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15 Fantastic Films for Teaching Social Justice

by Staff Writers

Conflict is the soul of narrative. Films, books, music and any other medium hoping to convey a particular message oftentimes finds inspiration in the very real issues spotting human experience. The results serve to educate viewers and hopefully pique effective action once the screen’s glow diminishes. Far, far more than these 15 movies and documentaries devote themselves to humanistic and social justice causes. All this list hopes to do is offer up a few admittedly subjective suggestions.

  1. Gandhi: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi remains one of the most lauded crusaders for social, economic and political justice because of his successful, nonviolent revolution against British colonials. This critically-acclaimed film stars Indian-British actor Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji) and adapts the life and career of the distinguished leader. Unlike many biopics, however, Gandhi largely ignores his earlier years in favor of highlighting the peoples, places and events that inspired him to fight for India’s independence. Many classes emphasizing social justice in filmmaking feature this undeniable classic on its syllabus for obvious reasons.

  2. John Q: Though released in 2002, nearly 10 years later John Q‘s central themes remain politically and socially relevant. Although heavy-handed in places, the story of a desperate father breaking under healthcare costs takes a sympathetic look at the inequities in today’s system. With his young son in critical need of a heart transplant he can’t afford, Denzel Washington’s John Quincy Archibald resorts to criminal activity in order to save his life. The film doesn’t exactly condone felonious measures, but it does sympathetically peer into the sort of social and economic pressures that sometimes inspire them. Considering the vitriolic debates raging today over healthcare coverage in the United States, John Q provides a necessary perspective often lacking from many arguments — what everything looks like to economically disadvantaged families.

  3. To Kill a Mockingbird: Both Harper Lee’s classic (and only!) novel and the film adaptation are essential to a social justice acolyte’s education. Gregory Peck’s legendary performance as passionate, altruistic lawyer Atticus Finch, who courageously stands up for the rights of a wrongly accused African-American man despite crushing social pressure, remains one of the greatest in American film history. Taking place in rural Alabama during the Great Depression, one of its major themes involves race relations and the biases levied against minorities during trials. While things have improved over the decades, To Kill a Mockingbird‘s central narrative offers up some incredibly valuable lessons on the bleak history of racism, discrimination and hate crimes. Without them, humanity will never be able to learn from its mistakes and recognize the painful patterns leading to such atrocities.

  4. 12 Angry Men: The jury-based criminal justice system receives a thorough dissection in the still-provocative classic 12 Angry Men, which focuses on its applications in the United States. Taking place almost entirely in the deliberation room, the film centers around the concept of reasonable doubt and its role in determining guilt or innocence. At first, all but one juror believe a boy on trial for murdering his father should be punished for the act. But as talks continue, more and more perspectives and evidence begin pushing black-and-white thinking towards more of a gradient. One of the most thoughtful elements of the film analyzes the role various personal biases and bigotry play in the justice system as well. Considering the defendant hails from an impoverished neighborhood, classism crops up again and again as a potential roadblock to forging a viable decision.

  5. Boys Don’t Cry: The real-life tragedy of Brandon Teena received a controversial big-screen adaptation by director Kimberly Peirce — one absolutely every social justice proponent must watch at some point or another. LGBTQIA issues, most especially those impacting the transgender community, crash to the forefront in this wrenching story about a grotesque hate crime. When Teena is ousted as a non-operative transman against his will, he finds himself targeted by violent threats and ends up raped and murdered. As with all depictions of very real events in film, Peirce did take a series of liberties when piecing together her narrative. In spite of this, however, her bravery in confronting an often marginalized, ignored issue (yes, even today) fully deserves accolades.

  6. Do the Right Thing: A brutal summer heatwave stokes already tense race relations in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Myriad distinct personalities converge, with the interactions between a prejudiced pizzeria owner and his African-American customers reflecting Do the Right Thing‘s central themes. One of the film’s most provocative elements juxtaposes nonviolent resistance with its more forceful opposite, challenging viewers to think about the most effective methods of protest — and what sort of sociological and psychological components eventually lead marginalized demographics to start utilizing force. Anyone interested in social justice issues, particularly those impacting urban neighborhoods with few resources and opportunities at their disposal, should put forth the effort to understand how such things work.

  7. Philadelphia: This groundbreaking film holds the distinction of being one of the very first mainstream American movies to address homophobia and HIV/AIDS. A terminated lawyer believes his AIDS, which remains hidden from coworkers for as long as possible, played a major role in his dismissal — especially considering he previously possessed no record of workplace discord or incompetence. During the resulting trial, the very real social struggles of gay men in America come to light and inspire many bigoted individuals to reconsider their preconceived notions. Victim-blaming, often an argument utilized when discussing AIDS and many other issues (including rape and sexual assault), receives a painstaking analysis challenging many of the longstanding perspectives lobbed at those suffering from the disease.

  8. Erin Brockovich: Like any real story making its way to Tinseltown, not everything about Erin Brockovich is necessarily Erin Brockovich herself. Despite the differing details, however, the spirit of social justice remains the same. While working as a file clerk in a law firm, the eponymous activist stumbles across a corporate cover up. PG&E, a gas and electricity company, deliberately shrouded its role in contaminating the groundwater of Hinkley, California — a mistake that ended up sickening the populace. This is perfect viewing for activists interested in human rights issues overlapping with environmental justice.

  9. City of God: Consider City of God when exploring social justice issues related to poverty, drugs and gang warfare. Watching this gritty tale of murderous rivals and corrupt cops brings the very real, very desperate reality of impoverished urban citizens worldwide to vivid life. Here, Brazilian slums and military rule compel many kids, teens and young adults to turn towards various crimes because they feel as if no other options exist. Such a depiction transcends national boundaries. Making an effort to view and understand the social, political and economic components of poverty and violence is the first step towards finding viable long-term solutions to cure them.

  10. Born into Brothels: This haunting documentary takes viewers to the red light district of Kolata and gives a voice to brothel residents nobody ever notices — the prostitutes’ children. A team of filmmakers provided the kids with photography lessons, hoping they’ll use them to chronicle their marginalized lives and flex their creative muscles. Many debates have ensued regarding whether or not such measures proved effective, as a goodly portion of the children left their boarding school and photography opportunities in favor of the brothel life to which they grew accustomed. Others, however, considered it an excellent way to explore everything the world offers. Because the central issue comes packaged with its own gray areas, anyone considering organizing or participating in many social justice programs should study it thoroughly. Learn from its failings and seek to emulate its victories, though by no means should Born into Brothels be considered the first and last bit of research to consider.

  11. The Celluloid Closet: Hollywood enjoys bragging about how progressive and inclusive it is, when its actual practices oftentimes reveal otherwise. Lauded, insightful documentary The Celluloid Closet turns a critical eye towards the treatment of the LGBTQIA community, both characters created and the performers themselves. Considering how mainstream movies hold such a sway over public opinions and perceptions, social justice crusaders must absolutely pop this documentary onto their "must-watch" lists. Through multiple interviews, the history of gays, lesbians and the transgendered in cinema unearths itself. It’s fascinating viewing — one that illustrates how far society has come as well as how much progress still needs to be made before full equality finally exists.

  12. When the Wind Blows: Don’t be fooled by the gentle character designs and sweet elderly couple at this film’s center — When the Wind Blows possesses one of the grimmest looks at nuclear war ever committed to celluloid. After the Soviet Union lays waste to the United Kingdom, Jim and Hilda Bloggs keep calm and carry on because the government’s instructions never came through clearly. They go about their daily routines in a manner both humorous and wrenchingly dark, slowly succumbing to the throes of radiation poisoning. Here, the social justice elements filter in via geopolitics rather than something "of the people," as it were. The lack of comprehensive instructions between the UK and its citizens highlights why updating everyone on emergency protocol should be shunted to top priority.

  13. Best Boy: Many a social justice documentary and movie course places Best Boy on its syllabus. Although it isn’t explicitly about disabled rights and the marginalization of the mentally and/or physically impaired, director Ira Wohl nevertheless makes an absolutely compelling case for justice on their behalf. Here, he follows around his cousin Philly Wohl as he and his aging parents prepare him for a more independent life. It’s thoroughly touching and, more importantly, directly dispels many of the myths and misconceptions about life with a disability. A follow-up documentary followed in 1997 — 20 years after the original debuted to amazing acclaim. In it, an elderly Philly continues a largely autonomous lifestyle within a group home. Even today, many members of mainstream society still hold an opinion painting all with developmental disorders as universally incompetent and dependent, lacking any sort of variables. Both films remain entirely relevant to those striving for equality and fairness.

  14. Moolaade: Forced circumcision and genital mutilation continues to plague women in the developing world, but American media occupies itself with too many fluorescent orange nincompoops to pay it much attention. Set in Burkina Faso, Ousmane Sembene’s extremely important documentary chronicles a serious social and public health issue practiced globally. The filmmaker openly expresses his disgust at the ritual, whose defendants refer to it as purifying rather than disfiguring and dangerous. When executed incorrectly, the surgical removal of part or all of the external female genitalia can lead to serious blood loss, infections and death. Even young girls and women spared such suffering must still endure the process completely without anesthesia. Because it was shot in 2004, this horrific procedure has yet to be eradicated, making all the film’s content still extremely valuable today.

  15. Grave of the Fireflies: Go beyond the front lines of World War II and witness a pair of orphaned siblings struggle for survival following the Kyoto bombings. Grave of the Fireflies began life as a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka before receiving the cinematic treatment. Now one of the most universally acclaimed anime movies ever produced — even by those whom generally despise the medium — its desperate story realistically portrays war’s human cost. One often overlooked when politics swells into a higher priority than health, happiness and safety. Human rights activists and others crusading for social justice by promoting peaceful negotiations and begging for the deactivation of bombs (most especially nukes) should consider this essential viewing.