In the aftermath of the most contentious and (for many) disheartening election in recent American history, we move forward in a country unsure of how to react, unsure if they can act. Stories can’t change the world on their own, but they can inspire, remind, and act as a cathartic outlet while we set about taking political action in the “real” world, if we hope to make change.
In that vein, with the recognition that the power of pop culture has its considerable limits, here are 11 movies and TV shows about taking political action in some form or another, for better or worse. Whether or not you agree with the messages, methods, or political leanings of the respective films and TV shows, perhaps you will find hope and determination in their reminders that political action has value…
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
A Swedish documentary about the American Black Power Movement between the years of 1967 and 1975 is compiled of footage shot by Swedish journalists during those years and rarely seen until 2011, when this film released. Including footage that features Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angela Davis, Black Power Mixtapeis a snapshot into a very specific time in American history, told from an international documentarian’s perspective, that is still very much relevant to today’s America.
Suffragettehas been understandably critiqued for the lack of women of color it features in its retelling of the English suffragette movement circa 1912-1913, but it’s still a great exploration of how the political is personal and how one person can become radicalized due to the everyday injustices of her life. Starring Carey Mulligan as Maud, a white working class woman working as a laundress in London, Suffragetteis a film that remains far too relevant for women who still don’t have total control over their own bodies and lives and who are often asked to do so much in exchange for so little.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
If you’re looking for politically angry cinema, look no further than the Irish (who get two films on this list). The Wind That Shakes the Barleyis a 2006 film set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Starring Peaky Blinders’Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney, it follows two brothers who join the fight for Irish independence and is an unflinching look at at the brutality of the British and the unjust politics of war.
While we’re on the subject of Irish cinema, if you’ve never seen Steve McQueen’s directorial debut, then now might be the time to watch Hunger. The 2008 movie stars Michael Fassbender as real-life IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as it tells the story of the various forms of protest undertaken by Irish republican prisoners in order to regain political prisoner status after it was taken away by the British government in 1976.
Hungeris a brutal, complicated, visually-determined exploration of what can drive political prisoners to such drastic measures as hunger strikes, as well as what can drive prison workers to so de-humanize their charges. Hungerdoes not pull its punches.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film about a well-meaning country boy going to Washington and holding the institutions of this country accountable, has a pretty old-fashioned message for the modern, cynical viewer to swallow: if you just talk long enough, you’ll get your way and truth, justice, and liberty will prevail. However, it’s populist message is one that most Americans, given the framing of the election cycle, could probably get behind. Just try not to think too hard about the fact that this movie came out 70 years ago and we’re still dealing with the same corruption and lack of faith in our governmental bodies.
Night Catches Us
Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington star in this criminally underrated 2010 film about a former militant Black Panther who returns to his home neighborhood in Philadelphia after years in exile and with the reptuation as a snitch. Set in 1976, Night Catches Usis a fresh look at the ripple effects of radicalism and the mourning of a movement. There should be more movies like this one.
Warning: The clip above includes spoilers for The Hourseries finale. Don’t watch unless you have already seen it or you don’t mind being spoiled.
Come for the Ben Whishaw, stay for the hard-hitting critique of news media and its role as a part of any healthy democratic society. Taking as a main central tension the relationship between government and new journalism, The Hourasks some extremely relevant questions about the responsibility of TV journalism. Questions that many people are asking in the wake of the recent election.
Set in 1950s London, it follows a group of TV reporters and producers who have just launched a TV news show. Whishaw’s Freddie Lyons is at its heart and, for him, holding the government accountable and making sure the people know what they need to about those in power is more than a job; it’s a calling. The Houris a cross between Mad Menand The Newsroom, and it’s better than both.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Max Max: Fury Roadmight not seem like the most movement-building film, but it is subtly subversive in its critiques of masculinity and systems of power, presenting an alternate way of living for its central protagonists, while never claiming that it will be easy or utopian.
My personal favorite aspect of Fury Road‘s particular brand of social subversion is that it doesn’t just place the oppressed as the victims of this unjust system, but also the reluctant oppressors. Furiosa is in a position of power in part because she has done terrible things, even if she didn’t initially choose this life for herself. Same with Nux. They are part of the problem. This means they must be part of the solution, too.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Like Mad Max: Fury Road, Beasts of the Southern Wildis not a film that has an explicit political perspective, but, as a movie that centers around blackness, poverty, and rural southern life — elements that are all too rare in Hollywood cinema — it is political nonetheless. Beasts of the Southern Wildtells the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living in the Louisiana Bayou and dealing with the encroaching danger that climate change poses on her community’s existent. The only child of a sick, alcoholic father, Hushpuppy crafts an understanding of the world reliant on the magical realism that often influences childhood.
Though Beastsis criticized by some as romanticizing poverty, for me, it is an antidote to the many, many films that paint poverty as devoid of hope, joy, and worth. In a sea of movies that prioritize the lone hero over the community, it also suggest another way of living. “This is the most important thing,” Hushpuppy’s teacher tells her class. “That y’all learn to take care of the things that are smaller and sweeter than you.”
The West Wing
Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The West Wingis a story that skews white, upper middle class, and liberal, but that doesn’t devalue its efforts to address American politics in in-depth ways. Set in the White House of Democratic president Jed Bartlett, The West Wingdoesn’t try to hide its ideological rants or critiques of political policy, addressing topics like tax policy, Supreme Court nominations, and the debt ceiling. No, snarky banter can’t affect change on its own, but it sure can start some good conversations.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1
I will defend the splitting of the final Hunger Gamesbook into two movies until my dying day because it produced this gem of a political action film. To a larger extent than any of the other installments in this film adaptation franchise, Mockingjay: Part 1allows a broadening of the story’s focus to what’s going on beyond Katniss and her immediate social circle.
We are able to see how the rest of the districts are rebelling and how far they will go to affect change. This is best exemplified in the above “Hanging Tree” sequence, which sees revolutionaries sabotaging the dam that keeps The Capitol powered. Like the best moments of the entire Hunger Gamesfranchise, it forces us to ask the all-important question: Are we the districts or are we The Capitol?
Feel free to add your favorite political action movies and TV shows in the comments below…