Intricately crafted footage. CGI-created worlds from a different time and place. The perfect two-shot captures the essence of a peculiar and complicated relationship: a shared moment between two persons.
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These are the ingredients for a good or even great film, but do they have the power to make a film matter? To have a lasting impact on society, a film must be more than simply technically competent. It must be able to broaden our horizons, shift our point of view, and compel us to take action.
The Media Institute for Social Change (MISC), based at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was founded on the premise that entertainment and social change may coexist in the same medium.
Throughout the year, there were numerous examples of films that exemplify the MISC concept. We’ve selected 15 films that strike a unique balance between high production values, fun entertainment, and a positive social influence. The USC MISC LIST: The 15 Most Important Social Change Films is here for the first time.
15. Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon M. Chu Issues: Representation, Class
As Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel about a cross-cultural romance between a Chinese-American economics professor and one of Singapore’s most prominent fortunes approached, the world held its collective breath. After 25 years of silence from major studios, the film—the first about Asian-American characters to be released by one in the last two decades—opened in August to worldwide praise and record-breaking box office. To put to rest the myths that films starring women, people of color, and frothy, frivolous romances and light comedies aren’t appealing to the general public, the film did it all in one go:
14. Green Book
Director: Peter Farrelly Issue: Racism
For the most of American history, race has trumped class when it comes to the treatment of its residents, and the narrative of Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) serves as a simple but effective reminder of this. There is no lessening of their intrinsic violence or inhumanity because Shirley is able to bear these daily indignities while traveling across the Jim Crow south and isn’t allowed to use the bathroom in the venues where his performances take place. Despite the film’s many critics, it deserves its social impact bona fides for demonstrating the power of proximity to dismantle stereotypes. “Capturing on video the bonds that may link us when we spend time listening to, talking to, and living with one another,” remarked Quincy Jones, who knew Don Shirley back in the 1950s.
13. A Private War
Director: Matthew Heineman Issue: War
The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which got underway in 2001 and 2003, are still going on today. As a result of these losses, the newspaper industry, which relies on its correspondents to expose the human cost of armed conflicts, has had to make significant cuts. It’s all of this that makes Marie Colvin’s reporting from crisis zones across the Middle East and beyond for The Sunday Times so important. Heineman (Cartel Land and City of Hope) and Rosamund Pike (City of Hope) bring Colvin’s narrative to life with searing honesty, capturing the journalist’s jagged edges and seemingly contradictory character traits. War’s devastation on humans is depicted in the film’s portrayal of Colvin’s dispatch from Syria’s Homs, where forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are pounding the city. Even now, we are still affected by what Colvin called the worst conflict she has ever covered.
12. Leave No Trace
Director: Debra Granik Issues: Homelessness, PTSD
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are a loving father and daughter pair who live deep in the woods inside a Portland, Oregon, park. Somewhat voluntarily, they have chosen to spend their lives in the woods. Will’s PTSD from his time in the military has made it difficult for him to interact with other people, and he is anxious to get back into the woods as soon as he can. This country’s problem of homelessness, which is especially prevalent in the West and among veterans, is vividly and nuancedly shown in Debra Granik’s film. Family relationships can be shown to outlast even the harshest conditions, even when trauma is not handed down down the generations. The same thing wrong with you isn’t wrong with me, as Tom informs Will at the film’s heartbreaking conclusion.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda Issue: Poverty
With this film, Japanese master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda offers a very nuanced look at a demographic that receives the least amount of media attention: the underprivileged working class. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for a family to shoplift noodles and fishing poles in order to survive on their poor and erratic wages, Shoplifters is an excellent place to start. When the characters in the film are forced to make such difficult judgments as a factory owner forcing two ladies to choose which one of them should be laid off in order to keep his firm profitable, it’s no wonder that the most marginalized of us can make poor decisions. Though it is in Japanese, the video’s straightforward but challenging message applies to us all: We will never be able to address the problem of poverty when so much of society views being poor as a crime in and of itself. The film is in Japanese.
10. Three Identical Strangers
Director: Tim Wardle Issues: Scientific/medical ethics, mental health
In this documentary about triplets who were separated at birth as part of a clandestine scientific research, that seemingly unanswerable question—is it nature or nurture that determines an individual’s course in life—is examined in a way that is both fascinating and painful. Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran are three genetically identical men who discover one other by chance in the early 1980s and appear on shows like The Phil Donahue Show and Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan, among others. A more troubling assessment of mental health and the depth of familial ties comes to light later on. However, it is the film’s focus on medical/scientific ethics that elevates it to a position of social significance. Watching the film’s victims find that they were part of a 1960s experiment undertaken by an organization that specialized in Jewish adoptions and imitated those carried out by German doctors during World War II is frustrating.. Despite the fact that the film never completes its investigation—the results of the study are secret for the next 50 years—it serves as a poignant reminder of the terrible impact of fake science.
9. Science Fair
Directors: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster Issuee: Education
An example of this is a Muslim-American student who attends a South Dakota school where football is the most important thing, and who could care less about her award-winning findings in behavioral science. Another example is a lone Appalachian mountaineer who can rap like Kanye West about technology, but he fails math. Then there are the three Kentucky boys who work on a stethoscope that can detect cardiac issues during the day and party at night. Their classmate, on the other hand, is a loner. This is what she says: “I’ve observed that the majority of people who are both academically successful and socially popular tend to be males,” she continues. The International Science and Engineering Fair is the ultimate goal for all of them. A high-stress atmosphere like this science fair is a great location to explore how class, gender, and opportunity are all intertwined. This documentary by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster shows that. The film shows that brilliance and hard effort can be a great equalizer, despite the fact that some contestants live in underprivileged areas of Brazil. There are “clever people in every place,” one of the kids’ mentors tells them.
8. Ben is Back
Director: Peter Hedges Issues: Addiction, recovery
Filmmakers who want to tell the story of America’s opiate epidemic confront an uphill battle. A personal matter that affects loved ones and tears families apart is at stake. There are deeper issues at play here, such as profit-hungry pharmaceutical firms and class-based treatment programs that are only accessible to those who can afford it. This much-needed context is included in the account of a single day in a family dealing with the entrance of an older son in the early stages of addiction recovery, but the focus remains firmly on the problem at hand. The film’s portrayal of a town devastated by the activities of a drug addict is what sets it apart from the rest of the field. Rachel Bay Jones, who won a Tony Award for her role as the grieving mother of Ben’s buddy who died from an overdose, is there, as is her younger sister Kathryn Newton, who is dubious about Ben’s recovery and pays for his rehab, as does Ben’s African-American stepfather (Courtney B. Vance). As he puts it, “you’d be in jail if you were black.”
7. First Reformed
Director: Paul Schrader Issues: Environmentalism, personal responsibility
“Is God going to accept us?” As the Sword of Damocles looms over writer-director Paul Schrader’s somber investigation of moral responsibility, this is the question that a distressed environmentalist first asks of his priest, who responds with a shrug. Is God going to let us off the hook for the environmental damage we’ve caused in the sake of profit? Because we’ve crossed a threshold of irreversibility in terms of climate change, this topic has gone from the theoretical to the urgent. A traumatized former military chaplain, like Ethan Hawke’s character in the film Upstate New York, who pastors a “tourist church,” bears the brunt of that tragic reality’s impact and moral ramifications. People who are most vulnerable will turn to extremism to make their voices heard if those in positions of power, such as big business and the politicians they support, continue to shirk their responsibilities and ignore the situation. All with disastrous results.
Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white neorealist masterwork focuses on the role of women and the inescapable links of class. Autobiographical memory pieces that faithfully reproduce the filmmaker’s upbringing in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood are common, but this film offers so much more. Since Cleo, the family’s housekeeper, is the sole narrator, Cuarón’s film is an audacious attempt at reexamining his assumptions and biases from the perspective of someone he likely overlooked or took for granted at the time. The video depicts how a patriarchy that devalues the important labor that two women do in the shadows unites them despite their eternal social divisions. Furthermore, the film provides us with a perspective on history that is rarely included in the official record, such as when the characters see the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre, which murdered more than 120 student demonstrators, from the inside of a baby furniture store.
5. Dark Money
Since a rule prohibiting corporate spending in state elections was implemented in Montana in 1912, the Big Sky state has stood out as a democratic ideal. In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the state’s campaign finance rules were invalidated by its 2010 Citizens United ruling. Kimberly Reed’s documentary focuses on the disastrous impact of that decision on her home state, which was smeared by ghostly PACs funded by out-of-state corporate money at the last minute. Our country’s flawed campaign finance structure prevents us from making progress on matters like education and the environment, as the film thoroughly details. Moreover, Reed’s film fearlessly shows us the route out of the darkness by spotlighting heroes who are paving the road. Farmer and citizen-politician Jon Tester, former attorney general-turned-Governor Steve Bullock, and most poignant of all, journalist John S. Adams, who founded the non-profit Montana Free Press after losing his job in layoffs and continues to dive into the murky abyss of anonymous donors after losing his job in the layoffs.
4. The Hate U Give
Director: George Tillman Jr. Issues: Institutional racism, police misconduct
There is no doubt that The Hate U Give is a film that speaks out against the recent spate of police shootings that have claimed the lives of African-American men like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland. But for George Tillman Jr. and Audrey Wells (who wrote the screenplay based on Angie Thomas’s young adult novel), that was just the beginning. For many African-American families, life is an extreme difficulty because of institutional racism, as depicted in the film. Amandla Stenberg’s character (played by Emilia Clarke) finds her own political voice at a time when many in society are working against her. As a result, Russell Horneby’s portrayal of Maverick, the young woman’s loving father, provides a critical correction to the stale stereotype of an absent African-American father.
3. Boy Erased
Director: Joel Edgerton Issues: Sexual identity, gay civil rights
Even if you believe in God, can you practice religion if your entire identity violates the core tenets of that faith, as many people insist? For an Arkansas family, Joel Edgerton’s adaptation of Gerrard Conley’s memoir is a finely nuanced attempt to answer this question. You feel for the mother, Nicole Kidman, as she slowly comes to realize that the religious conversion treatment she intended as a kind deed is rather a torturous act for her gay, sensitive son Lucas Hedges. Compassion and empathy are lacking in the programs, and this film is an emotive criticism of their bullying and contempt for those they are trying to help.
2. Minding the Gap
Director: Bing Liu Issues: Addiction, domestic violence, economic opportunity
Bing Liu’s film on the Rockford, Illinois, skateboarding scene, in the vein of 1994’s Hoop Dreams, is a sports documentary only in name. With the lives of three brilliant skateboarders at its core, Minding the Gap manages to explore everything from the ubiquity of racism to the cycles of addiction and domestic violence. To save the hassle of having to search through his pockets or the glove box when he’s pulled over by police, skater Keire keeps his driver’s license and registration attached to the dashboard of his car. Skateboarders glide over the concrete skeletons of the industrial Midwest in breathtaking fashion in the film Minding the Gapis, which is more than just a collection of problems. Also, it’s a film about the shifting definitions of masculinity and the families we build for ourselves when the ones we were born into don’t work out.
1. Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler Issues: Representation, technology, colonialism, racism
It was a monumental year for representation, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse featuring an Afro-Latino Spider-Man. However, one film stood out above the rest not only for what it showed us on screen, but also for the possibilities it opened up for us off of it. A fresh possibility for one of pop culture’s most ubiquitous products: the superhero movie, was proven by filmmaker Ryan Coogler by kindling our imagination of what an African nation — propelled by technology and free of colonialism — may achieve. That’s not the only reason people around the world flocked to the film: It represented a hero who looked like them, a figure they could identify with. Unlike any other picture, Black Panther’s social influence was felt in every movie theater full with young people, and months later when those kids showed up at our doors on Halloween. African and African-Americans were hailed as warriors, scientists and world leaders of the greatest order with epic flourish and shameless swagger. In a nutshell, as superheroes of all stripes.