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Top 10 Films That Changed the Social Landscape

By Noelle Buffam · March 16, 2011

We all know the power that a film can hold. It can inspire, enlighten, and even, at times, enrage. The ability of film to invoke strong emotions from a worldwide audience is seen time and again through successful film phenomenon: these are the kind of films that take the world by storm, grab our attention, and never let go. But can a film actually change the world? If we’re talking documentary, the answer is a resounding yes. Documentary films have played an integral role throughout the history of the world. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will stands as the most influential propaganda films of all time, inspiring Nazi supporters to return Germany to the status of a great country. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line even had an innocent man on death row cleared of his charges.

Yes, the proof that documentaries change the world is clear… but what about non-documentary and genre films? This year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to The King’s Speech, a film that chronicles one man’s struggle with stuttering. Both local and national groups who work with individuals who stutter acknowledge that the film has raised awareness for the disorder, and even empowered those who stutter. While the effect may not be as far-reaching as with documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me), entertainment movies hitting cineplexes across America and the world can also certainly change the social landscape of society.

I have to admit, films that spurn social consciousness give me butterflies. I find is amazing that an industry that’s stereotyped as shallow, vain, and recklessly extravagant can produce movies that connect with humanity. Not only that, but the connection can fuel change. Below I have complied a list of films that not only changed people’s opinions and perceptions, but also inspired audiences to take concrete action – to actually do something.

So tonight, as you sit down to pump out 10 pages of your screenplay, perhaps you’ll be inspired. Maybe you will put down the whoopee cushion (don’t get me wrong… I love whoopee cushion jokes just as much as the next girl), and instead take up an issue. Hey, you never know when you might change the world. Here’s to the writer’s with a message.

10. Blood Diamond (2006)

Its a film that brought attention to the diamond-financed civil war in Sierra Leone. Just days before its release, the State Department became concerned that the film would have a negative effect on Africa’s legitimate diamond industry. While it is true that “blood diamonds” (diamonds that are mined in a war zone and used to finance war activities) only make up a small percentage of the supply, even that number can be significant. A chairman went on to say that, “the story is clear: blood diamonds are still being sold, and consumers cannot completely trust that these blood-soaked gems are being kept out of stores." The release of the film brought the issue of conflict diamonds to the forefront, but since then the effect of the film has been argued. Since 2002, the appearance of conflict diamonds in the market went from 4-15% to less than 1%. While this was caused by controls initiated by the diamond industry, the film still made an impact… making the existence of “blood diamonds” an issue in the general public.

9. Norma Rae (1979)

No doubt, you have recently turned on the news and heard a bit about the chaos surrounding the unions in Wisconsin. The presence of unions has been an important part of culture within the United States for a long time. Whether you agree with the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or not, it's clear that the film Norma Rae dramatically impacted the views of Americans in the late 1970's. Sally field won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Norma Rae; a Southern mill worker who becomes involved with labor union activities. Based on the true-life story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae successfully orchestrates the unionization of the factory at which she works. The film caught the attention of the general public, causing a shift in sympathy towards the workers of the textile industry. The scene where Norma Rae writes “Union” on a piece of cardboard and waits for her colleagues to join her is now iconic within the union world. Not only was there an increase in unionization after the film’s release, but her legacy is still felt today. Google the current Wisconsin debacle and Norma Rae is sure to be referenced. 

8. Schindler’s List (1993)

Few movies have touched the hearts of audiences like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Spielberg waited over 10 years to make the film, because he felt he was not ready to take on a project about the Holocaust at age 37. The film came out in December 1993, just three months after the Oslo Accords were signed. The film was (and still is) the most expensive black and white film ever made, and it paid off. The film earned over $321 million worldwide, but Spielberg made it known that he could not accept money for this Schindler’s List. Instead, he gave the money back to Jewish communities throughout America. He established the Righteous Persons Foundation- an organization dedicated to building a “vibrant Jewish community in the United States." However, the film didn’t just affect Spielberg and his ties to Jewish people. The United States Holocaust Museum saw a huge jump in attendance after the film was released, proving that Schindler’s List caused audiences to reflect on the atrocities experienced during WWII. The film is not only responsible for creating a successful Jewish organization, but became an undeniable tool of education for awareness about the Holocaust.

7. Rambo (2008)

While it may not be your favorite Rambo movie, there is no doubt that Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo drew attention to the ongoing problems in Burma. While filming the movie in Burma, Sly and his crew narrowly escaped an attack from the Burmese military. Stallone went on to say that after being attacked, he "witnessed survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land-mine injuries maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off." The film has a Rambo record of 236 kills, and was panned in the United States for its excessive use of violence. However, the Burmese praised the film for its portrayal of the military’s oppression. Since the film brought such atrocities to world-wide attention, the Burmese government banned the movie. However, bootleg copies have circulated and created a “boost of morale." According to the Karen Freedom Fighters, they have even adopted a line from the movie, “Live for nothing, die for something,” as a new battle cry. Stallone has said that the attention brought to the Burmese and the reaction from Freedom Fighters has been one of his “proudest moments” he’s ever had in film.

6. Syriana (2005)

Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana elicited a huge critical response, raising questions about politics and the Middle East. The film portrays the state of the oil industry, and those who are personally involved in it. After its release, audiences sent over 8,000 emails to Congress. Many of the emails called for the United States to reduce it’s dependence on foreign oil: a notion that brought together left-winged environmentalists and right-winged security conservatives! The film became a go-to point for activists who wanted to prove that oil dependence results in violence and poor economies in the Middle East. No matter what side you’re on, you can’t deny that Syriana inspired political action towards oil dependence.

5. JFK (1991)

It just doesn’t get any more controversial than Oliver Stone’s JFK. Even before its release, historians attacked the conspiracy theory of government involvement in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stone’s film was discussed as “propaganda,” and he even received death threats for his work. The buzz only added to the success of the film, and regardless about your views… there is no doubt that JFK opened up discussion for what really happened that afternoon in Dallas. But the coolest thing about this film? The movie inspired the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. The act was signed into law, and it began a board that collects historical material pertaining to the assassination. Previously classified documents were made public, and all remaining records that have not been released, will be in 2017. That’s only six years away! Now… if only we could work out this whole Roswell thing.

4. Battle of Algiers (1966)

When Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers came out in 1966, it documented one of the most gruesome revolutions ever. The film produced a ton of controversy; France even banned it for five years. Because of the climate in many parts of the world, the film was used as inspiration for political violence. Many claim that the guerrilla warfare tactics depicted in the film were adopted by the Black Panthers and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The New York Times reported in 2003 that the Pentagon held screenings of Battle of Algiers in order to discuss the challenges of terrorist tactics faced in Iraq. The film has also been praised as a technical achievement, but it is clear that it has become so much more than that – an actually training tool and a candid look at the reality of violence.

3. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina. As a hotel manager in Rwanda, Rusesabagina housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during the struggle with the Hutu militia. Awareness of the mass killings was thrown into the forefront, as people all over the world wondered how they had never heard of the tragedy that occurred in 1994. When the film was released, its story permeated many aspects of life. In 2006 President George W. Bush awarded the real-life Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Awareness of other atrocities was publicized. The crisis in Darfur was (and still is) brought to the attention of the general public, and political regimes around the world. In Hotel Rwanda, a character states, “if people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners." Perhaps it is this notion, that the public should not ignore crimes that do not affect them directly, that made Hotel Rwanda so influential.

2. Birth of a Nation (1915)

Unfortunately, films do not always affect the social landscape in a positive manner. Case in point: Birth of a Nation. The 1915 film has been hailed as groundbreaking. However, despite huge leaps in film technique, the subject matter is blatantly racist. Based on the novel and play, The Clansman, the film tells the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction-era. The controversy over the film comes from the portrayal of African American men (actually Caucasian actors in “blackface”) as unintelligent rapists.  According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's is much ado to Birth of a Nation. Aided by the film, the Klan was able to garner support from the North. The Klan also expanded their audience by slandering Jewish people, Catholics, and Asians. Birth of a Nation proves that as much as a film can sow the seeds of enlightenment and understanding, so too can cause an influx of ignorance and hate.

1. Philadelphia (1993)

In 1993, Philadelphia became the first mainstream film to acknowledge HIV/AIDS. Not only that, but the film explored issues related to homosexuality and homophobia. Director Jonathan Demme hoped the film would take the stigma off the disease… and it did. The film grossed over $206 million worldwide. Philadelphia was aimed at an everyday audience that was largely uneducated about the disease. After its release, HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia were no longer issues to be discussed in hushed voices. The end of the film is marked by a message that states the film was inspired by Geoffrey Bowers’ AIDS discrimination lawsuit and those who have experienced discrimination because of AIDS. We have come a long way since 1993, but obviously Philadelphia did not solve all of these stereotypes, prejudices, inequalities, and lack of education completely. After all, the protesters in the film were inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church. Yep… the same crazies whom now go around protesting soldiers’ funerals. However, Philadelphia as well as most of the films on this list, raised awareness and caused action. Thanks to films like Philadelphia, a social conscious message does have the opportunity to reach and influence the masses, reminding us that doing something is so much better than doing nothing.