Around the world, people are taking to the streets to demand social change. It is a time we will look back on hopefully as the start of something better, and not just another blip on the historic timeline. In January this year, we published a list of songs that were about social change/protest. We thought we would take a look at cinema and compile a similar list of films that shined a light on problems in our society, raised awareness, called out for justice, and in some cases were inspirational.
Honestly, I have always loved these types of films. They have a point of view that means more than just the enjoyment of the film. Yes, the film also has to be good. But they are inspirational and often gets the audience thinking what can they do to help or how can I change my views. It could gain some people understanding. I didn’t grow up in a very multi-racial area and so seeing these films showed the problems people had to deal with and helped me gain learning that wasn’t in a textbook or taught in schools. These films are important and more people should see films like these. I did include some documentaries, probably could have had 10, but I felt the three were incredibly important.
- In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier are two cops put together to solve a crime in the racist south. Poitier’s northern cop, Virgil Tibbs is an iconic character who went on to be in multiple sequels and a TV Show. Great acting performances and great chemistry between the two leads.
- Serpico (1973) – A real-life story of a good cop fighting with a brutally corrupt NY police force. It couldn’t be more timely. Al Pacino in one of his top roles. Frank Serpico helped to clean up the NYPD.
- Malcolm X (1992) – Spike Lee’s Tour de Force is long but brilliantly shows Malcolm Little’s rise from criminal to civil right’s leader. I loved the book and the film does it complete justice.
- 13th (2016) – Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary is essential for people to see where the African American struggle started and it’s journey to today. It’s startling to see the increase in mass incarceration of African-Americans, especially during Bill Clinton’s presidency. This is the one film on the list that is a must-see.
- Cry Freedom (1987) – I go outside the United States to South Africa in this Denzel Washington/Kevin Kline film. It’s the story of Steve Biko and his push to end apartheid. It does fit into the category of a “white” man saving the “black” man genre of films. See A Dry White Season as another South African example. Despite all that Biko’s ideas along with other prominent black South African’s i.e. Nelson Mandela, ultimately won out and that’s what I got out of the film.
- Central Park 5 (2012) – You can pair this with the excellent Netflix series When They See Us Now. This documentary I had heard of but hadn’t seen until recently. It’s powerful and it’s dramatization show how NYPD moved to pin a crime on these 5 kids that they had no business doing. They played the race card and did zero police work. Seeing how this impacted their lives is heartbreaking.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) – Not a film at the time I thought I would like but John Cameron Mitchell’s beautifully imagined stage musical turned film is glorious and poignant all at the same time. It has a heart which some musicals just don’t have. The songs were great. Transgender was not as accepted then but this film got rave reviews, wish the audience would have been bigger.
- Selma (2015) – Of course I know about Martin Luther King but I had no clue about the specifics of the Selma march and Ava DuVernay directs an impressive film with some standout performances.
- Smoke Signals (1998) – One of my causes over the years has been Native American rights and honestly it can be argued that they have been shafted the most. With the pandemic, I worry about their culture going away even more. This is a sweet independent film mostly forgotten about today. It’s one of the few that mostly cast Native Americans and gives a realism about their current lives that the westerns do not do.
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) – A movie about interracial marriage in 1967 with two of the biggest Hollywood stars. Great film that’s a little dated. Spencer Tracy’s final film and his turn from rejecting to acceptance is touching as he warns them the world won’t make it easy for them but if you love each other it’s worth trying.
Bonus: Incident at Oglala (1992) – Robert Redford and Michael Apted’s documentary about a 1975 shootout at the Pine Hill Reservation between the FBI and AIM. The American Indian Movement’s Leonard Peltier was wrongly convicted of murdering an FBI agent. This documentary proves it was politically motivated. Also, see the fictionalized account in the Val Kilmer film Thunderheart.
MG: Cry Freedom was one of the first “serious” dramas I watched as a teen, and it showed me how powerful and informative a film could be about issues in the world. Malcolm X is a great film, although I’ve always had an issue with Spike Lee wresting the film from director Norman Jewison, who had previously directed In The Heat of The Night and A Soldier’s Story and had already signed on Denzel to star. Lee’s insistence that it needed a black director just sets a bad precedent and has led to a certain form of artistic race/gender boundaries (i.e. a woman needs to direct a film about women’s issues, black directors for black issues, etc.) It’s not a good look in the long run – should be about who can best tell a good story on film – but I digress.
Films can be a powerful emotional experience, and the best of them can help us see a historical event, topic, or social issue with a different perspective than we had before. Hollywood will never save the world, and you could make the case it has done more harm than good, but there have been notable instances were a movie significantly starts a larger discussion about a topic and even leads to a concrete change in society. Having said that, a film that is only about issues, and doesn’t effectively engage me in a good story, really doesn’t work for me. In those cases, it’s better to do a documentary than try to have an agenda-driven film that is a chore to watch. Here are ten films that got it right and I find myself revisiting over the years.
- Do The Right Thing (1989) – Sure, it’s an obvious choice, but I still remember watching this film back in college and my visceral reaction, and that of those around me, when this little semi-comedic film broke into dramatic violence spurred by police brutality. It was a bold vision from Spike Lee at only 32 years old.
- Mississippi Burning (1988) – I get the criticism of the film as a “white savior” tale, but it still conveyed a strong message in a compelling way. I watched this film in the theater as part of a class called American Studies in high school, and the depiction of racism during the civil rights movement in the ’60s left a stronger impression than reading about it in a textbook.
- Dances With Wolves (1990) – The American Indian may never find justice in America, and their voice has largely been suppressed or drowned out by other social movements. Nevertheless, this film started a notable discussion of how Indians were portrayed historically, in both pop culture and in textbooks, and did help create some level of cultural change.
- “V” For Vendetta (2005) – This is a bit of a different choice, with it being about a future dystopia, but when I watched this recently I realized it was promoting a relatively bold message. Released in the wake of post 9/11 government authority, it warns us of an oppressive police state and gives tacit approval to violent resistance.
- BlacKKKlansman (2018) – This is a contender for my favorite film of the past five years. Released almost 30 years after Do The Right Thing, it highlights Spike Lee’s growth as a filmmaker, but unfortunately also underscores how far we still need to go in dealing with racism in America.
- American History X (1998) – Tough to watch at times, this film tries to look at the mindset of white supremacists and the legacy of how racist hatred is passed down through generations. It also asks the question as to whether people steeped in such hatred can change or even be redeemed. Edward Norton gave a powerful performance in the lead role.
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – In the 70s, this film, and the book it was based on, was a groundbreaking look at how we treat mental health. Unfortunately, in many ways, it’s only gotten worse and is a compounding factor with policing in America – forcing our police and emergency rooms to be the last resort for the mentally ill.
- Philadelphia (1993) – This was the first mainstream wide-release film to feature both AIDS and homosexuality as it relates to the workplace. It was smart to cast Denzel Washington as the initially homophobic/AIDS-phobic lawyer who helps Tom Hanks take on his employer for discrimination.
- North Country (2005) – Another groundbreaking film for the mainstream, this time taking on sexual harassment. It is based on a true story about a woman working at a mine and enduring humiliation and abuse at the hands of her male co-workers. This case led to changes in sexual harassment laws.
- Hidden Figures (2016) – I really enjoyed the tone of this film – managing to keep a lighter tone, but also deal with the systemic racism/sexism faced by its three main female protagonists. It’s an uplifting story about a piece of history most of us never knew about.
Bonus: Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – In the US we focus on the plight of American Indians, but indigenous people all over the globe have suffered from white-European oppression for centuries. This film is set in Australia in the 1930s and is based on a true story of two children who escape from a government camp for “half-castes”, children with one white and one aboriginal parent. It’s a mostly forgotten film, I think, but a powerful example of government-sanctioned racism where whites literally seek to breed out an entire race.
DJ: I loved Do the Right Thing, a film that could be watched today and if you could get by some of the dated 80’s attire it feels like a movie that could be made about today which is sad. Sticking with Spike Lee I also loved BlacKKKlansman, one of the best films I have seen recently. Not sure I could see American History X again, still disturbs me. 100% correct on Denzel being a smart choice for Philadelphia he was playing the normal person for those times that did not understand homophobia. Also a great film, the chemistry between Hanks and Washington totally pull this film off.
And don’t forget our Songs of Change post!