Films that Captured Our Changing World

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Let’s talk about films that cried out for change and introduced us to people who made a difference.

Activists have been the focus of a wide range of films that shine a light on important subjects, and a few have even managed to shape the way we think about the world. If it seems like social awareness and demands for change are new phenomena, these movies prove otherwise.

Cry Freedom (1987) (Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Starz)

People holding up Biko Solidarity signs.
People hold up Biko Solidarity signs in this still from “Cry Freedom.”

One of the biggest hot-button topics of the ’80s was apartheid, the long-standing racial segregation system in South Africa that finally came crumbling down in the ’90s. Shot in Zimbabwe, this Richard Attenborough film features an incendiary performance from Denzel Washington as Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement whose outspoken grassroots campaign came at a high personal price.

The Cove (2009) (iTunes, Amazon Prime)

A woman kissing a dolphin in "The Cove."
A woman kisses a dolphin in this still from “The Cove.”

The conservationist movement has featured in many world-changing documentaries, and one of the most important and gripping examples of that is this intense look at the dolphin and porpoise hunters in Japan, whose activities were filmed using a variety of covert techniques. The film’s activist stance extended to its Oscar win for documentary feature, during which a call to action onstage resulted in one of the fastest cutaways in the award show’s history.

The Hate U Give (2018) (Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play)

Amandla Stenberg holds up her hands in fear in this still from "The Hate U Give."
Amandla Stenberg holds up her hands in fear in this still from “The Hate U Give.”

Few films deal with the issue of police violence as unsparingly as this fictional look at a high school student, played by Amandla Stenberg, whose life is forever changed after a friend is killed in front of her during a police stop. Based on the novel by Angie Thomas and shot in Atlanta, this film is one of the most important examples of bringing an activist sensibility to young adults.

Erin Brockovich (2000) (YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play)

Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts.
Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brockovich in the eponymous modern-day legal thriller.

The remarkable true story of a legal-clerk-turned-game-changing-environmental-activist became a major hit for director Steven Soderbergh and star Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for her vivid portrayal of a very modern crusader for consumers’ rights. The dangers inflicted on the populace by Pacific Gas and Electric Company led to this modern-day legal thriller and consciousness-raising film that has inspired numerous others, most recently “Dark Waters.”

Hair (1979) (iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime)

A party scene from the 1979 film "Hair."
A party scene from the 1979 film “Hair.”

If you enjoy unforgettable tunes along with anti-war activism, look no further than Milos Forman’s compulsively rewatchable musical adaptation of the hit Broadway show. Far from the peace and love flower-people tale you might expect, this movie is a daring, and ultimately deeply moving, look at the protest movement of the late ’60s as seen through the sadder but wiser eyes of a society one decade later.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) (YouTube, iTunes, Sling TV, Amazon Prime)

A protester stands in front of a Silence Equals Death sign above the entrance to a building.
A protester stands in front of a Silence Equals Death sign above the entrance to a building.

After spending years covering the progression of AIDS into a full-blown global pandemic, journalist David France turned his experiences into a searing documentary following the impact of activist groups ACT UP and TAG on the development of vital, life-saving medications. The avalanche of archival footage here is astonishing. France went on to turn the story into an equally powerful book in 2016.

Norma Rae (1979) (Hulu)

Sally Field as Norma Rae holds up a Union sign.
Sally Field as Norma Rae holds up a union sign.

Inspired by the true story of union activist Crystal Lee Sutton, this star-making drama by Martin Ritt features Sally Field in an Oscar-winning turn as the title character, a textile worker who rebels against unsafe work conditions. Her iconic “UNION” sign scene is one for the ages and can still spur an audience into taking action.

On the Basis of Sex (2018) (Showtime, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Sling TV)

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex."
Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex.”

One of the most famous activists around today is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — portrayed here by Felicity Jones — who broke barriers in the legal world and became a beacon for social change. Ginsburg’s example is also the subject of the CNN Films documentary of the same year, “RBG,” which comes highly recommended as well.

Suffragette (2015) (Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play)

"Suffragette" posters featuring Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep.
“Suffragette” posters featuring Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep.

The women’s suffrage movement has turned up in many films — perhaps most famously in “Mary Poppins” — but the issue took center stage in Sarah Gavron’s drama following the movement as seen through the eyes of Maud, a young laundry worker who helps bring the issue to national attention. Voting rights remain a major issue today, revealing that things may not have changed as much as we’d like to think over the past hundred-plus years.

Talk to Me (2007) (Starz, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes Vudu, Google Play)

Taraji P. Henson and Don Cheadle dance while wearing 1970s outfits in this scene from "Talk to Me."
Taraji P. Henson and Don Cheadle dance while wearing 1970s outfits in this scene from “Talk to Me.”

A true tale of community activism fuels this colorful look at Washington, D.C. personality Ralph “Petey” Greene — played by Don Cheadle — who went from talk show host to grassroots organizer. Directed by the very underrated Kasi Lemmons, this film is a colorful, highly entertaining look at how using your personality for change can cause a ripple effect far beyond what you could ever imagine.

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