Social Justice in Movies, Part One

by | created - 23 Jun 2015 | updated - 24 Jun 2015 | Public

This is a wide ranging list of films that examine social justice issues, and challenge the viewer.

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1. Pelle the Conqueror (1987)

PG-13 | 157 min | Drama

The end of the 19th century. A boat filled with Swedish emigrants comes to the Danish island of Bornholm. Among them are Lasse and his son Pelle who move to Denmark to find work. They find ... See full summary »

Director: Bille August | Stars: Pelle Hvenegaard, Max von Sydow, Erik Paaske, Björn Granath

Votes: 9,346 | Gross: $2.05M

Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erbroren) is the 19th Century Swedish Immigrant labour in Denmark, and the hardships, abuses, and racism they face.

2. Looking for Miracles (1989 TV Movie)

103 min | Drama, Family

Sixteen-year-old Ryan Delaney has won a scholarship, but it's not a full one, so he needs a summer job to pay for his university expenses. And although he's not eighteen, he can't swim, and... See full summary »

Director: Kevin Sullivan | Stars: Greg Spottiswood, Zachary Bennett, Joe Flaherty, Patricia Gage

Votes: 262

Set in Depression-era Canada, this is the story of the haves and have nots, and of two brothers facing the trials of poverty, and fighting to improve their lot and their world.

3. Where the River Runs Black (1986)

PG | 100 min | Adventure

An orphaned boy who was raised in the Amazon jungle is brought back to civilization by a priest who knows his father.

Director: Christopher Cain | Stars: Charles Durning, Alessandro Rabelo, Ajay Naidu, Divana Brandão

Votes: 385 | Gross: $0.68M

A Priest fights the Church for funds to educate the tribe he lives with, and build a home for children, and a child from the tribe fights for Justice for his murdered mother, and brings down a corrupt official.

4. The Mission (1986)

PG | 125 min | Adventure, Drama, History

55 Metascore

Eighteenth century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.

Director: Roland Joffé | Stars: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn

Votes: 52,146 | Gross: $17.22M

The Jesuits fight to save the Gua'Rani, and the Spanish and Portuguese seek to enslave them, in this micro and macro story of the fight for the souls of humans and the fight for the soul of humanity.

5. Opal Dream (2006)

PG | 86 min | Drama, Family

56 Metascore

A young girl's relationship with her imaginary friends resonates throughout her town in the Australian Outback.

Director: Peter Cattaneo | Stars: Sapphire Blossom, Christian Byers, Vince Colosimo, Jacqueline McKenzie

Votes: 884 | Gross: $0.01M

Mob rule means that a man has been judged guilty of a crime against the community in an Australian Outback town, even before he faces a court. The Court case is both a fight to prove him innocent, and a fight for the soul of the town.

6. Where God Left His Shoes (2007)

96 min | Drama

61 Metascore

A failed boxer (Leguizamo) struggles to find a job and an apartment for his family on Christmas Eve.

Director: Salvatore Stabile | Stars: John Leguizamo, Leonor Varela, David Castro, Samantha M. Rose

Votes: 972 | Gross: $0.00M

It takes considerable artistic bravery and conceit to make a film such as this one, in the style in which it is put together. Although there are more than two characters in this film, it is essentially a two-hander, carried by John Leguizamo and the eleven- year-old David Castro as his stepson. It takes tremendous guts for a film-maker to entrust their creation to just two actors, especially when one of them is so young. But these two actors were perfectly cast, and my attention was held fast until the credits rolled. I watched it twice on the day that the DVD arrived. The film is an unflinching look at the life of a homeless family in New York, and it tells you all you need to know without melodrama, and still manages to remain spare, lean, and breathtaking. I have friends who have lived homeless, and this is their story. If you want to understand the homeless trap, then watch this. I waited years to buy this film. Don't make the same mistake.

7. Brecha (2009)

89 min | Drama

Recently released from jail, Andrés experiences an emotional rupture from his 12-year-old son, José Ramón, following a dark family tragedy that nobody is bold enough to confront.

Director: Iván Noel | Stars: Francisco Alfonsin, José Ramón Lafita Narbona, Lola Mendoza, Maica Sánchez Caballero

Votes: 205

A father returns to his mother and his son after spending four years in prison for accidentally killing a child. This is a film about love, responsibility, forgiveness, blame, and reconciliation. You will not see this coming!

8. Edges of the Lord (2001)

R | 95 min | Crime, Drama, Romance

A twelve-year-old Jewish boy hides with a family of Catholic peasant farmers to escape the Nazis.

Director: Yurek Bogayevicz | Stars: Haley Joel Osment, Willem Dafoe, Richard Banel, Liam Hess

Votes: 3,280

This film's story could be compared to the classic resistance story 'Le Silence De La Mere' by Paul Vercors. It depicts actions taken by Polish people in their ordinary lives to counter the predations of the occupying Nazis. Actions which could have cost them their lives. It is not, however, a flagwaving tub thumper that rewrites history to make the Poles out to all be innocent angels. There were collaborators and Nazi sympathisers in every one of the allied nations, and this film shows that Poland was no different. Contrary to remarks by other reviewers, not all of the actors were employing fake accents, and not all of the fake accents were inaccurate (I speak as someone who knows people from that region of Poland). The reason for the use of actors from different nations would be that the production was made with money from more than one country, and also because a film with actors from different nations would have wider appeal. The accent issue does not detract from one's ability to watch the film, although I would argue that this is not a film that is there to entertain. It is there to give people pause for thought, and is therefore especially useful in these dark times when the far-right is on the rise across the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. People interested in this film might also be interested in Where Eskimos Live [2002] [DVD]

9. Sweet Mud (2006)

90 min | Drama

Set in mid-70's, 12-year old Dvir Avni navigates between the equality values of his home-born Kibbutz and the relationship with his undermined mother, whom the Kibbutz members will to denounce.

Director: Dror Shaul | Stars: Tomer Steinhof, Ronit Yudkevitz, Shai Avivi, Pini Tavger

Votes: 689

A very touching set of personal stories set against a wider commentary. The stories of Dvir and his mother Miri, and the people who surround them are told through the eyes of Dvir, who is eleven or twelve years old at the start, and thirteen at the end. This is important to realise, because the focus is on how the stories, and the lives, impinge on Dvir's existence. Tomer Steinhof, as Dvir, gives a beautiful and screen-commanding performance, while Roni Yudkevitz's Miri is understated and devastatingly realistic. This film lays bare the impact that the impersonal regime at social collective agricultural Kibbutzes can have on somebody's sense of person. Watch this film. Love Miri. Love Dvir. Hate injustice.

10. The Brothers Lionheart (1977)

106 min | Adventure, Drama, Family

Brothers Jonatan and Skorpan lead a revolution against the tyrant Tengil in the magical afterlife land of Nangijala.

Director: Olle Hellbom | Stars: Staffan Götestam, Lars Söderdahl, Allan Edwall, Gunn Wållgren

Votes: 5,696

Widely viewed by commentators as one of the greatest family action adventure films ever made, this 1977 Swedish gem is a real find for any collector of such films. The acting is first rate, especially from the young lead, Lars Soderdahl, who has that rare quality of being able to make the audience feel what his character (Skorpan) is feeling, without even speaking. The story is adorable; It is of two brothers, one of whom is terminally ill, their love for each other, and their adventures after death, fighting evil and trying to free a people that have been enslaved. Technically this film is excellent, and fans of creature features will be thrilled with special effects that rival the work of Ray Harryhausen. Be prepared for the fact that this is a Swedish Family action adventure, and not the cutesie type of 'safe' fare that American audiences have been treated to by the Domestic film industry. Enjoy the ride.

11. 10½ (2010)

108 min | Drama

Tommy, 10 years old, is well known by Social Services. He is considered a danger to society. Gilles, his guardian at this halfway house, sees potential for redemption in this kid driven by violence.

Director: Daniel Grou | Stars: Claude Legault, Robert Naylor, Eugénie Beaudry, Blaise Tardif

Votes: 585

A young boy who has long been on the radar of Canada's social services commits a horrendous crime. His new teacher/guardian pieces together his life, to understand what makes him tick.

12. Lore (2012)

Not Rated | 109 min | Drama, Romance, War

76 Metascore

As the Allies sweep across Germany, Lore leads her siblings on a journey that exposes them to the truth of their parents' beliefs. An encounter with a mysterious refugee forces Lore to rely on a person she has always been taught to hate.

Director: Cate Shortland | Stars: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai-Peter Malina, Nele Trebs, Ursina Lardi

Votes: 13,535 | Gross: $0.97M

Germany surrenders. A German Officersends his family into hiding whilst he must face death or the Americans. His fifteen year old daughter ends up having to take her younger siblings across Germany to their grandmother. This girl who saw herself growing up as an Aryan Maiden in Hitler's new order, faces a journey not only of great danger, but also of enlightenment about the Germany she thought she knew and understood.

13. Summer's End (1999 TV Movie)

101 min | Drama, Family

A 12-year-old boy and his older brother have just lost their dad. At their summer cottage, the younger boy befriends a black doctor who has to deal with local prejudice and racism.

Director: Helen Shaver | Stars: James Earl Jones, Jake LeDoux, Brendan Fletcher, Wendy Crewson

Votes: 430

Two brothers who have lost their father are spending the summer at the family's lake house in Georgia, USA. A retired Doctor, who happens to be black, buys a Lake front property, and the younger of the two boys gets to know him through a shared love for fishing. The Lakeside community however was previously all white.

14. Liam (2000)

R | 90 min | Drama

74 Metascore

A family falls into poverty during the Depression.

Director: Stephen Frears | Stars: Anthony Borrows, Ian Hart, Claire Hackett, David Hart

Votes: 2,378 | Gross: $1.01M

Set in Liverpool during the 1930's, this film examines the effect, as seen through different family members' eyes, of the depression on one working class family. Sounds like a British version of King of the Hill? Well that's where the similarities end. This film is a dark commentary on the state of British working class society in one of the United Kingdom's most important cities during the depression. The build up of racial hatred between the different communities at the time is portrayed in a very frightening manner.

The acting and direction are well crafted, and the lighting and cinematography complete the piece.

15. Wallah Be (2002)

Not Rated | 82 min | Drama, Family

Life is not easy when you are a Danish kid called Aksel who loves meatballs. Especially when you would much rather want to be one of the cool Muslim boys who wear those golden necklaces and... See full summary »

Director: Pia Bovin | Stars: Adam Gilbert Jespersen, Sarah Boberg, Jesper Lohmann, Sara Bovin

Votes: 155

Is it possible to fall in love with a film? Well I did! This film is a charming examination of friendship, childhood, and the adolescent broadening of one's horizons, whilst also introducing contemporary social issues in a manner that makes them approachable for those becoming aware of them for the first time. The young cast at the centre of this piece are completely natural, and glue your attention to the screen. The sympathetic supporting cast of characters and the gentle, observational humour further add to the magic of this film. This is a great film about young life, and it expresses its story with a rippling joy at the same time as dealing with the trials and tribulations of youth. Watch it, with or without children, and simply relive the innocence of your own childhood!

16. Tomboy (2011)

Not Rated | 82 min | Drama

74 Metascore

A family moves into a new neighborhood, and a 10-year-old named Laure deliberately presents as a boy named Mikhael to the neighborhood children.

Director: Céline Sciamma | Stars: Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani

Votes: 15,659 | Gross: $0.13M

I debated with myself for months before buying this film, but I love the film 'Ma Vie En Rose', about a little boy who wants to be a little girl, so I was curious to see how the story of a little girl who wants to be a little boy might be handled. I suppose therefore, maybe I bought this film as an academic companion piece to 'Ma Vie En Rose'.

In either case, the scenario had to be handled sensitively and proficiently by the actors and directors concerned, to avoid their efforts descending into puerile comedic farce. Fortunately, in both cases, this has not happened.

Celine Sciamma's debut as a Director, 'Water Lilies'', was an almost claustrophobically tense dance of adolescent first love, lust, and friendship. This piece, however, retains the freedom and breathtaking joyousness of childhood, without seeking to mask the truth for the sake of an adult's eyes.

Zoe Heran is perfectly cast as Laure, the ten year old girl who slips into the persona of Michael without a backward glance when she and her family move to a new neighbourhood. She is to be commended for her bravery in taking on this role, as it cannot be easy for a child to be told that they would do well playing the opposite sex. Casting Zoe Heran's real life friends in the film was a masterstroke, as their presence on screen gives the film a fly-on-the-wall feel that just helps to extend the naturally joyous feel of childhood to the viewer.

Inevitably, any serious film collector or fan thinking of buying this film may seek comparisons between Laure and characters such as Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) in 'My Life As A Dog. Don't. This film is very much in the neo-realist tradition of modern european cinema and, as such, the situation in which Laure finds herself is very naturalistic.

I should not have prevaricated over buying this film. Watch it, and enjoy your own childhood all over again!

If you enjoy this film, you might like Bruno ( The Dress Code ), Ma Vie En Rose [DVD] [1997], or The Giants [DVD].

17. I Wish (2011)

PG | 128 min | Drama

80 Metascore

Twelve-year-old Koichi, who has been separated from his brother Ryunosuke due to his parents' divorce, hears a rumor that the new bullet trains will precipitate a wish-granting miracle when they pass each other at top speed.

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda | Stars: Kôki Maeda, Ohshirô Maeda, Masami Nagasawa, Kirin Kiki

Votes: 5,367 | Gross: $0.15M

I expected this film to be like an emotional bullet train, given the subject matter, but it is actually very subtle and very gentle, which is entirely appropriate. There are not the histrionics that you might expect from an American rendering of the same story. What you get is a gentle representation of the warmth, love, and differences that exist between two young brothers who have been recently separated by divorce, and who have to learn to move forward with change. Koki Maeda and his younger brother Oshiro were perfectly cast as the protagonist brothers Koichi (serious yet still capable of dreaming and having fun)and Ryonosuke (Slightly nuts, and inexhaustibly energetic, yet responsible beyond his years).

The film handles a common situation with panache, and with a clear indication that this is a Japanese film depicting a uniquely Japanese approach to solving it. Wonderful! (I would love to know if the two boys are just playing themselves!)

18. Under the Same Moon (2007)

PG-13 | 106 min | Adventure, Drama

59 Metascore

A young Mexican boy illegally travels to the U.S. to find his mother (who is illegally in the U.S.) after his grandmother passes away.

Director: Patricia Riggen | Stars: Eugenio Derbez, Kate del Castillo, Adrian Alonso, Maya Zapata

Votes: 6,282 | Gross: $12.59M

Whilst not subtle, this film carries important contemporary messages, and expresses them clearly. There are two parallel stories here:- one is the love story between a child and his mother, and how each will undergo great danger for the other, the other is the wider story of why people migrate. That story needs to be spelled out in words of one syllable to some people, and that is perhaps the reason why the film is so unsubtle. Rest assured, though, that this film isn't saying "immigrants good, locals bad", it shows humanity and inhumanity in both groups. On another level though, this film could simply be viewed as a story of people learning to reconnect.

Looking at the cast, Kate Del Castillo's performance is a departure from her last entry into my collection, Julia. Here she plays the desperately doting long distance mother with aplomb. Prepare also to want to adopt Adrian Alonso, who plays the nine year old boy travelling alone across the border to find his mother.

Aficionados will notice that this film gives one the sense that Mexican Cinema is a large repertory theatre.

If the subject of this film interests you, take a look at the Ken Loach film It's A Free World [DVD].

19. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006)

PG | 110 min | Drama

67 Metascore

A boy is left alone in a Jewish neighborhood in the year of 1970, where both world cup and dictatorship happen in Brazil.

Director: Cao Hamburger | Stars: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Daniela Piepszyk, Paulo Autran

Votes: 5,699 | Gross: $0.76M

Ten-year old Mauro Stein, of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, is bewildered because his parents, political activists, are going on 'vacation', but can't tell him where. This is Brazil, 1970, and Mauro is left to stay with his Grandpa, Motel, in Sao Paolo. His parents are in a hurry, and so just leave Mauro outside his Grandfather's apartment building, not realising Grandfather died that morning. Shlomo, Motel's neighbour, finds Mauro outside Motel's front door. What ensues is a multi-strand story of Brazil in 1970, a Brazilian Jewish Community, and the meeting of two strangers from different cultures and generations, who must learn to accept, respect, and trust each other. Mauro doesn't know anything of his Jewish heritage, and Shlomo, a Polish Jew who is old enough to have fought in both World Wars, struggles with the idea of raising a boy who has been raised as "a Goy".

This is a beautifully written, directed, and acted film about overcoming anger, fear, and mistrust. It is embued with much of the self-deprecating humour that has allowed the Ashkenazi Jewish communities around the world to survive and achieve some level of acceptance and independence. The scene where Shlomo discovers that Mauro is "a Goy!" is very funny, but still entirely perfectly framed. In fact, this is arguably one of the most accurate intimate representations on film of an Ashkenazi Jewish community I have ever seen, particularly the way the Synagogue's Court of Elders deals with the issue of custody of Mauro, who they nickname "Moishale" - the Moses Boy.

20. The Space Between (I) (2010)

90 min | Drama

A cynical, alcoholic flight attendant and a Pakistani-American child prodigy find themselves both thrown together in the aftermath of the World Trade Center Attacks.

Director: Travis Fine | Stars: Melissa Leo, Anthony Keyvan, Brad William Henke, AnnaSophia Robb

Votes: 616

This is an eloquent essay about the impact of love and loss, as well as the way that mass hysteria can very quickly peel back the thin veneer of civility that society often adopts, to expose the divisively defensive nature of humanity. The quality of writing and direction is of such quality that the film simply flows. I can’t remember the last character I saw Melissa Leo play, but that is because she becomes each character so completely that you forget it is her playing them. Anthony Keyvan, is in all senses, a worthy opposite for Leo; where Montine (Leo) is a neurotic mess, and a mass of contradictions, Omar is straight-forward and analytical, and exudes the sweetness and purity of youth spent in contemplation without worldliness. Prepare to fall in love with the protagonists, and to cry with despair at the same time as warming with optimism.

21. Machuca (2004)

Not Rated | 121 min | Biography, Drama, History

76 Metascore

Two boys observe a political coup in their native Chile.

Director: Andrés Wood | Stars: Matías Quer, Ariel Mateluna, Manuela Martelli, Aline Küppenheim

Votes: 10,312

Argentina in the 1970s. An American priest opens up the exclusive boys' private school he runs to boys from the nearby shanty town, at the same time as the government is trying to suppress calls for political change.

22. Mumu (2010)

95 min | Comedy, Drama

The story a rescue, the rescue of a bad brat's life in the post-WWII period. In 1947, Roger reaches 11 years old. He's a kid badly loved, mischievous and specializes in silly things to do. ... See full summary »

Director: Joël Séria | Stars: Sylvie Testud, Jean-François Balmer, Bruno Lochet, Michel Galabru

Votes: 197

This is the true story of the young life of Roger, an 11 year old boy growing up in the immediate post WW2 era. It starts with his expulsion from school for acting up, and follows him through about a year, as he continues to struggle to fit within the confines of the system. Sent to board at another school, where the teacher is known as Mumu (the biggest cow in the county), he begins to find what he needs, and it's never hard to see where his problems stem from. This film has everything; heartfelt drama, humour, and a touch of French mischief. I've had it two days, and have watched it twice. The lack of subtitles may be a hindrance; my French is a little rusty, but I followed it quite well thanks to the great quality visuals and the fantastic acting by all, including the two main boys. People who are interested in this story might also be interested in The Chorus [DVD] [2004]

23. A Minor Miracle (1983)

G | 101 min | Drama, Family, Sport

A group of orphans and their guardian get together to try to save their orphanage.

Director: Terrell Tannen | Stars: John Huston, Pelé, Peter Fox, Lisa Wills

Votes: 89

A lot of criticism has been levelled at this film, along with considerable incredulity that it attracted Pele and John Huston to its cast. Lets set the record straight. This is a true story, which John Huston was passionate about bringing to the screen. Which is why he worked so hard to put the project together. Pele was in it because he was involved in the events depicted in the film. The film cast one or two other of the original protagonists to play themselves, and also, I believe, genuine orphans to play the orphans. This was intended to lend authenticity to the performances, which it does. It also lends a natural, unforced, quality to the performances of the children. The quality of the script and direction is such that you don't need precursor events to set up one's knowledge of the children's characters. They are simply who they are, and the viewer, if paying attention, understands them and their motivations immediately. This film is admittedly not typically in the American style, as it does not spell everything out. It tends more towards the European style of film making, with its lean and spare script assuming intelligence in the viewer. I love the refreshingly un-cutesie nature of the film, and the fact that its not a straight-forward City Corporation bad, orphans good story. It is never that black and white.

24. Monsieur Batignole (2002)

100 min | Comedy, Drama, War

In 1942, in an occupied Paris, the apolitical grocer Edmond Batignole lives with his wife and daughter in a small apartment in the building of his grocery. When his future son-in-law and ... See full summary »

Director: Gérard Jugnot | Stars: Jules Sitruk, Gérard Jugnot, Michèle Garcia, Jean-Paul Rouve

Votes: 2,976

This is a well acted true story about a Pork Butcher who helped three Jewish children escape from the Nazis. It challenges the perception that many English people have had about the way that French people behaved during the Nazi occupation, by looking at the situation in a more even-handed manner. It does, however, not shy away from the issue of French collaboration with the Nazis, nor does it shy away from the issue of real prejudice against Jewish people. The characters are imbued with the different shades of humanity that most people display, and the quality of the direction and acting lift this even more. This is the first time I have seen a film directed by Gerard Jugnot, and I am impressed with his direction, as I am with his acting. Jules Sitruk is a revelation too! Tough yet vulnerable, I am certain that you will come to respect Sitruk's Simon, as well as care about him. I had previously seen Sitruk in 'Son of Rambow' and assumed he was an English actor doing a bad French accent. He is French, and really very good!

25. Mischief Night (2006)

93 min | Comedy, Drama, Family

About two families (one white, one Asian) who come together unexpectedly on a local night of carnival trickery and festivity.

Director: Penny Woolcock | Stars: Kelli Hollis, James Foster, Michael Taylor, Holly Kenny

Votes: 703

A story of how the behaviour of two families helps two very different communities to reconnect after years of separation. Funny yet touching film set in Northern England.

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