Social impact and sustainability are becoming central to contemporary film as our society feels increasingly entrenched in chaos. The following films about social impact span multiple genres and topics, and all shine a spotlight on a societal or environmental challenge that requires innovation to overcome.
The U.S. prison population has grown from 196,000 in 1970 to more than 2.3 million today. Despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population, the United States houses a quarter of the globe’s prison population. With interviews with people like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Jelani Cobb, “13th” traces the racist history of criminality, policing, and incarceration in America. Beginning with the war on drugs to the development of special interests groups like the American Legislative Exchange Corporation that has allowed for corporations to have a direct hand in writing legislation that profits them at the expense of Black communities, “13th” is an eye-opening film about racism.
An Inconvenient Truth (2019)
An Oscar Award winning documentary about global warming and climate change, An Inconvenient Truth follows former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about the dangers of global warming. The documentary proved to be a commercial success and helped Al Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As one of the most successful documentaries of all time, the films impact has made it one of the most important films about climate change.
Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock (2017)
For generations, the Lakota and Dakota people have prophesied the arrival of a “Black Snake” that will invade their homelands and destroy everything in its path. In 2016, Energy Transfer Partners began construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline upriver of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on unceded treaty land. The pipeline threatens the wellbeing of the Standing Rock community, destroyed ancestral burial grounds, fuels an epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and further solidifies a racist relationship of betrayal and violence between the U.S. government and Indigenous people. This film captures the ensuing resistance to the pipeline that captivated the world in the largest gathering of Native people in U.S. history making it an important film about racism and climate change.
Dark Waters (2019)
In this legal thriller, Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway lead a stunning dramatization of Robert Bilott’s legal case against chemical manufacturing company DuPont after the corporation contaminated a town’s drinking water in West Virginia. After litigating DuPont’s hazardous dumping of unregulated chemicals for more than 20 years, Bilott settled the lawsuit in 2017 for $671 million on behalf of 3,500 plaintiffs. A remarkable movie that delves into a poisonous scandal, Dark Waters is a must-see film about social impact.
Erin Brokovich (2000)
Portrayed by Julia Roberts in this 2000 legal drama, Erin Brokovich is a legal clerk and environmental activist who was instrumental in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company after they dumped 370 million gallons of chromium-tainted wastewater into groundwater in Hinkley, California. Chromium-6 in drinking water was linked to causing cancer and respiratory issues among Hinkley’s residents. The case Brokovich built against PG&E was settled in 1996 for $333 million, making the lawsuit the largest direct-action settlement in U.S. history. Although it’s been 20 years since the release of this movie, it remains a startlingly relevant film about social impact to date.
Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution (2017)
In this 2017 James Redford documentary, we are taken cross-country to highlight innovators and entrepreneurs in discovering the current and future states of clean energy in the fight against climate change. Banding together politicians, activists and executives, Redford uplifts the work of leaders who are working to build a sustainable future for all.
In this 2008 animated sci-fi film, a solitary robot named WALL-E is left to clean up trash on a future dystopian Earth left inhabitable before humanity ditched the planet to live luxurious lives aboard spaceships. When the mothership sends a robot named EVE to evaluate Earth for signs of vegetation, WALL-E falls in love with EVE before presenting her with a live seedling. WALL-E is a great film to watch with the whole family, as it is a love story as much as it is a statement on the dangers of climate change.
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MJ Ruff (they/them) is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribal nation from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. MJ has worked as a poet, community organizer and is a current Project Associate at Bark Media Co. in Lawrence, Kansas.