“Why wouldn’t she want to be black?” my kids asked. We were watching a film about racial tensions in the pre-Civil Rights era. On one hand, I was happy that they are growing up in a world where they see little to no disadvantage to being born black in America. On the other, I know we can’t ignore such an important part of our nation’s history.
My children are growing up in a time when a black man has been president for almost as long as they can remember. The only people they’ve ever heard use the “N-word” are black. They don’t see the black kids in our homeschool group any different from anyone else, and the mixed-race children they know are not anomalies to them, especially since my kids are mixed race Native American and Caucasian children, themselves, and we live in a community where that’s the norm.
For them, understanding the racial tensions in America’s not-so-distant past is difficult. It was easier for them to grasp the problems the country faced in the days of slavery and up through the Civil War than to understand the racism that continued in the decades that followed. So as a homeschooler and a mom, I am using film to help my children get a better understanding of how race relations have evolved.
Many films that focus on racial tensions are not age appropriate for preteens. More violent and disturbing films can wait until kids are better able to process those themes. Here are a few films that will encourage discussion without overwhelming upper elementary to middle school age children.
“Imitation of Life”
I was first introduced to this 1957 film in college, and recently decided to watch it with my family when I found it streaming on Netflix. The story of a young woman who is born to a black mother, but is herself so light skinned she can pass for white, this film really explores how people at the mid-century were still treated and what opportunities were available based on the color of one’s skin.
My kids had a hard time understanding why Sarah Jane, the young light skinned woman, would be considered black when, clearly, she was as white as any Caucasian. This was an opportunity to discuss the “single drop” idea, and how we think differently today about people of mixed race and that even current attitudes are continuing to evolve.
“Driving Miss Daisy”
This 1989 film follows the evolving friendship of the elderly widow, Miss Daisy, and Hoke, the hired man who chauffeurs her around. It also explores the effects of racial tensions not only on their relationship with one another, but on their community and on their places within it.
Your children may be inspired to see how respect and caring transcend race, and how small, quiet acts of bravery from even the most unlikely heroes can change a community for the better.
“Remember the Titans”
The takeaway lesson from this 2000 film based on the true story of coach Herman Boone might be that there’s no conflict in the world too big for an undefeated football season to solve. But seriously, this story, set in the early 1970’s, took place on the heels of integration and explores many of the thornier issues associated with bringing black and white students together both in the classroom and on the field.
My kids had a hard time understanding how, more than 100 years after the Civil War, blacks and whites were just beginning to go to school together and share public spaces. Having been born after the civil rights era, it’s a little difficult for me to relate, too. But films like this help us see that in many ways, it’s the youth who made the biggest difference, by seeing the humanity in one another and accepting a new reality that paved the way to better peace and understanding.
More by Tavia:
Do Race-based Education Policies Equal Lowered Expectations for Minority Students?
First Person: I Refuse to Chase the Myth of Gender Equality
100 years of Paramount Pictures: Iconic films that helped define their genres