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)

Bridegroom

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)

The poster for the "Waiting for Superman" documentary
The poster for the “Waiting for Superman” documentary

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)

The Miss Representation poster featuring the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter with modern technology
The Miss Representation poster featuring the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter with modern technology

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)

Blackfish

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)

The House I Live In

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.

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28 Comments

  1. Jon Lisi

    Good choices, and there are many others as well. There are certainly worse things in the world than using the cinematic medium to make a statement about a cause, but I wonder, do you think “issue” films have gotten too preachy or one-sided?

    Not to say that I don’t agree with the message of many of these films, but I do sometimes wonder if I’d prefer documentaries like ‘Let the Fire Burn’ that are a little more complicated and less conclusive, and that leave the audience thinking without necessarily telling the audience what to think.

    • Well, I think “issue” films are also based on the notion that injustices that are universally recognized as such still occur (gender inequality, animal abuse, etc.) They are meant to infuriate and incite as a call-to-action. They have a clear agenda and are trying to push it. The one benefit “preachy” documentaries have is they directly validate or challenge your beliefs.

      Though I haven’t seen “Let the Fire Burn”, but I think that “Waiting for Superman” and “The House I Live In” present more unbiased opinions, generally encouraging reform but in a multifaceted way.

      Though each has their own place, I think it is a matter of direction and vision of the director and what impact they would like to have socially.

  2. Johnathan Howell
    0

    These look interesting and I have only heard of Waiting for Superman. It’s too bad docs don’t seem to have a wider audience.

  3. Guillermo
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    My only criticism of this list is that there could be more than 5 titles, why not a 20 list of docs? Anyway I can’t wait to dive into the titles I haven’t yet had a chance to see. Thank you!

    • There’s one way I find lists useful. Time is short. I can’t see nearly as many movies as I’d like, read as many books as I’d like, etc. So when a critic recommends ten movies or books or whatever, it helps narrow the selection process for me. But whether a movie ranks 2nd or 8th…I could care less.

  4. Alicia Moss
    0

    My favourite documentary not mentioned on this list: PLANET OF SNAIL, Yi Seung-jun’s portrait of an extraordinary Korean couple helping each other live with very different disabilities: He is a blind and deaf writer and poet; she has a form of dwarfism related to a spinal defect.

  5. I see most of these are streaming on Netflix! You’ve given me my TV viewing for the rest of the week! 🙂

  6. Dennis Fulton

    Blackfish was messed up. I never had a clue that Sea World took so little regard to the emotional well being of their orcas. I’ve even been there, but I still failed to realize the park was treated more as an amusement park than an animal sanctuary. Especially cruel, considering how intelligent orcas are. Something so smart can’t be locked up and expected to be well behaved.

  7. Nicholas Devin

    I watched Blackfish after reading this article. Good choice for the list and a great documentary too.

  8. Billie Bowen
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    Iraq in Fragments (2007) is one I recommend. The Fog of War (2003) is great too.

  9. The House I Live In is now on my list of films. Your description led me on a YouTube journey of discovery.

    Thank you. I liked what I heard and I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary.

  10. Taylor Pena
    0

    Sometimes having high expectations of a film can be a set-up for disappointment, but even though I expected “Searching for Sugar Man” to be great and I knew some of the surprises in the story, the film was still amazing. Of course I understand it is not eligible for this list.

  11. eclancy

    I think a good documentary to watch in tandem with Misrepresentation is Videocracy (2009). (It is also streamable on Netflix!) It looks into the issues of gender and politics created by television and the entourage of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Truly fascinating, eye-opening, and rage-inducing.

  12. I believe one important consideration must be the circulation and awareness of these pivotal films. Documentaries are crucial in sharing the narrative of current trends, events, issues, and problems. While these films will espouse an expectation of intellectual engagement, the lack of circulation is a detriment. Living in a rural area (three hours from a cinema), the only films reasonably available are the sparse offerings of the predictable and tired blockbusters. Availability and access should be a consideration, as some of these films could be/ and should be a part of upper-high school curriculum.
    MissRepresentation is one title that strikes at the core of my beliefs. This doc must be included in curriculum (along with other materials related to gender equality and identity) as this gap is being perpetuated by antiquated patriarchal systems. This article serves as a statement of the importance of online dialog relating to availability of these works.
    Thanks for sharing a reflection on these titles!

  13. Jamie Tracy

    Well done.
    Solid choices. Miss Representation is a documentary I use in several of my courses. I have used it in lectures related to Photography and the Media, Fashion Photography, Feminism in Art History, The Reclining Nude and The Evolution of Female Characters in Video Games.

    On a personal note I always find it disheartening when the masses get so outraged over a film like Blackfish or The Cove but remain relatively quiet when films like Miss Representation, Bridegroom or Waiting For Superman are released.

  14. Thanks for sharing! I am going to check out all of these Docs ASAP!! Especially Miss Representation. As a woman in the film industry, it greatly appeals to me.

  15. thanks for this list… I liked your choice of documentaries.

  16. Just watched “The American Ruling Class” and it really resonated with me. It were also totally taken with “Deliver us from Evil” (which I believe was done in ’08)…

  17. RLTerry

    What an excellent article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And, I applaud your choices. Three of them are definitely ones I would have chosen myself, had I had the foresight to analyze the best socio-political documentaries. It’s a comprehensive list that does an excellent job at evaluating the various plots, effectiveness, and relevance. I appreciate the attention to details both directly and indirectly associated with the films. Personally, the “Bridegroom” documentary was the sociopolitical documentary that touched me the most. Because, I would hate to be in a similar situation myself. It truly highlights the state of our society in that there are places that will still keep two people away from each other simply because the state in which one resides does not recognize the relationship. Even if the Supreme Court does not want to make the decision whether nationally marriage equality is a societal importance, they should use this documentary as insight into a decision that would require states to recognize marriage certificates issued by other states without question. Thank you for highlighting these important documentaries.

  18. Very good, and very thought provoking once again. Also, very well rounded choices. One of my favorite documentaries I’ve seen–if for no other reason than it makes shudder –has been “Food, Inc.” Though…I don’t recommend anyone see it if they’d rather not learn a bit about agribusiness. Another would be “Girl Rising,” which–I think–is an extraordinarily important film about positive cycle that follows educating girls around the world. The only way you can watch it is if someone gathers enough people to get a screening at a movie theater or college campus. Still, a very powerful film.

  19. Ishay Craig

    Can’t believe I hadn’t heard of “The House I Live In,” need to check that one out. thanks!

  20. Mary Awad

    Waiting for superman looks and sounds absolutely phenomenal. I have not seen any of these films but I will have to put them on my watch list. Thank you for making this list and for including the trailers. Making these films known is really great. Documentaries aren’t appreciated as they should be.

  21. Max Lin

    “Blackfish” was quite an emotional watching experience and really eye-opening. I’ll be sure to check out these other ones! “Waiting for Superman” has been on my list for some time.

  22. Emaloo

    Blackfish blew my mind when I saw it. I immediately wanted to make everyone around me see it and discuss it with them. It opened my eyes to a topic I knew nothing about and showed me the importance of awareness, which is what sociopolitical documentaries should do in my opinion. And the backlash surrounding Blackfish and Sea World shows the power documentaries can have and should have. I would also suggest that The Act of Killing was an influential documentary as it showed the horrors gangster killings in Indonesia. Again this was another event I knew nothing about but once I learned I could not forget. I left the film partly unable to digest what I had just seen, that people could not only commit such atrocities but that they could brag about them.

  23. Surprised to see Bridegroom on the list. Such an insightful and well-made documentary. All great choices. I haven’t seen “The House I Live In”, but you have convinced me to check it out.

  24. What about Samsara? I was mesmerized by this film!

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