Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is shown in a scene from the documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble" about the longtime racial equality activist and member of Congress. CNS photo/courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is shown in a scene from the documentary "John Lewis: Good Trouble" about the longtime racial equality activist and member of Congress. CNS photo/courtesy Magnolia Pictures
NEW YORK – No motion picture drama has had the power to change minds the way the on-video death of George Floyd in the custody of police in Minneapolis recently did. No fictional feature ever will.

Death on a street, with a police officer's knee on a man's neck, is the brutal, unvarnished reality that has spurred thousands of protesters nationwide to march and forced legislators to ponder the role of police both as enforcers of the law and participants in a larger society.

With rare exceptions, the business model of the film industry is based on offering emotions, illusions, distraction and comfort for the largest possible audiences. Movies about racial injustice have been around since Hollywood's beginnings. But while they add prestige and the illusion of an industry conscience, they've never been a foundational genre.

In the wake of the death of Floyd on May 25 – plus those of Breonna Taylor, the emergency room technician killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, March 13, and Ahmaud Arbery, the jogger slain in Brunswick, Georgia, Feb. 23 – the film industry, like the rest of America, is coping with the latest violent evidence of the nation's painful – and frustratingly enduring – racial divide.

An identical discussion is ongoing about reading matter, and which works of nonfiction and fiction can help. But that's civilized and literate. The public conversation about movies – which have had their own ugly history with the lack of minority participation on both sides of the camera – is as noisy and sloppy as a family dispute.

That doesn't indicate a lack of sincerity. It just means that film distributors, like the rest of us, are working out their confusion in real time and in full view of everyone else.

On June 9, the streaming service HBO Max announced that it was pulling "Gone With the Wind" from its rotation until "historical context" can be added to the presentation.

That came after John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "12 Years A Slave" (2013), wrote about the 1939 Civil War drama in the Los Angeles Times. He described it as "a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color."

Audiences' search for a soothing way to cope with the Floyd murder brought one odd result. The top streaming film on Netflix over the June 5-7 weekend was 2011's "The Help," a drama about a white writer who interviews domestic workers in the South to bring their stories about abusive racist employers to the public.

There's a satisfying retributive ending to the story, but the film is no one's idea of an accurate commentary on race relations. It's often criticized for its "white savior" plot – and one of its stars, Viola Davis, has since disowned her participation.

Another of the film's stars, Bryce Dallas Howard, found its sudden new popularity jarring. She posted on Facebook: "Stories are a gateway to radical empathy and the greatest ones are catalysts for action." She also provided her own list of recommended movies on race, most of them documentaries.

Other developments were more sensible. Paramount and Warner Bros. have announced that two fact-based films dealing with race will be streaming free throughout June.

The first is 2014's "Selma," a biopic of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. starring David Oyelowo. The other, 2019's "Just Mercy," is a legal drama about inequities in the criminal justice system starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

On July 3, Magnolia Pictures will release "John Lewis: Good Trouble," a respectful documentary about the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman. Lewis observes of current events: "There are forces today trying to take us back to another time and another dark day."

Lewis, a veteran of the 1963 March on Washington and a victim of racial violence in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, nonetheless remains an optimist: "I just keep on believing that we can change things. That we can make things better."

Film dramas can inspire and educate quite well. 2018's "Green Book," for instance, which detailed a concert tour taken by a black pianist and his white driver, is especially good at showing examples of the nuanced ways deep-set racial prejudice worked in the 1960s.

What Howard calls "catalysts for action" may not produce a change in tenaciously held attitudes.

Yet dramas and documentaries can continue to be part of a path forward toward understanding.

In 2017, filmmaker Yance Ford, whose documentary "Strong Island" recounted his brother's 1992 death at the hands of police, observed to The New York Times: "Only in America does it take movies to authenticate reality and not the other way around."

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.