Critics call them “popcorn politics” and “sanctimonious morality tales.” Others, like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, believe they can change the world. These are movies that tackle controversial global issues. Hollywood is no stranger to gritty realism; films of conscience and protest have been around since the early 1930s. In recent years, however, there seems to be an overabundance of this genre. Ban Ki-Moon has urged the industry to make even more, stressing how much popular culture can affect public consciousness. Whether these movies generate real change or spur the viewing public into action is debatable. But at the very least, they document tragic international events and highlight human rights issues that may otherwise remain obscure or resigned to history books. Here are 10 movies with a mission.
10. North Country (2005)
This is a fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States. It is the story of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) who starts working at a Minnesota iron mine and endures a range of abuse from male colleagues. The movie received mixed reviews, but earned Theron an Oscar nomination. A few years later, Theron was appointed messenger of peace for the United Nations, with a special focus on ending violence against women. Responding to Ban Ki Moon’s call for more hard-hitting political movies, she said: “I think it’s a much bigger issue than getting Hollywood to step in … I think we should be asking our public why, when we make these movies, do they not go and see them. That’s the bigger question.”
9. Beyond Borders (2003)
Angelina Jolie stars as American socialite Sarah Jordan, who is deeply moved by the humanitarian efforts of renegade doctor Nick Callahan (Clive Owen). She gives up her luxurious London lifestyle and accompanies him on a dangerous journey to some of the world’s most politically volatile areas. The movie is part love story and part political commentary. It also reflects Jolie’s real-life interest in humanitarian relief and work as a UN goodwill ambassador. The film was praised for raising awareness and criticized for its plot.
8. Casualties of War (1989)
This movie starring Michael J. Fox is about the harsh realities of the Vietnam War, and is based on true events. A girl is taken from her village in Vietnam by five American soldiers. Four of the soldiers rape her, but the fifth, Max Ericksson (Fox) refuses to participate. The young girl is killed. When they get back to base, Ericksson is determined to seek justice and reports the event. Casualties of War differed from previous Vietnam War movies, with its intense focus on just one incident, showing the dehumanizing effects of war on individuals. Despite good reviews from critics, the film was not a box-office success.
7. The Last King of Scotland (2006)
In 1971 Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan goes to work at a medical mission in Uganda and finds himself appointed personal physician to the new president, Idi Amin. Garrigan witnesses firsthand the brutal dictator’s rise to power, and is ultimately forced to flee the country. Forest Whitaker gives an Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin, whose reign of terror claimed more than 300,000 lives and left the economy of a once-thriving nation in ruins. Although a fictional account, it does incorporate real events, and serves as a starting point for those who wish to learn more about Uganda, past and present.
6. Three Kings (1999)
Described as one of the funniest war films ever made, Three Kings is the story of four U.S. soldiers disillusioned by Operation Desert Storm. The soldiers steal $23 million in gold hijacked from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, as the filmmakers delve into some serious political issues. The movie is sympathetic to the Iraqi people and critical of the policies of President George H.W. Bush, including the bombing of civilians. A very timely and well-received movie.
5. Syriana (2005)
Syriana is a political thriller about the corruption of the global oil industry, terrorism, money and power. The movie incorporates multiple story lines to explore the complexities of a possible merger between two U.S. oil giants. George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor for his role as cynical CIA operative Bob Barnes. Some critics claim the plot is confusing and convoluted and therefore loses its punch. Not exactly a film with wide appeal, it was however very timely and deals with some contentious issues often ignored by the mass media. The movie was loosely based on a memoir by former CIA agent Robert Baer, See No Evil. Baer noted that the title Syriana was used by Washington think tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East to maintain U.S. access to oil. Clooney, a committed human rights advocate, was designated as a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2008.
4. Blood Diamond (2006)
Blood Diamond is a fictional story set against the backdrop of the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone. The movie’s title refers to “conflict diamonds” illegally mined by rebels in war-torn countries, then sold to finance insurgencies. Leonardo di Caprio stars as a Rhodesian diamond smuggler who hears of a large diamond discovered by a Mende fisherman, played by Djimon Hounsou. Before the movie’s release the diamond industry was reportedly worried the film’s portrayal of human rights violations would negatively affect sales. But after conducting a poll they concluded that its effect on consumer behavior was minimal, with only a few concerned citizens inquiring after a jewel’s origin.
3. The Constant Gardener (2005)
This is the story of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat based in Kenya who sets out to investigate the murder of his wife, social activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz). He discovers her death is connected to the corrupt practices of pharmaceutical corporations, who have been testing products on the Kenyan population. Based on a novel by John le Carre, this movie was filmed on location in Loiyangalani and the slums of Kibera, a section of Nairobi, in Kenya. Some of the cast and crew were so affected by what they saw here, that they set up the Constant Gardener Trust to provide basic education and other services for the villages.
2. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Hotel Rwanda is the real-life story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle). When Rwanda plummeted into genocide in 1994 and ethnic Hutus began killing their Tutsi neighbors, Rusesabagina turned his hotel into an impromptu refugee camp for more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Deserted by international peacekeepers, he cashes in favors and bribes Hutu soldiers, keeping the militia at bay during the 100 days of slaughter. He manages to save his family and most of the refugees, but the genocide claimed more than 800,000 lives. While the movie does criticize the lack of Western humanitarian intervention, the main focus is Rusesabagina’s heroic story. And since its release, Rusesabagina has become a world-renowned speaker, activist and author. The writers intended to reach a wide audience with this movie, those who had possibly never heard of the genocide, and they succeeded to a large extent.
1. The Killing Fields (1984)
The Killing Fields is the oldest and by far the best movie on our list. It is a drama about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and based on the real-life experiences of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who coined the term “Killing Fields” during his harrowing escape from the regime. This is a story of friendship and human struggle as well as war. Dith Pran was played by another Cambodian survivor, Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar for his role. The Killing Fields was far different from the typical Hollywood war movie, and may have had more of an impact on audiences because of this. It definitely succeeded in informing the general public about one of the bloodiest genocides in history.