Ten Documentaries on Champions of Social Justice

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Social activism has always been a popular subject for documentarians because it presents stories of both cause and characters. The 10 powerful films below are not a complete list of films about social activists, but certainly proof enough that social change is possible, even under the most challenging conditions. Feel free to suggest your own films in the comments below.

Freedom Riders (2011)
Stanley Nelson’s film about the Freedom Riders, a group of more that 400 black and white civil rights activists who rode together on buses and trains through the Deep South in 1961, violating Jim Crow laws.

The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today (2011)
The story of Vashti McCollum, a young housewife from central Illinois who filed a lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision establishing the separation of church and state in public schools. Directed by Jay Rosenstein.

The Interrupters (2011)
Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s film about former gang members in Chicago working to stop the kind of violence they once perpetrated.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (2011)
The story of Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War strategist-turned whistleblower who leaked the documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. By Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.

Made in L.A. (2007)
Three Latina immigrants working in a Los Angeles sweatshop fight for basic labor protections from clothing retailer Forever 21. By Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar.

Chisholm ’72 Unbought and Unbossed (2005)
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Four years later, she became the first black woman to run for president. By Shola Lynch.

Brother Outsider (2003)
A profile of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, a gay, black activist who worked behind the scenes of the civil rights movement, most notably as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. By Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer.

The Uprising of ’34 (1995)
In this documentary by George Stoney, Judith Helfand and Susanne Rostock, textile workers recall the story of the General Textile Strike of 1934, when half a million Southern mill laborers walked off their jobs.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
This Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Epstein profiles one of the first openly gay politicians to hold elected office in America.

Harlan County, USA  (1976)
Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning film about a Kentucky coal miners’ striker in which a battle between miners and armed strikebreakers turns fatal.

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  • 19obert63

    That is a great list( above) ; here are ten of mine:

    1.The People Speak-Howard Zinn
    2.Pray the Devil Back to God-Leymah Gbowee
    3.Norma Rae-Martin Ritt
    4. Freedom Riders-PBS-American Experience
    5.Grapes of Wrath-Steinbeck/Ford
    6.On The Waterfront-Elia Kazan 
    7. Huey Long-Ken Burns
    8. Times Of Harvey Milk-Robert Epstein
    9. Ghandi-1980
    10.Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin

  • Gking1970

    Thank you, Bill.  These documentaries are wonderful.

  • Anne

    Great selection

  • Dappleby

    All great films, but I’d add the entire “Eyes on the Prize” series and “At the River I Stand.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stretch-Ledford/100000207548944 Stretch Ledford

    Thank you for this list.  My lack of depth in this realm is betrayed by the fact that of the ten, I’ve only seen two – “Harlan County USA” and “The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today,” which are both excellent.  Now I have my “must watch” list.

  • Catzforblues

     No offense my friend, but several of those are Movies, or more specifically, dramas. They are not all documentaries. Just sayin.

  • RestoreAmericaj

    I love it…thanks Bill Moyers

  • 19obert63

    Yes, thanks you are right, I mixed in some movies, which provides me with an opportunity to add five more:

    Rush to Judgement-Mark Lane
    Waiting for Superman
    Inconveniant Truth-Al Gore
    Sicko-Michael Moore

  • Billkav

    Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story — thanks to Bill Moyers for keeping it in front of public television execs until it was broadcast

  • http://twitter.com/mom2rose mom2rose

    Kp up your great work!  Vote 4 project that brings social justice 2 Walmart
    Pls re-post

  • http://twitter.com/mom2rose mom2rose

    Kp up your great work!  Vote 4 project that brings social justice 2 Walmart
    Pls re-post

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/G67ZKIQ62J4WJ2WG5IZ6HZSXMM doc

    How about the new film that opened in NYC on March 2, “Heist:Who Stole the American Dream?”

  • K Pillsbury

    A brand new short documentary to check out is “What Do You Know? Six to twelve year olds talk about gays and lesbians. http://www.welcomingschools.org/what-do-you-know-the-film/  They know a lot and they know that hearing it as a put down hurts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000141189882 Yogi SmarterBear

    we do live in a oligarchy . not a democracy . slavery was done by the sugar baffoons .. we working class peoples of Earth . are ALL seen as prey and slaves of the oligarchy …. 

  • Morebushit

    soo, right you are,

    This charlie rose crap a real mind fuk.

  • Morebushit


  • Morebushit

    reinforcement, helps memory

    A ipad sounds like a feminine hygiene product 

    can Kotex not sue???

  • Morebushit

    Just repeat the crap, you want folks to remember

    7 times will be remembered


  • Anonymous

    Films for action has over 500 free documentaries http://www.filmsforaction.org/walloffilms/

  • Gato Pardo

    Thanks for this, food for my brain…