Movies are obviously a great source of entertainment, they pass the time and give us the opportunity for escapism. But the movies are also a powerful tool in addressing socio-political issues. In fact, the development of cinema was heavily influenced by a public thirst for knowledge. In 1897, during the very first film screening, the Lumiere brothers offered French audiences a way to experience the world, a way to see the world – something that they otherwise may not have been able to do.
Since then, it’s safe to say viewership has only grown, and movies as a platform to discuss major issues has grown with it. Here are 10 of the most powerful mainstream films (not including documentary) that look to explore social, and/or political issues. These are not just movies about characters and situations, they are stories about something much bigger. They cross borders of genre and style as they experiment with the many ways the medium offers for getting a message to the public.
10. The Hunger Games
The third film of this franchise is currently underway, proving that its popularity holds steady. Based on a series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, the story acts as an allegory about the unfortunate direction of our current economy, environment and politics. Set in a dystopian future, the film considers what will happen if the world continues to suffer from hunger on a global scale, while relating it to the First World obsession with entertainment and reality T.V. Thus, the “hunger games” become for the characters, something of an extreme version of Survivor in which the ‘Fat Cats’ use poverty as a source of entertainment, with the desperation of the poor featured as something to mock. When the main character, Katniss enters the Games, knowing only one of the 24 competitors will come out alive, she has to make a lot of decisions about what life means to her. Before long, she inspires a Global Revolution.
Based on a long history of comic books, the very first X-Men film was released in 2000. The director, Bryan Singer, presented the story in a way that was very focused on issues of difference, prejudice and political turmoil. The film plays out less as a good vs. evil fight, and more as an in-depth look at the complex nature of prejudice. When the human political figures call for a registration of mutants in order to be able to “manage” them, the X-Men must face what this will really mean for their kind, and hopefully find a way to make the people understand the impact of their discrimination.
This drama starring Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed, took a good hard look at the pressures of teen life in America. Written by Reed and Catherine Hardwicke, the film is semi-autobiographical for Reed who left home at a young age. The film explores the devastating impact that drug abuse can have on a young girl, but also looks to explain the circumstances that might lead her to them, including (but not limited to) the desire to be “cool”. It may not sound revolutionary, but it truly is a profound look at the issue from the perspective of the young girl herself, as opposed to a parent, as in a film like Traffic.
This US/Canada co-production was Jason Reitman’s first crack at directing. The film was written by Diablo Cody, who really tried to capture a distinct image of the main character, a pregnant teen who is forced to straddle the line between child and adult. The story follows, Juno as she attempts to gain perspective on her predicament. Choosing adoption for her child means that Juno has to face the harsh reality of pregnancy, and also forces her to consider what “family” means. The film therefore sheds light on teen pregnancy, while also dealing with related topics such as marriage, abortion and divorce. Not having Juno plan to raise the child gives this old topic a fresh coat of paint.
6. I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry
When a widowed firefighter realizes he has missed his opportunity to provide his children with financial security, he refuses to take no for an answer. Instead, he attempts to “loophole” the system by re-marrying, the trouble is, he isn’t even ready to date. Luckily, he has a best friend who understands his plight and is willing to go to great lengths to help. When Chuck and Larry enter a civil union under false pretences, their “marriage” quickly comes under scrutiny. In an effort to convince the government their relationship is legitimate, the two must take on almost all aspects of gay life. To their surprise, they are met with prejudices and homophobia, which causes them to reconsider what love really means. The film is not overly sophisticated, but it does make a point to recognize homophobia and systemic hetero-sexism as social injustices, and seeks to make the audience understand why.
This dramatic thriller is pretty open to interpretation as far as connotations go. However, what is explicit is its approach to envisioning a world of chaos. When the whole world is struck blind and only one woman is left with the ability to see, she can hardly tell if it is a blessing or a curse. For what she witnesses is an accelerated deterioration of community, society and overall humanity. The destruction presented in the film happens on multiple levels, as civilization breaks down, so do people’s desire to communicate, to get along and to work together. Instead, racism and violence sweep the nation. The film therefore seems to question how far people have really come, and what the real social issues are.
Based on a true story, the film follows Harvey Milk, as he seeks to make an impact on society as the first out gay politician. Hoping that the world will see past his sexual orientation and connect with his politics, he quickly finds that he is forced into the position of civil rights leader, as he proudly stands tall in the face of adversary. The story wants to acknowledge the long complicated history of the gay liberation movement, and by revisiting it in contemporary society, the viewers are essentially asked to face the issues again. The issues have of course not gone away, and have only become more prominent as communities attempt to shed light on different facets of the LGBTQ struggle. The film celebrates the related social achievements, while pointing out that there is still a ways to go.
This one is not a blockbuster per se. The Canadian drama features the story of a teen boy who finds a unique way to express his confusion about the loss of his parents. As part of a school project, he fictionalizes his life in order to present his late father as a terrorist, and his mother as a victim. The film subsequently deals with the subject of terrorism from the perspective of Toronto youth. His story spreads on the internet like wild-fire and before long, he becomes a puppet master in a web of fear and hatred, as he watches people around the world debate right and wrong, good and evil. As part of the film’s pre-production, director, Atom Egoyan visited a Toronto high school and had the students discuss their views on terrorism and the war, in order to ensure he truthfully represented as many perspectives as he could.
2. The Dirties
This low-budget Canadian film has been generating a ton of buzz. With a release backed by Kevin Smith in major U.S. cities, it has been able to access a wide audience. It uses a mockumentary style in order to look at the social epidemic of high school bullying and school shootings. The story follows Matt and Owen, as they embark on a film-making venture meant to expose their school bullies, and exact revenge for all the beatings and embarrassments the boys endure. But things get a little out of control when Matt decides killing them is the only answer. Moreover, the film examines what it means to be pushed to that point, and makes the viewer wonder who the monster really is. With bullying being such an important social issue these days, Kevin Smith is right to claim it is “the most important movie you’ll see all year”.
This animation follows a robot named Wall-E who has been designed to clean up the wasteland Earth has become. It is a clear statement against environmental abuse and neglect, and confronts its viewers with a harsh future which very well may be a reality we face. It is also a critique on consumerism, which is a factor in all environmental footprints, and is a call for people to unite against the behaviors and attitudes that are leading us down such an unpleasant road. The film is critically acclaimed and has won numerous awards.