We all know how easy it is to get sucked into the black hole of Netflix. One minute, it’s 7 p.m., and you’re watching the seconds tick town to automatically play the next episode of your favorite show. Next thing you know, you’re wondering how on earth it’s already midnight.
Netflix consumption can be mindless, but it doesn’t have to be. Movies can also prompt you to look deeper into social justice issues and get involved. If you’re looking for some films that will inform and challenge as well as entertain, here are a few places to start:
Beasts of No Nation
Based on the realities of child soldiers in parts of Africa, Beasts of No Nation tells the story of a boy forced to join a unit of fighters after losing his family in civil war. In showing the boy’s journey from harmless schoolboy to killer, the film doesn’t doesn’t shy away from the nightmarish realities of war, but rather explores the humanity of it—and the thin line that can exist between being a victim of atrocities and becoming one who commits them. Idris Elba stars as the soldiers’ commander, and he manages to show both his character’s sadistic power and his desperation. At points disturbing and at others hopeful, Beasts of No Nation is not an easy movie to watch, but it’s the kind that sticks with you.
The Propaganda Game
For more than decade, North Korea has been named the worst place on earth for Christian persecution, and much the county’s religious hostilities stem from a cult of personalities built around its leadership. The Propaganda Game is a mystifying look at how the country shapes its own image, and just how hard it can be to find the truth behind the facade.
Before they collaborated on this year’s breakout hit Creed, filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan teamed up for this true story of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was inexplicably killed by police after a night out with his friends. The film depicts the last day in the life of Grant, who, though he had his share of troubles in life, is portrayed as a good-hearted guy trying to make good decisions. The confrontation with police is senseless and tragic, and even though the actual events took place in 2009, the movie is just as poignant today as it was when it debuted in 2013. (Warning, the movie is rated R for strong language and violence.)
Set during the outset of one of the worst genocides in modern history, Hotel Rwanda is a stirring look at people’s capacity for violence, but also compassion and courage. Based on actual events, the 2004 film stars Don Cheadle as Hutu hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who, along with his Tutsi wife, risks his life to protect more than 1,000 refugees from violence between Rwanda’s ethnic groups. The film is an incredible piece of cinema—it was nominated for three Oscars—but also provides an unforgettable look at one of the darkest chapters in modern history.
According to the World Bank, around 1 billion people live on $1.25 or less each day. In this documentary, four friends live in Guatemala for two months with only $1 to spend each day for food, shelter and medical care. It’s eye opening, as the friends realize poverty isn’t as clear-cut as they tended to think. The film doesn’t offer easy answers, but it does offer hope and encourage viewers to take action.
The Central Park Five
Directed by famed documentarian Ken Burns (along with his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon), this film explores the infamous “Central Park jogger” case of 1989, in which five men (four of whom were black, one of whom was hispanic) were wrongly convicted of the violent rape of a woman in Central Park. Like Serial and Making a Murderer, the film highlights flaws in the criminal justice system, but unlike the recent true crime series, The Central Park Five features a conclusion that shows exactly who committed the crime—and who was wrongfully punished for it.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.