Social Movements in Movies

Blog By: Ellice Soliven

 As I watched the Golden Globes last night and heard Octavia Spencer quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought about the booming effect King has had since the 1960s. Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for her role in The Help, which details the difficulties black maids experienced under the white families they worked for during the ’60s civil rights movement. When she accepted her award, she quoted King, saying “all labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”

And what a bit of foreshadowing that was, since today in America, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Every year on the third Monday in January, we honor a man who fought oppression, and fought for freedom and justice. He desired civil harmony – to end segregation between blacks and whites in a era of upheaval and change in the 1960s. He believed in non-violent protests, but his demonstrations were met with fire hoses, attack dogs and police brutality. Under his leadership, both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed.

For those of us born after King was assassinated in 1968, we know him for his “I have a dream” speech and his empowering, inspiring civil rights activism. That got me thinking about other activists who have defended their beliefs and made their voices heard. Here are some movies about the different kinds of activism that exist in our world:



Though Malcolm X was also a civil rights activist, he approached it differently than MLK Jr. did. Denzel Washington plays a convincing Malcolm X, who is portrayed as a racist, deeming whites were the devil and that blacks needed to become independent. As a result of a tumultuous childhood, X landed himself in prison, where he became a part of the Black Muslim movement and learned self-respect. Later (after a pilgrimage to Mecca) he realized that all races include good, peaceful people. Talented and influential director Spike Lee is able to demonstrate a different side of the civil rights movement through the eyes of Malcolm X, where you end up understanding all sides of the story, and see more than just black and white.


“Without hope, life is not worth living.” – Harvey Milk

The struggle for gay rights has come a long way since the era of Harvey Milk in the 1970s. Sean Penn plays Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States in 1977. Through his political efforts, he encouraged closeted gays to come out to their family and friends, inciting an inspirational, powerful movement. At the age of 40, Milk felt unsatisfied with his life, like he really hadn’t DONE anything yet. He decides to move to The Castro in San Francisco, where he notices that the largest, most vocal gay community is being persecuted by homophobic police officers. Accompanied by a string of lovers, Milk then begins to ride the waves of gay rights activism: he runs for the Board of Supervisors; organizes committees; campaigns for a gay rights ordinance; yells his beliefs atop a “soap”box on street corners; brings together people of all trades and colors under a common cause; then finally wins public office, becoming known as the Mayor of Castro Street. Harvey Milk represented the ordinary man – kind, funny, romantic, idealistic, imperfect. This ordinary man wanted a better world, and was eventually killed for his beliefs – but not before he proved victorious in the fight for individual freedom over a prejudiced state.


The Cove is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat documentary, with all the suspense and intrigue of a spy movie. It follows a group of activists who sneak into a cove near Taijii, Japan. With their high-tech surveillance equipment (cameras made to look like rocks and swimmers wearing night vision goggles) they capture some of the most grizzly animal brutality imaginable. The team of filmmakers show, in horrific detail, the slaughter of dozens of Dolphins. Local fishermen sell them to theme parks for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others get sold as meat (usually relabeled as something else).

This important and disturbing film exposes both the injustice of dolphin slaughter and the health risks involved with eating their mercury-tainted meat. In short, this is a brave and gripping expose of injustice against nature!


This HBO movie takes place in 1918 and follows the female political activists who fought for the right to vote. Hilary Swank stars as Alice Paul, the beautiful but ruthless  founder of the Women’s National party.
The film shows strong female characters who endure prison, torture, and sacrifice their health and marriages for the sake of political equality. Set to a contemporary sound track of female artists like Lauryn Hill and Sarah McLachlan, this emotional story about courageous women is both disturbing and inspiring.


These movies inspire me, and remind me that people CAN affect change in the world.



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