Movies are often the only way to experience another person’s life. A filmmaker who wants to send a message will focus on those who have gone through hell and endured violations of their basic rights. Several of these movies can be found streaming on Netflix. Here are five that provide a glimpse into some of the gravest issues facing our world today:
Tricked (2013) – Sex trafficking is a huge issue in today’s world, including the United States. After reading a story about the 2010 Super Bowl and how young women (and boys) were being lured and enslaved in Miami, director Jane Wells decided to make a film with John Keith Wasson. Wells traveled to cities like New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, interviewing sex workers, clients, pimps, and police officers. The film explains reasons behind the rise in prostitution, including budget cuts. A Denver prosecutor told Wells that over three years, his budget was slashed by one million dollars. Pimps are often simply fined and then released, allowing them to continue their predatory business.
Tricked earned praise from survivors of sex trafficking and has a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. Viewers report experiencing shock at what they see and hear in this film, as the filmmakers were able to gain access to places and people that offered real, honest depictions of the prostitution world. It is rated TV-MA.
Beasts of No Nation (2015) – Created for Netflix, this heavy drama follows a young boy named Agu, who is forced to become a child soldier after his village is attacked. Set in an unnamed West African country, Beasts depicts the plight of hundreds of thousands of children around the world. In 2012, the UN estimated that 300,000 children were fighting in wars.
Beasts director Cary Joji Fukunaga spent seven years working on the script and researching. After discovering the novel Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala, he decided to adapt it, though he chose to not name Sierra Leone as the country. Idris Elba stars as the bloodthirsty commander of the group of soldiers, while Abraham Attah portrays Agu. The film has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is rated R.
13th (2016) – Another Netflix original, 13th (named after the 13th amendment, which made slavery illegal) traces how slavery continued after the Civil War until today in the form of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, disenfranchisement, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. Director Ava DuVernay did her research and provides a clear-eyed look at the prison-industrial complex, which has resulted in the United States having just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
13th won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 96%. It is rated TV-MA. If you’ve read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, 13th is a perfect companion piece.
Desierto (2015) – Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, this thriller follows Bernal as Moises, a man deported from Oakland who is trying to reunite with his family by illegally crossing the border back into the US. He and other immigrants encounter a dangerous, gun-toting Morgan who is trolling the border.
The most sensationalist film on this list, the movie nonetheless depicts what happens when people start seeing others as non-human. Morgan’s character spouts familiar far-right rhetoric and truly believes he is doing the right thing by hunting a group of people through the desert. Bernal, an outspoken advocate for immigrants, says the film embodies a worst-case scenario in a world where division and hatred are allowed to flourish. Desierto has a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes and is rated R.
He Named Me Malala (2015) – In 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin for her support of education for girls. She survived, and in 2014, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. He Named Me Malala tells the young Pakistani woman’s story from before the attack through her recovery to her speech at the United Nations.
The documentary was nominated for Best Documentary – Feature at the Critics Choice Awards. It is a great companion to Yousafzai’s memoir, My Name is Malala.
On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 71% and is rated PG-13.
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