From racism to homophobia, cinema has long sought to fight against social injustice. As an immersive medium, film has the power to fight back against inequality by putting us in the shoes of those victim. This list specifically focuses on contemporary movies that are relevant today (so excluding films about slavery etc.), each attempting to expose the harsh reality of living as a minority in the modern Western world.
Legendary director Spike Lee is widely known for his examination of racism, colourism, poverty, media and politics in his award-winning movies. Lee’s autership has led to his films being dubbed “Spike Lee Joints”, ending most stories with credit phrases such as “Ya Dig” or “Sho Nuff”. BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most recent film, sparking controversy for its employment of a white cop as the racist-fighting protagonist. John David Washington and Adam Driver star as two policemen attempting to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan – the ultimate icon of racism and social injustice. And as you can imagine, things don’t exactly go smoothly for them.
It might not be strictly 21st century, but Philadelphia still raises some significant issues surrounding homophobia. Tom Hanks plays a young lawyer suffering from AIDs, unfairly dismissed from his job because of his sexuality. Denzel Washington is subsequently hired as the homophobic lawyer, challenged with winning his case in court. Jonathan Demme’s film was one of the first major Hollywood movies to tackle issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, converting its subtly homophobic protagonist into an understanding friend. Emotive performances and tender scenes, such as the opera sequence, allow Philadelphia to transcend social barriers and show the true power of friendship.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
The second Spike Lee addition to our list is Do the Right Thing – the most widely praised movie of Lee’s filmography. The comedy drama uses a pizzerias Wall of Fame as an emblem of racism, where only Italian actors are allowed to be featured. The feisty and original tale – starring Lee himself as the lead – again sparked controversy upon release. However, Lee’s social commentary on cultural division rings truer now than ever, now holding a large cult following. Set in the scorching streets of New York, Lee uses the dog day heat as an amplifier for tension, metaphorically driving the friction between ethnicities.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Gabriele Muccino directs the biographical hit about Chris Gardner – a stock broker entrepreneur, forced to raise his son on the streets. The Pursuit of Happyness examines the combined effects of classism and racism on a family struggling to make ends meet in San Francisco. The hegemonic practices of Western society place Gardner in an impossible position – one which only his intelligence and determination can free him from. Will Smith headlines the inspirational true story alongside his son, Jaden Smith, just eight years old at the time of filming.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2017)
The Oscar-winning director of Moonlight (2016) Barry Jenkins produces yet another mesmerizingly lyrical film that delves deep into the black experience. Set in New York City, If Beale Street Could Talk is an intense love story, intertwined with the trials of racism during 1970s America. The crime drama stars Kiki Layne as Tish, the pregnant wife of Fonny (Stephan James). Told in non-chronological order, we witness Tish as he is unjustly sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Fonny is left to balance being a mother with trying to get him out. The wardrobe and mise-en-scene pays stunning tribute to the Generation X aesthetic, with a heartfelt scenes and carefully crafted dialogue making it a vision of cinema.
American History X (1998)
Edward Norton and Edward Furlong star as two right-wing brothers, taking matters of race to the extreme in Tony Kaye’s brutal crime movie. However, when the eldest brother is released from prison (serving for hate crime), he develops a change of heart, attempting to guide his brother away from the dangerous and bigoted path he once walked. With the aesthetic of a low-budget amateur movie, Kaye proves cinema doesn’t have to be glamourous to be powerful. Set in Los Angeles with an alternating narrative, Kaye teaches an important lesson on the harmful affects prejudice causes – both for the victims and the criminal.
Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow takes a hard punch at racism in the fight for civil rights. Set during 1967, Detroit was released in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Algiers Motel incident during the Vietnam war. The period crime drama records an unprovoked raid (or rather: attack) on innocent African-Americans, soon breaking out into a full-scale riot. Using documentary-style footage, Bigelow adopts a grainy film style to retell the infuriating, adrenaline-fuelled true events, starring Will Poulter and John Boyega.
Queen and Slim (2019)
The most recent film on our list, Queen and Slim follows Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya on their run from the police. After a self-defence induced murder, the couple embark on a relentless road trip full of unexpected twists and subversive characters. The sterling glamour of Queen and Slim’s cinematography make Melina Matsoukas’s directional debut a stunning yet deeply moving piece of work, brimming with political fury. The intimate portrait of one couple’s subjugation to prejudice acts as a microcosm for racism in America, allegorising our urgent need for change.
Using the 9/11 attacks as a catalyst for political strife, Crash collages together a string of intertwined lives, each faced with their own difficulties surrounding race, gender and class. Paul Haggis directs a lofty cast list – following a similar template to Love Actually (dir. Richard Curtis, 2003) or Magnolia (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) – in an attempt to break stereotypes and bridge the gap between unnecessary social divisions. The controversial drama is taught with political tension, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006. Crash is fascinating for its eye-opening example of the butterfly effect, as well as examining the consequences of one’s actions in a world full of division.
The Hate U Give (2018)
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” are the words of young Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a tenacious teen and key witness to police brutality. George Tillman Jr. directs an urgent and distressing film, nuanced by powerful and empathetic performances. When Starr becomes the only link between murder and justice, the pressures of social inequality begin to tighten. Subsidized with tons of political muscle, The Hate U Give not only manages to infuriate the audience with endless heartbreak, but also opens viewers minds to the complexity of socially ingrained prejudice.