Five of the Most Influential Sociopolitical Documentaries of the Past Five Years
“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” — Arundhati Roy
In compiling this list, I was inspired by the words of Arundhati Roy, an Indian author and political activist. The following five movies have all called attention to injustices and have incited political movements. I’ve chosen documentaries from various activism fields: LGBTQ rights, education reform, women’s rights, animal activism, and drug criminalization. While some of these might be more discussed than others, all of them have found a niche in America’s sociopolitical landscape. The following five films are, by no means, a comprehensive list but demonstrates the vast array of politically charged films that incited political and social justice movements.
5. Bridegroom (2013)
A sign of the technological progression, the inception of Bridegroom is almost as fascinating as the story itself. The documentary was originally inspired by a heartbreaking YouTube video in 2012 made by Shane Crone on his channel after the tragic and untimely death of his partner of six years, Tom Bridegroom. It chronicles the homophobia and injustice that same-sex couples face and how this act sparked Shane’s transition to being an activist. There are beautiful moments where Crone goes on a trip to the Taj Mahal, somewhere the two of them had wanted to go, and the realization that Crone is moving forward without Bridegroom is bittersweet.
One of the ethical problems is the line between marriage legality and hospital rights. Despite being in a committed relationship for over six years, Crone was not allowed to see Bridegroom in the hospital because he wasn’t immediate family. He was nixed from Bridegroom’s will for the same reason. Though many states have legalized same-sex marriage since Bridegroom’s death, the value of a marriage certificate is both heightened and challenged. Being married would have enabled Crone to get the marital benefits of a widowed spouse, but also would having their relationship be a formal marriage make it worth more? Unfortunately, regardless of sexual orientation, American society values the marriage label over long-term relationships and views marriages, no matter how terrible they may be to be superior.
The number of people who have seen the original video “It Could Happen to You” has reached almost 5 million views. In a rallying call for same-sex couples rights, the story of Crone and Bridegroom has had international viewership as well as nationwide recognition. Regardless of sexual orientation, Bridegroom is a love story that is marred by injustice and ignorance.
4. Waiting for Superman (2010)
Are there problems with this film? Yes. Is it still important? Yes. Waiting for Superman highlights the failure of the American public school system for eager youth. When high schools perpetuate the cycle of poor education and unprepared students, we are faced with a failing system. Undeniably, there are some excellent public schools, but the tenure of teachers, as well as, the lack of safety nets in the system creates a perfect storm of problems.
The film follows five students of varying ages all across the United States as they enter the “lottery” a system to give slots to children for charter or magnet schools. The realism that these children’s futures rest in the hands of chance is unsettling and an example of the hierarchical education system that relies on wealth and chance. Many of these children come from underprivileged families with caring parents trying to fight for their kids’ education, but because of their lack of money, they cannot afford a private school. Some of the public high schools foster conditions for kids to drop out.
Though the film does not fully address unenthusiastic students and poor work efforts, the film does discuss in great detail the infrastructural problems that need to be corrected.
3. Miss Representation (2011)
When a film includes the likes of Margaret Cho, Condoleezza Rice, Gloria Steinem, and Lisa Ling, it’s going to be talked about. Three years after its release it is still being talked about. The film examines the gender disparity in the United States and the media’s portrayals of women. As women are often objectified and hyper-sexualized, the documentary is a discussion about the injustices women face in the media and the effects on the next generations of girls.
The pressure to assimilate to a overarching notion of how a woman should look or act is discussed with the perfect mix of comedy and stinging critique that when combined bury into the heart of the subject. The media is partially responsible for the internalized stereotypes that we have. Because, the effects of the patriarchal oppression are still so problematic both men and women are affected. Men and women perceive women with unrealistic and unbelievable standards that are still being challenged almost 50 years after the second wave of feminism.
In the aftermath of its release, the film makers created a call-to-action campaign as a watchdog for media and advertisements and to raise awareness of the mistreatment and acceptance of the subordination of women. Men, women, children, and parents alike should watch this movie to see the impacts society has on the women and girls of the country and raise awareness of the cultural beliefs and practices that are so caustic.
2. Blackfish (2013)
When a documentary sparks immense outrage at the behind-the-scene actions of as well-known an organization as Sea World, it’s going to be . Blackfish examines the life of Tilikum, a whale in captivity at a Sea World theme park. Tilikum made news most notably for involvement in the death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, he had been previously involved in the deaths of two other Sea World employees.
The documentary brings up a question about animal psychosis and the enduring trauma that can result in acts of violence like Tilikum’s. I propose that the documentary is less about the orcas, but a greater reflection on the evils that we, as humans, can do and justify based on our taxonomical hierarchy and the superior ideologies that humans have over other species.
While Sea World largely blamed the trainer for certain actions that took place that day, Blackfish retraces the trauma Tilikum and other captured orcas have endured. Sea World has faced immediate backlash by the public and a withdrawal of support from several of its celebrity supporters and performers. Other documentaries focusing on animal rights have also been released in the past five years including The Cove have garnered attention to the interactions between man and nature and have sparked a dialogue asserting animal rights and humane treatment.
1. The House I Live In (2012)
With addiction reaching the far corners of America, The House I Live In’s timely release re-evaluates what we know of the War on Drugs. The film maker, inspired by the struggle of a dear friend’s family, focuses on the criminalization and ineffective system in place to fight the War on Drugs. Though empirical evidence suggests that rehabilitation and reintegration programs are the most successful in preventing relapse, the criminalization system has created a cyclical pattern for non-violent drug offenders to imprison them, release them untrained, and the re-imprison them if they relapse. From the users, to the dealers, to the families, and law enforcers, the documentary gives a multi-faceted view of the drug industry and the reasons for getting involved in it. Moreover, it offers a sympathetic approach to tackling drug offenders and suggests an upheaval of the system. Much of the drug dealing comes from poor, inner city areas where jobs are scarce. In the void of an enterprise, drug dealing arises from the lack of prospects. As some rappers like Jay-Z have glamorized, the life of a dealer allows riches and a comfortable lifestyle that is idealized among the impressionable youth.
Another problem is the unequal sentencing based on race. While historically the United States has had a long drawn out relationship with drugs, they were not always illegal. Many of the laws in place were designed to disenfranchise specific ethnic groups: Chinese-Americans with opium, Mexican-Americans with marijuana, and African-Americans with crack. The minimum sentencing of crack cocaine possession is almost five times higher than powdered cocaine possession, which is considered a “white” drug. The injustices of the system are being fought, but with much resistance due to the long standing structure.
Regardless of your personal experience on this issue, The House I Live In will inevitably make you more aware of the problems facing the restructuring of the system and may even challenge the way that you look at the issue. Since the documentary was screened, many other countries have begun decriminalizing drug possession and focusing on rehabilitation. Similar conversations have begun to occur in the United States due in part to this documentary and its expose on the current problems the system faces.
The format of documentaries lends itself well to connecting with the audience in a way that other films don’t. The above five films will make you challenge your beliefs and learn more about the subjects. The film makers embodied Arundhati Roy’s words and took action after seeing flaws in American society. After seeing these films you too will be faced with the choice Roy poses. What action will you take?
What do you think? Leave a comment.