A-List | 15 Powerful Films About Social Justice

Social Justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with an adequate water supply, cooking facilities, and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to a school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.

Annual Report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission (1993)

This. This is what people should be standing up about in the faces of our authorities. Social justice is not something new. Before it–more specifically, social injustice–had a title, it could be seen in Jamestown, 1607; Philadelphia, 1776; South of the Mason Dixon Line, 1865; and today when an unscrupulous authority figure of any type steps on the head or kneels on the neck of those they serve.

Child Labor (Mining) in the Industrial Revolution. From the Pennsylvania Coal Company in 1911.

The sociopolitical term came about during the Industrial Revolution across Europe (circa 1760-1840) to increase how people were served through industry.

Agriculture needed change and impoverished people needed food. Technology was the way to increase production, but only the rich benefited from it, largely on the backs of the poor…and their children.

So, a “revolution” needed to happen to serve the poor, quell the rich, and get rid of the exploitation of those who couldn’t serve themselves.

This country needs a reckoning and, regretfully, our powers-that-be don’t need to be any more. Unfortunately, the American public is comprised of lazy, cynical, and apathetic voters. Either they 1.) don’t vote at all or 2.) only vote for the shill they see on TV every other commercial break. This is why we’re stuck in a cycle and stuck with the same do-nothing leadership. Revolt happens, and should, but when there’s a chance, many take advantage of the opportunity to get free TVs and clothes.

All that criminal action does is stifle and mute the voice of us all that needs to be heard so desperately.

Protest is a means for a public to gather around one voice, one vision. And there is not one system free from the scorn of a disgruntled and abused public. We’ve seen that much in Hollywood. Social justice is needed, but since we are not going to get it the way these demonstrative and derelict few are “fighting for it,” maybe there’s some inspiration we can glean from movies, TV, and documentaries.

At least, I hope there is because what we’re seeing today isn’t it.

These are the top 15 projects to watch about social justice you need to see.


15. The Accused (1988)

Not all witnesses to atrocity are perfect, but that should never negate their voice. The Accused triumphed at making that point and gave a young Jodie Foster an Oscar for her portrayal of an imperfect witness to gang rape — her own. This movie was truly ahead of its time as it tackles victim-blaming, court prejudice, and the need for a voice separate from the stained filter of an ignorant public.

With this film, we see the need for impartial social justice — it’s something we all deserve, regardless of creed, color, or condition. If that woman holding true law in the scales, she needs to pass the memo to share her blindfold. This film continues that necessary conversation of who deserves what, even if they were only cheering the entire act of violence on. You know, again.

14. V for Vendetta (2012)

Yes, that’s the Anonymous mask, but it didn’t start there. We didn’t even have to travel ahead to the year 2032 to see the resistance against the Norsefire Party in the dystopian United Kingdom to find it, as we will discover in the sci-fi social justice film, V for Vendetta. That is a stylized mask worn by a man named Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the House of Lords (aka. Parliment) in attempt to rid his people of a seemed tyrannical rule.

In what became known as the “Gunpowder Plot” in 1605, who knew that mask would later symbolize an affront to a caste system and a revolt for social justice? And today, we associate the Guy Fawkes mask with hacktivism and V plotting to overthrown a regime a government that has fallen under a fascist rule. (And yeah, they sure are popular these days. God help us all.)

13. Stonewall (2015)

Regretfully, when people think about social justice movies or documentaries, Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall is rarely mentioned. Come to think of it, the real-life story of the foundation of gay rights liberation is mentioned even less. The film has often been the debate of convoluted facts versus fiction, but this story did happen and this tale should be told.

In 1969, there was another fight for social justice and civil rights that was taking place, this was in New York’s Greenwich Village and these riots, while all too popular today of how not win a conversation, was the only way people were going to pay attention to the plight of homosexuals who were routinely battered by police at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that was owned by the Mafia.

While this film deserved a better filmmaker and a much stronger script, the story needed to be told and should be seen.

12. Time: The Kalief Browder Story (2017)

A black Bronx teenager. Accused of stealing a backpack. Nothing too significant. Nothing too alarming. Until he was sent to Rikers Island for three years — despite never being convicted of the crime. Yes, this ish really happened! The trauma he endured was so tragic inside prison that shortly after his release, Browder took his life.

Jay-Z co-produced this documentary that needs to be seen. Kalief Browder never had a trial, never was provided the justice system to fight for him. A 16-year-old boy who walked through hell for allegedly stealing something worth $50. The documentary is haunting and if ever you need to witness the demand for social justice, this documentary could open your eyes wider than ever before.

11. Blackfish (2013)

Proof that not all social justice applies to humans.

Blackfish is a riveting documentary that brought the end to Shamu and Orca being featured at Sea World. The story is about Tilikum, a killer whale who took the lives of three workers all because he was fighting his own captivity. The life of Dawn Brancheau (trainer) who was thrust under the microscope because she wore a ponytail, which triggered the killer whale. Yes, that is actually what Sea World used in court.

To this day, Sea World calls the documentary: “inaccurate, misleading, and regrettably, exploits a tragedy.” The absent-minded thing from their perspective is the “tragedy” that was featured was the captivity of Tilikum in the first place. There are no more killer whale exhibits, anywhere. Not so bad for an “inaccurate and misleading” documentary. Social justice delivered in face of a horrible tragedy, both Tilikum’s and Brancheau’s.

10. 13th (2016)

Many amendments of the U.S. Constitution, while created to uphold the law and certain unalienable rights, have a dark and dreary past. Probably none more than the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery but…left a few loopholes in it to actually permit the atrocity in prison. This Netflix original by the maven on a mission, Ava DuVernay, is enough to make you stand up and begin shouting.

The majority of this nation is indeed made of white people, but the nation’s prison system is definitely made of black people. Why? How? And was it intentional? This is a documentary that will make you experience a swath of emotion, all of them intended to make you act.

9. The Invisible War (2012)

Sexual assault in the military. That sentence should give anyone with a sense of patriotism chills. It happens to countless and nameless victims in all branches of the Armed Forces. Often ignored and swept under a rug, Kirby Dick halts that practice with a groundbreaking investigation into what seems to have been one of the best kept secrets of the U.S. military.

In a harrowing carousel of interviews with veterans, advocates, and survivors of military rape, we hear these tales of dispiriting defense of real trauma being avoided, ignored, and often, removed from records because of the black eye this would give our military. Social justice demands all people experience freedom of their voice, including the very people who provide us that liberty. This is a haunting documentary into a sinister culture that has now been exposed, much too late.

8. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Before we get into why you must see this film, let’s discuss its proof — two Oscars for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o). Steve McQueen directs an unfathomable true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was captured and sold into slavery for 12 years.

The harsh reality of this film shatters your confidence in people at times, when you consider this man was treated as property in 1841 and his freedom was never once considered. Captured and hurled into a cage like a feral animal. There is no touchy-feely in this film, no social justice triumph. This is a stark reminder of America’s bleak history that needs to be seen to be believed.

7. Malcolm X (1992)

This is easily one of the best biopics in cinematic history and one of most egregious crimes from the Oscars that Denzel Washington wasn’t handed the Best Actor award for his possessed portrayal of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz/Malcolm X for Spike Lee’s titular achievement.

In this film, we take a voyeur’s approach to Malcolm Little’s life in Boston, his criminal years in Harlem, his imprisonment and conversion to Islam, and eventually, his tragic assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. This phenomenal film is magic how it tunnels through time and shares the story and controversy behind Malcolm X’s life and untimely death.

Spike Lee’s biography is truly necessary to see for anyone who believes social justice deserves a voice. And through Denzel and Malcolm X, the voice was heard loud and clear.

6. Do the Right Thing (1989)

In what many consider the seminal film on social justice, Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing courageously and wonderfully shares the fictitious story that very well could be based on real events. Racial tension in the heart of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer is a recipe for disaster in any real-world setting (namely with the film’s violent climax), but in this movie — there is balance for a depiction of what we see in life.

Speaking of balance, consider the ending: A quote from Malcolm X advocating self-defense juxtaposed with a quote from MLK advocating non-violence. It’s that delicate nuance seen throughout the movie — racism truly is color blind and bigotry is something that affects us all. Granted, some much more than others, we all need to “do the right thing” to get rid of the damn thing altogether.

5. Norma Rae (1979)

Why is a woman called “Norma Rae” when she has the temerity to stand up for what is right? This movie. Sally Field plays a hard on her luck, single mother who found heart and passion to stand up for her local workers in the textile mill and fight for unionism. The inspiration of Field’s Academy Award-winning role was Crystal Lee Sutton, who died in 2009.

As the movie tells us, “Stands must be taken.” If you see a problem plaguing a group of people, that problem is one voice away from being corrected. Norma Rae/Crystal Lee Sutton was that voice for a group of workers who were pummeled with poor conditions, hours, wages, and benefits in a town that offered little alternatives. This is an inspirational film that cries social justice, even to those whit closed ears all too often.

4. Milk (2008)

Gus Van Sant brings us the movie of California’s first openly gay elected official in the 1970s, Harvey Milk, played brilliantly by the Oscar-winning Best Actor for that year, Sean Penn. Milk, who was assassinated by another city official, Dan White (played almost as well by Josh Brolin), became a martyr for the LGBTQ community and is today heralded a voice for social justice that could never be silenced.

As the trailer beckons and Milk was known to say, “You gotta give them hope.” That was one man’s vision in 1978 that became the clarion call for an entire disenfranchised community in the heart of San Francisco. This film is worth your time. This story is worthy of anyone’s knowledge.

3. Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station is the true, but often forgotten, story about Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in 2009. The cutline is so unfortunately routine but this film starring a rousing rising star named Michael B. Jordan made the routine seem fresh, the plight seem relevant, and the pain seem piercing — as it should be, as it is.

It is Oscar’s last day on the job and life is drowning him, as it does for most of us these days. His was worse because he was losing everything — his girl, his job, his house. The tragedy was he lost his life that day over a foolish and errant police officer’s bullet. It was New Year’s Eve 2009 — a day all of us should remember, not only for the achievement this movie became but for the heinous loss of life Ryan Coogler helped bring back to life on the screen.

2. Selma (2014)

The life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has proven to be a mammoth undertaking for Hollywood, which is evident in the stark sampling of movies or documentaries that have been developed on the man. [HINT: This is the first to feature Dr. King as a focal character]

Once again, Ava DuVernay steps up with proud fists clinched in the air and investigates a moment in time we all need to know — Dr. King’s monumental march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Played remarkably by David Oyelowo, Dr. King led a peaceful protest with hundreds arm-in-arm, step-by-step, who were brutally attacked by police officers and dogs for a moment known as “Bloody Sunday.” That sacrifice for the right to vote turned the Civil Rights movement into momentum for social justice victory. At the heart of this march was not only a person’s right to be free and equal, but also how politics can get in the middle of that fight and muck everything up.

As we learn watching this movie, the march for freedom and equality doesn’t belong to a single color or creed; it belongs to us all. When we march, we should march together — in one accord and as one people.

1. The Central Park Five (2012)

The powerhouse scribe and auteur Ava DuVernay released When they See Us, which made many of the people protesting police brutality today realize another tragic story of false imprisonment. Yet, back in 2012, this story got the Ken Burns‘ touch — a Masterclass documentarian, if ever there was one. Many people had never heard of these five Latino and black kids before this documentary came out.

This film allowed us all to realize the issues that still plague the U.S. justice system. When it’s someone’s word against someone’s life, you have to be exact. Many times, we are not and it’s considered collateral damage. Fortunately, the damage was permanent in these young men’s lives. The hope that comes of it is the stuff of legend.

Regretfully, we should have never heard this story in the first place and Ken Burns doesn’t spare one emotion to make us all come to that salient reality. The men were Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. The fight is real. And the film was a remarkable achievement in making a story come to life.

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