The Films That Understand Why People Riot

Black filmmakers have used their works to show that the state’s inhumane treatment of black people, not the uprisings that result, is the real chaos.

Giancarlo Esposito stars in Do the Right Thing. (Everett Collection)

At the end of Spike Lee’s 1989 seminal film, Do the Right Thing, the protagonist, Mookie (played by Lee), returns to Sal’s Pizzeria the morning after the police murder of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) sets off a riot in the area. Mookie approaches the burned-down pizza parlor, his former place of employment, where his ex-boss, Sal (Danny Aiello), sits. Mookie demands, “I want my money. I wanna get paid.” Sal scoffs at this request, explaining that Mookie’s salary could not begin to pay for the window he broke that instigated the looting and burning of the restaurant by the neighborhood’s residents. Mookie responds: “Motherfuck a window—Radio Raheem is dead.”

When Do the Right Thing was released, many white critics were more concerned with the depiction of property damage than the state-sanctioned racist killing they saw portrayed on-screen just moments before. They ignored the real-life victims whose names the black and brown Bed-Stuy residents call out before the riot begins: “It’s murder. They did it again. Just like Michael Stewart. Murder. Eleanor Bumpurs. Murder!” While those critics saw wanton violence and unwarranted destruction, black film critics, scholars, and audiences saw a scene that represented the fury and sorrow that was part of their everyday life.

With the nationwide protests in response to racial injustice, police brutality, and the killing of black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, the conversation about property damage has resurfaced. These “peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike,” as explained by the historian Kellie Carter Jackson in The Atlantic, have exposed “the double standard of the American riot,” eliciting controversy over what are considered morally appropriate forms of protest. This debate also has roots in popular culture, where white riots in film are often glorified, while black riots are criticized, further exposing the discursive discrepancy between the value of material and the value of black lives.

Hegemonic representations of white violence in film spectacularize riots and lionize vigilante justice. D. W. Griffith’s landmark and racist epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is a case in point. In its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as American heroes, the film’s formal devices, narrative strategies, and thematic motifs sensationalize and champion white mob violence in response to enfranchised black masses. Although controversial at the time of its release, The Birth of a Nation was also hugely popular. For white critics and audiences, Griffith did not depict a riot, but a righteous cause, one that helped revive the KKK in American society and birth modern cinema at the same time. The glorification of white rage extends to more contemporary films: David Fincher’s 1999 cult film Fight Club, for example, critiques and valorizes white male violence, vandalism, and domestic terror. And the seemingly innocuous treatment of city destruction in white superhero films such as 2013’s Man of Steel suggests that, in white men’s efforts to “save the world,” cataclysmic mayhem is wholly justified.

In sharp contrast to Griffith and these contemporary works, Lee and other black filmmakers have had to navigate the ideological paradoxes of violence and nonviolence in their depictions of riots onscreen, lest their spectacles be seen as endorsing or inciting meaningless revolt in the real world. While there is no singular formal style or narrative tactic in response to racial violence, these filmmakers have created textured, polyphonic films that examine the social, political, and historical forces that precipitate moments of unrest. These films highlight the structural neglect, social alienation, institutional poverty, political disenfranchisement, and rampant racial violence that grip urban postindustrial communities. As a result, their representations of unrest not only show black insurgency as a militant response to exploitative capitalism, but also frame urban uprisings as just actions against brutality and as catalysts for change.

Another such depiction that features heavily in the cultural imagination is that of the 1965 Watts Riots, when black residents in the L.A. neighborhood erupted against police abuse and institutional racism. Unlike previous urban uprisings, Watts was captured on television by mainstream outlets that depicted black residents as self-destructive, and ignored the poor conditions in which they were forced to live. While documentaries such as Sacha Jenkins’s Burn Motherfucker, Burn!, in 2017, explore Watts along with the mass media’s inflammatory coverage of looting and violence, narrative black films give more specific context to the DNA of these riots.

The Hughes brothers’ 1993 coming-of-age tale, Menace II Society, for example, uses the Watts Riots to provide historical context for the film’s contemporary examination of black youth in South Central Los Angeles. The directing team embeds and layers footage of those riots with acoustics of the 1992 Rodney King riots as an intertextual critique, showing the circumstances that have shaped the environment. In an interview about the film, Allen Hughes explains, “Menace was made with a historical perspective. That’s how we did it, starting with the Watts riots. We’re telling the audience that this is not our fault. That there’s history here. The ’65 riots, right. This is where this art came from. The despair, and the bloodshed, the whole thing.” The film’s situating of its protagonist Caine (Tyrin Turner) in this historical continuum, as the film scholar Paula Massood suggests, reminds viewers that “he is a product of the urbanscape and of a particular set of urban conditions. The city defines Caine; he doesn’t define the city.”

One of the most consequential representations of black riots occurs in Ivan Dixon’s 1973 work, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a film whose depiction of black unrest was so incendiary that it was yanked from theaters shortly after its release amid rumors of interference and intimidation by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program. An adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s novel of the same name, The Spook Who Sat by the Door details the story of the ex-CIA agent Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), who trains a gang of young black Chicagoans, the Cobras turned Chicago Black Freedom Fighters, in guerrilla warfare. Polemical and prescient, the film radically imagines a national uprising that endorses riots as necessary for revolution and black freedom. The riot scene follows the killing of a black youth by a white cop. Images of vehicles and buildings set ablaze are coupled with violent assaults by the police, who use dogs and brute force to subdue the crowd. Situating the camera amid the chaos, Dixon’s shaky footage mirrors the aesthetics of the television coverage of riots such as Watts.

White critics panned what they felt was the film’s “senseless violence.” But Dixon captures the angry and anguished faces of black neighborhood residents, showing that the state’s inhumane treatment of black people, not the riot, is the chaos. Dixon follows this moment with a scene between Freeman and his black cop friend that contextualizes the enduring unrest. The lawman explains that he and his fellow colleagues must maintain law and order or the residents “might as well be back in the jungle.” Without missing a beat, Freeman responds: “The ghetto is a jungle, always has been. Understand, you cannot cage people like animals and not expect them to fight back someday.” Freeman indicts a system in which police protect property, not lives. Dixon, like the Hughes brothers and Lee after him, depicts the social, political, economic, and historical forces that ignite black rage. These black filmmakers have made their position clear: When it comes to liberation, justice, and struggles for equality, as Mookie said, “motherfuck a window.”