  • News related to our docs that focus on race and/or social justice
  • Anti-Racist Media Resources
  • Monthly Media Recommendations:
    • Film Selections, including links where available.
    • Film Columns + Media Criticism
  • Documentary Recommendations
  • Growing Reading Lists on a range of topic
  • Links to a curated list of recent criticism about racism, police violence and the media.
  • Relevant film reviews


We stand in solidarity with the efforts of Black Lives Matter and those putting their well-being on the line to halt police violence and the white supremacy that abets it. As part of an industry principally concerned with truth and representation, one that helps shape how people see and understand the world, our support cannot end with a solidarity statement, when it could extend to a greater and more sustained attentiveness to white supremacy and its impacts on the artform to which most of us have dedicated our lives.   

 In the spirit of our festival, and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and those protesting police violence and the manifold forms of white supremacy that enabled and perpetuated that violence, we would like recommend a list of documentaries and critical media resources that we hope will help people meet the moment and understand how best to move forward. While expansive, the resources listed below are by no means a full accounting of good documentary and/or critical media work on racism. They are an initial foray in what will be an ongoing effort to engage more deeply and critically with the issues we care about and the movies that we love.


In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, particularly in regard to excessive and discriminatory policing, SDFF would like to recommend a list of films we hope will help give historical and social context, emotional depth and new perspectives on the structural racism, its violent expression through policing, and the systematic limitations it puts on the lives of people of color, black people in particular.

While some of these films may have been made by filmmakers who have shown work at SDFF, we aren’t generating revenue from these films, and have no connection to the digital outlets on which they are shown. We are doing this solely to help our audience better understand the historical moment in which we find ourselves.



Countering American History’s Racist Amnesia, and Rendering Black History Visible Through Public Space

In the time since protests over George Floyd’s murder began, public debates about monuments to racism in the U.S. have become increasingly prevalent. Anti-racist activists have called for the removal of statues of confederate and other slave-owning or racist figures from public space, arguing that they are uncritical reminders of the country’s racist history that ultimately celebrate white supremacy and denigrate black citizens. On the other hand, President Trump, has issued an executive order calling on federal law enforcement to violently protect statues and federal property. This E.O. was among the president’s justifications for deploying federal agents into American cities to shut-down anti-racist protests. without the consent of local and state-wide leaders.

Almost Famous: The Lost Astronaut (Ben Proudfoot, 2019) is a short film that renders systemic and spectacular forms of racism visible and examines how they shape the life of black astronaut Ed Dwight Junior in a historic context. The film tells the story of Ed Dwight Jr. the astronaut who should have been the first black man on the moon. Dwight Jr.’s astronaut story  is emblematic of the both systemic racism and personal bigotry, which combined to keep him grounded despite excelling in virtually every relevant field. When NASA made this decision, Ed had already completed the gauntlet required for astronauts, an extraordinarily taxing regimen, the difficulty of which was compounded by openly hostile racism. After resigning from the Air Force, Dwight would become a successful entrepreneur, an engineer, and, eventually, a vaunted artist and sculptor.

Brown’s art career began with a commission from the first black lieutenant governor in Colorado, George L. Brown. Dwight would become a prolific sculptor whose work emphasized the history and experience of Black Americans. Each of his pieces involves black folks and civil rights activists, with a focus on the themes of slavery, emancipation, and post-reconstruction. His series Black Frontier in the American West and Jazz: An American Art Form are emblematic of his work, and as publicly-commissioned projects memorialize some of the contributions black Americans have made, which are frequently obfuscated and rendered invisible by the plethora of sculptures dedicated to Confederate and other racist figures from American history. This concept is also born out formally, as Dwight is noted for his innovative use of negative space in sculpting. As of 2019, Dwight had created 129 memorial sculptures and pieces of pubic art and 18,o00 gallery pieces. Most of these remain in public space, but some are housed in Ed Dwight Studios, which is open to the public.

The short film about Dwight, Almost Famous: The Lost Astronaut, exists online as part of a NY Times Op-Doc and Learning Network short film. It was made by SDFF alum Ben Proudfoot, and is a powerful and visually-striking short film for people of all ages. The film brings together a number of issues that have finally become subjects of mainstream public and political discourse.  The Learning Network Film Club version, which includes educational material is a great choice for families with children. Proudfoot and Breakwater Studios, which crafted this biographical short, is also responsible for Webby winner and SDFF2020/Docs Make House Calls short film, That’s My Jazzabout world renowned pastry chef Milt Abel II, as he  reflects on his relationship with his deceased father Milton Abel Sr., a famed Kansas City Jazz musician.

#Anti-RacistMonuments, #RacistMemorials, #RacistMonuments, #BlackHistory, #SystemicRacism, #AestheticsAndPolitics, #OccupyingSpace, #BlackHistoryMonuments, #BlackHistoryMemorials, #RacismInPublicSphere

4 Little Girls – Systemic and Spectacular Violence, Self-Representation & the Struggle Against White Supremacy and Racist Terror

Focused on the Sept. 1963 racist murder of 4 young girls by the KKK when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, 4 Little Girls tracks the ways in which systemic racism, routine and spectacular violence, and mass media have cyclically combined and recombined from the advent of the Civil Rights movement and into the present day. The film contextualizes the murders of Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denis McNair (11) not only within an ongoing cycle of white supremacist terror, but also as a pivotal moment that helped propel the Civil Rights movement forward. The murder of these 4 children provoked widespread public outrage, which intensified when national media, which had come to Birmingham to cover the bombing, also captured violent police tactics used on peaceful protestors being led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the wake of the funeral. The film positions national events that culminate in the 1964 Civil Rights Act alongside the conviction of KKK member Robert Edward Chambliss for the bombings, while also considering the persistence of church bombings and the terrorization of black people into 1997, the year the film was released.

The film emphasizes elements of both systemic and exceptional racism that have only been amplified in the years since its release. These include: the pervasiveness and multiple valences of black death and suffering in popular culture as a pretext for white empathy and political mobilization; the savvy use of medias (from mass to social) in constructing the imagined community of a national movement with widespread public support; the law and legal system’s failure to protect the rights of black Americans in an inherently racist system of governance. The film also hints at the muddy distinction between the police tasked with protecting white property and interests, and the extra-judicial violence of white terrorist groups like the KKK.

4 Little Girls, and the events depicted, inform the present moment in a number of ways. The film coalesces around a spectacular instance of horrific racist violence—the church bombing and child murders—and positions it as part of a cycle that continues into the present in myriad, and continually developing, forms. As the film was being produced in the 1990s, a series of bombings were once again being used to terrorize black Americans. The years between 1991-2000 saw more than 35 different bombings of African American churches—an enormous jump from the prior two decades, which had under 10 church bombings combined. In the film, church bombings are presented as spectacular or heightened outbursts that may seem exceptional, but are actually part of routine cycles of systemic of racism that also include police violence. While one of this film’s most compelling focal points is the relationship between visibility, mediation and socio-political change, it was produced in a time before cell phone cameras, social media and the other tenets of the current media environment engendered a proliferation of easily available visual evidence of police violence that rendered routine racist violence visible to a much wider swath of the population as a whole. “Exceptional” moments of racist violence, it turns out, were only exceptional insofar as they had not been made visible in the same way as apparent outlier events like church bombings. While this turn is relatively recent, Black Lives Matter and other similar racial justice groups can be seen in a continuum with the Civil Rights movement, not only as obvious extensions of the movement’s goals and values, but in their tactics and use of media representation.

One of the many reasons for giving 4 Little Girls a second (or third) look is its self-aware participation in a continuum of self-representation and media presentation, which is simultaneously part of a macro-political project and one of identity formation and self-understanding that is both personal and political. Lee’s fiction films are at least as remarkable for groundbreaking aesthetics and experimental storytelling as they are for their focus on the lives of black people, and their unflinching depictions of how racism operates on multiple levels simultaneously. While 4 Little Girls, like most of Lee’s documentary work, isn’t as formally experimental and conforms to a fairly routine documentary structure, it is also self-reflexive and participates in the history of political self-representation it seeks to depict. The Civil Rights demonstrations recollected in 4 Little Girls were organized with an understanding of the power of media. And, while the mass media of the 1960s was almost exclusively controlled by white people, Civil Rights activists were already sophisticated media critics and understood the ways in which they could use television’s emphasis on visual spectacle to show the violent repression faced by Black Americans. They understood the conditions of representation and planned protests that rendered the struggle in which they were engaged visible within those conditions. Although Lee’s 4 Little Girls is a clear divergence from Civil Rights-era representational tactics, particularly insofar as Lee’s work is a form of black self-representation, it can be positioned along this continuum. The same can be said of Black Lives Matter’s use of social media, demonstrations and more conventional forms of representation in the current media environment. 4 Little Girls is, in some respects, instructive because it seems to have caused real world change, but in a very limited way. The FBI reopened the Birmingham bombing case in 1997, and two bombers Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were arrested and convicted. Without diminishing the importance of bringing the law to bear on the men, their conviction remains an outlier, and may, in some sense, suggest the limits of what a single work of media can achieve. At the same time, the film became part of a growing archive of visual evidence that helps contextualizes the almost unfathomable cache of images of police violence against black folks that has accumulated and then been spread and kept present by activists over the past several years.

It has now been over 20 years since Lee crafted 4 Little Girls, almost 60 since the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and child murders, and the Civil Rights movement that would follow in its wake. And, the function of documentary within the current media environment is nebulous. The genre has been used to describe such a wide swath of unscripted media that it has almost lost its meaning, an issue that is exacerbated by the ways in which internet media platforms tend to present widely variegated forms of media in a singular way: as content. This is both the problem and the promise of the current media milieu. The same mechanisms that have facilitated the circulation of videos of police violence are also those used to circulate hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Further, documentary is increasingly a term used to confer legitimacy on online content/projects that have none, and to suggest objectivity or scientific methodology in research to works of polemic and/or conspiracy theories. At the same time, the genre continues to perform extremely important work—films like 4 Little Girls or Ava DuVarney’s The 13th are exemplary of the ways in which documentaries can make dramatic headway in educating people, and also work to build counter-histories to the white-washed versions most Americans receive in school. Documentaries are encountered as one mode of media representation among many others, including social media, which has allowed self-representation to thrive in diverse and variegated ways. That explosion of representation, of self-documenting, is also the result of a proliferation of visual culture on an unprecedented scale, with every cell phone owner in the country essentially carrying a mini-film studio around in their pocket. The use and value of documentary in this new media environment remains to be seen, but the importance of self-representation to social awareness and the emergence and growth of new political movements is crystal clear.

Years of video capturing police violence against black people have culminated in an unspeakably sad and enraging archive. Taken as a whole, this footage has created a collective public memory of violence and repression that is continually present, and hopefully unavoidable. It has so far led to a vastly expanded discussion of racism, white supremacy and policing, but we have yet to see what material changes this expanded discourse will have on the lives of black Americans.

[1] From Wikipedia’s List of attacks against African American churches. Very notably, there is another lull in the early 2000s, before another explosion of around 10 bombings from 2011-present.

#CivilRightsDocs, #BlackAuteurs, #SpikeLeeDocs, #SpikeLee, #BaptistChurchBombing, #Self-Representation, #SystemicRacism, #PoliceViolence


Representations of Violence in a White Supremacist Culture

A Decade Of Watching Black People Die.” Code Switch/NPR. May 31, 2020 (written and podcast)

The Double Standard of the American Riot.” The Atlantic. June 1, 2020.}

“In Minneapolis, the Shocking Arrest of the Journalist Omar Jimenez Live on CNN.” The New Yorker. Doreen St. Félix. May 29, 2020.

Videos of Police Killings Are Numbing Us to the Spectacle of Black Death.” New Republic, Jamil Hill. April 13, 2015.

“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible.” Knapsack Peggy McIntosh. Racial Equality

“White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism.” Paula S. Rothenberg. William Paterson University of New Jersey. Worth Publishers, 2002.

Why cellphone videos of black people’s deaths should be considered sacred, like lynching photographs.” The Conversation. Allisa V. Richardson, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Annenberg School at USC.

#EducateYourself, #RacistSpecularEconomym #WhitePrivilege, #PoliticsOfBlackDeath, #MediatingBlackDeath, #Spectacular racism, #SystemicRacism, #ExceptionalRacism, #NewMediaAndPoliceViolence


Black Artists For Freedom Artists’ Statement – “Our Juneteenth.”
Statement from black workers in the culture industry calling for change, with a list of material actions for white media producers and consumers, placing employment conditions for black workers in the present within the larger spectrum of labor history for black people in this country, from slavery to slave-like conditions.

Mamoudou N’Diaye’s “Navigating Hollywood’s Creative Police State.” From June 11, 2020 in New York Magazine’s Vulcher.  A brilliant first-hand account of this black writer/comedian’s experience of various culture industries.

#ImagineBlackFreedom, #HollywoodRacism, #MediaRacism, Juneteenth, #BlackCultureIndustry, #BlackMakers, #

Featured Image from Strange Tenants: Ska’d For Life (Fiona Cochrane, 2019).


Race + Racism in the U.S.

3½ MINUTES, TEN BULLETS. Marc Silver. 2015. 

Examines Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law through the murder of black teenager Jordan Davis in 2012.

4 LITTLE GIRLS.  Spike Lee. 1997.

An historical documentary that examines the September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls (Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson) in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

THE 13th. Ava DuVarnay. 2016. 

An exploration of the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on a prison system disproportionately filled with African-Americans, the film looks at the way the 13th amendment abetted a transitioned the country from a dependence on slavery to prison labor. 

16 SHOTS.  Richard Rowley. 2019.  

Examines 2014 murder of 17 year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, and the ensuing cover-up, which was brought to light after community protests and demands for justice.

This short film by Ben Proudfoot taels the story of black astronaut Ed Dwight Jr. Junior had already completed the gauntlet required for astronauts, an extraordinarily taxing regimen, when he was suddenly dropped from NASA’s rolls. During his training, Junior experienced a mix of systemic racism and overt, hateful bigotry. After resigning from the Air Force, Dwight would become a successful entrepreneur, an engineer, and, eventually, a vaunted artist and sculptor whose projects memorialized Black History and rendered it legible in American public space.

BALTIMORE RISING. Sonja Sohn. 2017.
Activists, police officers, community leaders and gang affiliates struggle to hold Baltimore together in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

THE BARBER OF BIRMINGHAM. Gail Dolgin & Robin Fryday. 2011. Short.
Tells the story of James Armstrong, a WWII vet and original flag bearer for the 1965 Selma Montgomery marches, who ran a voter education program out of his barber shop for over 50 years.

THE BLACK LIST: INTIMATE PORTRAITS OF BLACK AMERICA. Volumes 1-3. Timothy Greenfield Sanders. 2008

A companion to The Black List photography exhibit, still available through the National Portrait Gallery. The film is comprised of “living portraits” of a diverse swath of Black leaders, redefining traditional notions of a black list.


First feature-length doc to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people & the painful lessons wrought by its dissolution. Full film available on PBS Independent Lens.

BLACK PANTHERS. Agnès Varda. 1968.

A short doc shot in 1967 Oakland as protests began over Huey P. Newton’s arrest for the murder of John Frey. 

THE CENTRAL PARK 5. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon. 2012.

Examines the tragic wrongful conviction of 5 teenagers for the rape of a woman in Central Park in 1989. The young boys spent 13 years in prison for the crime, which was later confessed to by a serial rapist. 

DARE NOT WALK ALONE. Jeremy Dean. 2006.

Tracks the aftermath of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, FL, a site of prolonged interracial tension and noteworthy protests by the NAACP and SCLC, including one over the integration of the Monson Motor Lodge swimming pool, which immediately preceded, and influenced, the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.


Chronicles Victoria Cruz’s investigation of the mysterious 1992 death of black, gay civil rights activist and Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson.

EYES ON THE PRIZE. Created by Henry Hampton/Blackside, multiple directors. 2006.

Two-part, 14-hour documentary series on Civil Rights Movement, comprised of archival footage and interviews with activists and opponents of desegregation and civil rights. 

FREEDOM RIDERS. Stanley Nelson 2010.

Firelight Media/PBS American Experience. A chronicle of Freedom Riders, a group of 100s of activists who challenged segregation on American transportation and restrooms, and traveled on interstate small interracial groups across the southern states in the early 1960s. 

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Dir. Raoul Peck. 2016.

Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, this film explores the history of racism in the U.S. told through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his own observations on American History. Narratted by Samuel L. Jackson.

THE INTERRUPTERS. Steve James, Prod. Kartemquin. 2012

Follows three “Violence Interrupters” in Chicago, who place themselves in the line of fire to protect their communities, and presents their inspired journeys of struggle and redemption.  Free on PBS Frontline.

KING IN THE WILDERNESS. Peter Kunhardt. 2018.

A chronicle of the final chapters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, revealing a conflicted leader who faced an onslaught of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.

L.A. ’92. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. 2017.

A chronicle of the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings comprised entirely of archival footage, giving broad historical and political context for the events that transpired.

LET IT FALL: 1982-1992 LOS ANGELES. John Ridley. 2017.  

An in-depth look at the culture of Los Angeles in the ten years leading up to the 1992 uprising that erupted after the verdict of police officers cleared of beating Rodney King.

MORE THAN A MONTH. Shukree Hassan 2012.

PBS Independent Lens. A 29 year-old Black filmmaker travels across the country, stopping in various cities to solicit signatures to end the relegation of black history to a single month of the year. 

NEGROES WITH GUNS: ROB WILLIAMS AND BLACK POWER. Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts. 2004.

The life story of activist/author Robert F. Williams, his role in the US civil rights movement, his exiles to Cuba and China, and his return from China. It also contains witness testimonies of many of the events described in Williams’ 1962 book Negroes with Guns.

A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN. Marshall Curry. 2017

This is a 2017 short documentary film about a 1939 Nazi rally that filled Madison Square Garden in New York City. The film was directed by Marshall Curry from footage found by archival producer Rich Remsberg. The seven-minute film is composed entirely of archival footage and features a speech from Fritz Julius Kuhn, the leader of the German American Bund, in which anti-Semitic and pro white-Christian sentiments are espoused. This film uncovered a history of ongoing prejudice in this country that had remained hidden since the second world war.

PARIS IS BURNING, Jennie Livingston, 1990

Chronicles NYC ball culture of the 80s, which were spectacular competitions in drag and gender performance by gay and transgender folks of color during the height of the AIDS crisis. This subculture has received increased visibility over the past 5 years as drag has been popularized across pop culture, including the fictionalized, historical drama, Pose. While this film has long been a staple for queer youth, as they leave the closet behind, it has also come under fire (along with Pose) because it is a film about a community of color made almost entirely by white people. This critique, notably, persists across documentary filmmaking, which has historically put communities of color in front of the camera instead of allocating resources to people of color to allow for self-representation. This is an issue we hope to continue to highlight and reflect on as we make choices for future festivals.

REVOLUTION ’67. Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno, 2007.
Non-violence of 60s giving way to uprisings of 1967 across U.S. Part of PBS POV America Reframed series, A multi-part documentary focusing on a six-day Newark uprising on July 12, 1967 which reveals how the disturbance began as spontaneous revolts against poverty and police brutality and ended as fateful milestones in America’s struggles over race and economic justice. Watch for PBS screenings, website full of resources.

RIZE. David LaChapelle, 2005.

Rize chronicles a dance movement that rises out of South Central Los Angeles with roots in clowning and street youth culture.


An investigation into what happened to activist Sandra Bland, who died in police custody after a routine traffic stop. 

SCOTTSBORO: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. By Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman. 2000.

The history of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of African American men who were victims of a racist miscarriage of justice that became a national controversy. 

SOUNDTRACK FOR A REVOLUTION. By Biull Guttentag and Dan Sturman. 2009.

About Civil Rights Movement, told through music. the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music – the freedom songs protesters sang on picket lines, in mass meetings, and in jail cells as they fought for justice and equality.

STRANGER FRUIT. Jason Pollock. 2018.

Stranger Fruit is the unraveling of the afternoon Officer Darren Wilson killed 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, told through the eyes of Mike Brown’s family. 

STREET FIGHT. Marshall Curry. 2005.

On Cory Booker’s campaign to unseat the incumbent mayor of Newark and police mobilization/campaign against him.** Add Night At the Garden? This documentary follows the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, New Jersey in which a City Councilman, Cory Booker, attempted to unseat longtime mayor Sharpe James.

THE WATERMELON WOMAN, Cheryl Dunye, 1996

This 1996 rom-com/drama, which was also pivotal to the development of New Queer Cinema, is a documentary about historical elisions, about the erasure of black women and men from histories of Classical Hollywood Cinema. The documentary work performed by this film is as meta-commentary on existing films, which requires an imagined history and a bit of fiction. This is a particularly key work for those interested in how identity is forged through representation, and the ways in which various, often intersectional, identities were sometimes hidden and have been omitted from history.


Four-Part Documentary Series. An examination of the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

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