This is a time of heightened and collective awakening. In response to the George Floyd murder, numerous other atrocities, and public outcries for change, universities have been called upon to respond. Specifically, instructors are encouraged to enhance attention to diversity in their courses and facilitate discussions about racism and social justice. Students are seeking opportunities to engage in these conversations, and many are disappointed when space is not created for these discussions.
Some educators are better equipped to facilitate these conversations than others. But these efforts cannot be limited to specific courses; instead, they require deliberate integration throughout the curriculum. Therefore, instructors are searching for strategies and pedagogical tools to enrich their courses’ contributions to combating racism and injustice. Several websites provide antiracism resources to assist in these endeavors (e.g., the University of Michigan, Cornell, Harvard). These sites often suggest movies as a useful tool for raising awareness and cultivating discussions. The movies recommended on these websites and used in this article are relatively recent, popular US films that focus on the Black experience.
These movies are a beneficial tool for discussion because they provide audiovisual scenarios of racism and social injustice. The audiovisual component is important because students are often engaged in audiovisual media (Tejeda, 2008). Using films as a teaching tool plays to a strength of students due to their familiarity with this medium. Following a review of the literature, Tejeda (2008) concludes that movies increase students’ class participation, engagement in discussions, and interest in learning.
Elfenbein (2015) observes that despite numerous calls for more “race-talk” in the classroom, many instructors avoid these discussions due to their perceived risk. She posits that a more significant risk is continuing to sidestep a topic that demands attention. Watching and discussing movies about race can be challenging. Scenarios of racism and injustice may be reminiscent of events that some viewers have actually experienced. When managed well, conversations prompted by these films allow individuals to give voice to their experiences, bringing firsthand examples to the discussions. These movies enable other viewers to develop an understanding and awareness of life events they may not encounter otherwise. Conversations stimulated by films can achieve both objectives of “giving voice” and deepening understanding. As Nittoli and Guiffrida (2018) attest, movies can facilitate “the difficult, yet essential conversations about race, culture, privilege, and power” (p. 355) and enrich students’ multicultural awareness. Instructors can equip themselves for these discussions by reviewing resources (e.g., Michigan State’s) for difficult dialogues in the classroom.
After deciding that a movie project will be a meaningful course assignment, educators need to address a few additional issues to enhance this learning opportunity’s effectiveness.
Below is a list of eight possible movies to use for this assignment. We have selected these films because they are relatively recent, highly rated, based on actual events, and clearly present incidences of racism and social injustice. Instructors can review antiracism resource websites, such as those cited above, for other excellent films as potential alternatives.
Two of these films (13th and Do Not Resist) are documentaries, while the others are narrative films. Each movie title is hyperlinked to its RottenTomatoes.com page, where individuals can access a synopsis of the film, read critics’ reviews, and watch trailers. The page also notes the streaming platform where the movie is available (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime). Instructors can also use films that are viewable through the university library or on YouTube so students can view a movie at no cost.
One option is to select a film for the entire class to watch that will best achieve the classroom conversation’s objectives. A majority vote by students could also determine the chosen movie. Using a single film has the benefit of stimulating a discussion around a compelling and shared experience. For in-person classes, it may be possible to arrange an outside-of-class screening time to create a collective viewing experience. Students in online courses can watch the movie independently in preparation for the class discussion.
Another option is to allow each student to choose from a limited selection of movies. For example, in a class of 24 students, each person selects one of four movie options with a maximum of six students allotted per film. A lottery system or randomization are other possible assignment methods. Using multiple movies as conversation partners allows students to learn about the impact that various films had on their peers.
Students benefit when given specific guidelines about the kinds of issues to identify while watching a film. It is helpful for them to review these items in advance and take notes during the movie. Here are some possible guidelines:
Beyond the power of watching one of these films and attending to the items above, allowing students to reflect on their viewing experience maximizes the assignment’s impact (Nittoli & Guiffrida, 2018). A starting point is for students to engage in small group discussions of four to six participants. If everyone watched the same film, you can form groups by random assignment. If students viewed different films, you can cluster the groups by the movie watched. We recommend giving students up to five minutes each to share their reflections of the film with their group members, using the items above to guide them. It is not possible to cover all these issues during that time, nor is it desirable to do so. Instead, students can focus on the topics that they found most meaningful. We suggest allocating about 30 minutes for these small group discussions.
Each group should identify a spokesperson who will share four to five summary points from the group’s conversation with the entire class. These reports can highlight the impact that the movie had on the group members. Instructors should plan for up to five minutes for each of these reports. Nittoli and Guiffrida (2018) found that when discussions occur only in small groups, students comment that they miss out on the other conversations. Including both small group sharing and a “reporting out” to the whole class addresses this concern.
In addition, it is ideal for students to have the opportunity to explore the impact of these films in writing. Students sometimes reveal insights or experiences in writing that they do not share in class discussions. The guidelines listed above can be used to shape the framework for a reflection paper. If time does not permit conversations about these films in class, a reflection paper alone may be an option. But we recommend giving students some opportunity to discuss their viewing experience with their peers.
Nittoli and Guiffrida (2018) suggest that students already have familiarity with the instructor and other students before engaging in conversations such as those that can emerge when discussing these movies. It is also recommended that students engage in other experiential class activities with less evocative topics before the film project. Therefore, opportunities to develop rapport and gain experience with difficult dialogues should occur in the course prior to conversations about these movies.
Elfenbein, M. (September 17, 2015). Learning to talk race in the classroom. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/learning-talk-race-classroom
Nittoli, J. M. & Guiffrida, D. A. (2018). Using popular film to teach multicultural counseling: A constructivist approach. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 13(3), 344–357. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401383.2017.1340216
Tejeda, M. J. (2008). A resource review for diversity film media. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 7(3), 434–440. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2008.37029279
Dennis Lowe, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, where he has received two teaching awards. He occupies the M. Norvel and Helen Young Endowed Chair in Family Life.
Taylor Lowe is a graduate student in sociology at California State University, Northridge.
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