Five shows and films on Netflix that will teach you about institutional racism in America

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With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more and more momentum around the world, it’s more important than ever to educate ourselves. For anyone who hasn’t experienced the struggle first hand, it’s a time to listen and learn, and surprisingly enough, Netflix is a great place to start.


This documentary by Ava DuVernay is nothing less than essential viewing. If you thought slavery ended with the introduction of the 13th Amendment, think again. As this film aptly explains through the voices of intellectuals and activists, there’s a clause in this constitutional declaration that undermines a citizen’s right to liberty. According to the amendment, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in the US, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. In other words, law enforcement in America hinges on a loop in the legal system: once a criminal, a black person can still be stripped of their freedom and dignity.

When They See Us

There’s no better example of these fundamental failings in the legal system than another of DuVernay’s works, this time a dramatisation of real, tragic events. In this harrowing series, the director takes us through the notorious Central Park Jogger case, in which five black and Latino boys were coerced into pleading guilty and made to serve sentences of five to fifteen years. These teenagers were later proven innocent, but as the followup interview, Oprah Winfrey: When They See Us Now shows, the damage has already been done.

Dear White People

A lighter but equally enlightening exploration of racism in America today comes in the form of sharp satirical comedy Dear White People. Justin Simien’s show follows a central cast predominantly made up of people of colour around the predominantly white Winchester University as they make a stand against the smiling, smartly dressed, modern-day face of racism. From run-ins with campus police and black-face parties to the subtler shades of prejudice, this comedy tackles white ignorance and privilege, shining a light on the many forms of discrimination still prevalent in society today.


Even Michelle Obama was told she wasn’t “Princeton material”. Her 2018 autobiography, Becoming, traces her path to success, her ambitions and relationships, all the while tackling the double-edged discrimination faced by a woman of colour. It also highlights how the lawyer-turned-first-lady managed to find her own voice and fulfil her own vision whilst living with the president. Nadia Hallren’s Netflix documentary of the same name takes us behind the scenes on Michelle Obama’s book tour, giving us even more insight into her inspirational story.

Orange is the New Black

For many black women in America, the trajectory is not so positive. Acclaimed comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black, based on a memoir, takes us into a female federal prison and allows some of these persecuted women to tell their stories. The show flashes back into the inmates’ pasts and though it depicts fictionalised characters, the examples of mass incarceration, police brutality and the terrible treatment of black transgender women are tragically all too real.

Rosamund Kelby


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