If you look back through cinematic history, movies that expose or debate some sort of injustice have always risen to the top. I’m not talking about documentaries, since an overwhelming percentage of those films exist solely to shine a light on an existing problem or abuse of power. I’m talking about fictional stories grounded in reality, like Philadelphia, or dramatized versions of true events, like Erin Brockovich, that — right or wrong — will inevitably attract more attention because of their casts and their studio’s budgets.
Here are 5 such movies that I found especially powerful, and that helped me see things from a different perspective:
The Hate U Give – This adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestselling novel revolves around a police officer shooting a black teenager in front of his best friend, Starr (Amandla Stenberg). After her friend is killed, Starr grows increasingly uncomfortable with continuing to juggle what amounts to two different personalities depending on whether she’s in her poor, mostly black neighborhood, or at the rich, mostly white prep school she attends. When a civil rights lawyer (Issa Rae) encourages Starr to start speaking out about what she witnessed — in addition to testifying in front of a grand jury — the young girl learns some hard lessons about racism, police brutality ,and both the positive and negative consequences of activism. It’s a moving story brought to life by a top-notch cast.
If Beale Street Could Talk – Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, this quiet drama follows the romance of a young black couple, Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), whose worlds are turned upside down when a racist cop arrests Fonny for a rape out of spite. Regina King won an Oscar for her role as Tish’s mother, who goes to great lengths to seek justice for the wrongly accused Fonny. The scene where she confronts the victim of the crime is one of the most powerful — and maddening — I’ve seen on film in years. Beale Street is very different from The Hate U Give, but they share a focus on how one racist person within a messed-up system has the power to ruin multiple lives, with no repercussions.
12 Angry Men – There’s a reason this 1957 classic is still shown in classrooms and law schools around the country: it shows how — opposite of what happens in the previous two films on this list — one person (in this case, a juror played by Henry Fonda) can use sound reasoning and persuasion tactics to confront the inherent bias, racism and personal issues of others and, in the process, maybe even save a falsely accused person’s life. The American Film Institute ranked it as the #2 courtroom drama of all time, second only to…
To Kill a Mockingbird – Based on the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, this 1962 classic follows the young Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), as they fill their lazy days by goofing off and spying on their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). But then the kids are exposed to harsh truths about the world when their lawyer father, Atticus (Gregory Peck), defends a black man (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges, and their sleepy town reveals its ugly side. The film went on to win 3 Oscars, including Best Actor for Peck.
BlacKkKlansman – While all of the movies on this list deal with real issues that affect our country to this day, BlacKkKlansman is the only one based on a true story. Spike Lee’s latest film, which earned him his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, tells the unbelievable tale of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the early 1970s, Stallworth gains access to the Ku Klux Klan with the help of fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and attempts to bring down the organization. The film’s final scenes — linking the KKK’s history to the current resurgence of nationalism and the white supremacy movement — are chilling, but profound.
What movie about social injustice has made an impact on you?