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.