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5 Social Justice Movies Everyone Should See

Social justice thrives when everyone is treated fairly and not discriminated against based on traits like their gender, sexual orientation, race, wealth or any other status. In addition to respecting all basic human rights, a socially-just society invests in equal opportunities, reparations of past injustices and privileges within a society. By drawing attention to areas of injustice, social justice advocates work to change laws, raise awareness and shift public attitudes. Movies can be one of the most effective and accessible vehicles for progress. Here are five social justice movies everyone should see:

Sin Nombre (2009)

Director/writer: Cary Fukunaga | Starring: Paulina Gaitán, Edgar Flores

In this debut from director Cary Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” follows the story of Sayra, a Honduran teenager hoping to join family in the United States. She travels on top of a freight train with her father, uncle, and many others searching for a better life. When they enter Mexico, a gang gets onboard to rob them. One of the young gang members saves Sayra from rape and joins the group, but his old crew is out for revenge, essentially putting out a hit on him. Described as half a gangster story and half a tale of immigration, “Sin Nombre” captures the kinds of danger immigrants are running from. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 88%.

The Accused (1988)

Director: Jonathon Kaplan | Starring: Jodie Foster, Kelly McGillis

After Sarah (Jodie Foster) is gang-raped at a bar, the deputy district attorney Kathryn Murphy sets out to see that justice is served. The problem? Sarah was taking drugs and acting flirtatious, therefore not fitting the role of a “perfect victim.” Murphy must demonstrate that Sarah’s actions did not bring the attack on herself and that the rapists are the ones on trial, not Sarah. The case also involves the men who cheered on the attack instead of stopping it.

This controversial film was ahead of its time and tackles issues such as victim-blaming, harassment, and the court system. In its exploration of how society views rape survivors, it includes questions that are still all too common today, such as, “Well, what was she wearing?”  “The Accused” was a commercial and critical success, earning Jodie Foster the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Director/writer: Ryan Coogler | Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer

Based on true events, “Fruitvale Station” follows the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by a BART police officer in 2009 at Fruitvale station in Oakland, California. Taking place over the course of Oscar’s last day, which was New Year’s Eve, the movie shows Oscar dealing with his girlfriend, trying to get his job back, and going to his mother’s birthday party. It’s a snapshot of a life cut off for no good reason, drawing attention to police brutality in a very realistic, truthful way. The film propelled both Michael B. Jordan and director/writer Ryan Coogler into superstardom. “Fruitvale Station” has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Invisible War (2012)

Director/writer: Kirby Dick

A documentary, “The Invisible War” pulls back the curtain on sexual assault within the US military. It follows veterans from all branches of the United States Armed Forces as they share their stories of harassment, assault, and the aftermath. When survivors attempted to obtain justice, the military justice system punished them instead of the perpetrators. More often than not,  the careers of those who came forward were destroyed rather than those who committed the crimes. The film triggered a wave of action from the military and politicians designed to improve the system. “The Invisible War” won a Peabody Award and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Director/writer: Isao Takahata | Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi

Based on a semi-autobiographical story by Akiyuku Nosaka, this animated film from famed Studio Ghibli centers on a Japanese brother and sister at the end of WWII. One of the film’s many unique qualities is that it begins with the death of the brother, Sieta, who dies of starvation in a subway station. A janitor finds a candy tin among the boy’s belongings, and the spirit of Setsuko, the sister, emerges. The two spirits, with a cloud of fireflies, get on a train. The film then begins in earnest, flashing back in time and tracing what happened to the siblings following an American firebombing on Kobe.

Considered one of the best animes of all time, “Grave of the Fireflies” heartbreakingly explores the consequences of war, though that was not the director’s intent. He said he wanted to show that the young brother and sister’s tragedy was the result of isolation from society. While the story takes place during war, it also encompasses the plight of many young homeless people as they search for basic essentials like food and shelter. Decades later, it remains a powerful and unique meditation on social justice issues.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.