Film has the ability to challenge viewers, to present new perspectives, and to powerfully comment on contemporary issues. Independent film often rebels against mainstream ideologies and encourages dialogue after audiences have left the cinema.
UICA’s Film Coordinator, Nick Hartman, reveals his top ten list of protest films, movies that rebel against the status quo.
1) The Network (1976)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
The Network is one of those movies I watched in film school that I just can’t forget. I don’t want to give too much away (and there’s a lot that can be taken away from this film) but it’s one of those works that comments on our collective desire to consume entertainment that is sensational and the impact that has on all of us.
In this lauded satire, veteran news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) discovers that he's being put out to pasture, and he's none too happy about it. After threatening to shoot himself on live television, instead he launches into an angry televised rant, which turns out to be a huge ratings boost for the UBS network. This stunt allows ambitious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to develop even more outrageous programming, a concept that she takes to unsettling extremes.
2) Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama | History | Silent
Rating: Not Rated
Notably known as one of the most important protest films ever made (and by the way, it’s a silent film). Battleship Potemkin presents the dramatization of a mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers. Battleship Potemkin is the definition of a protest film as the characters rise up against their commanding officers to resist a militant police state.
When they are fed rancid meat, the sailors on the Potemkin revolt against their harsh conditions. Led by Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), the sailors kill the officers of the ship to gain their freedom. Vakulinchuk is also killed, and the people of Odessa honor him as a symbol of revolution. Tsarist Soldiers arrive and massacre the civilians to quell the uprising. A squadron of ships is sent to overthrow the Potemkin, but the ships side with the revolt and refuse to attack.
3) They Live (1988)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Genre: Sci-fi | Thriller
They Live was released during the Reagan era and the film is clearly a remark on capitalism, Reaganomics, and consumerism. They Live criticizes the wealth imbalance and our collective need to be more thoughtful consumers.
Nada (Roddy Piper), a wanderer without meaning in his life, discovers a pair of sunglasses capable of showing the world the way it truly is. As he walks the streets of Los Angeles, Nada notices that both the media and the government are comprised of subliminal messages meant to keep the population subdued, and that most of the social elite are skull-faced aliens bent on world domination. With this shocking discovery, Nada fights to free humanity from the mind-controlling aliens.
4) The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
Directed by: Stanley Nelson Jr.
Rating: Not Rated
We played this incredible film in the UICA Movie Theater a few years back. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is incredibly timely as it examines the lack of social progress since the civil rights era and highlights current issues related to the American police force and violence against persons of color.
In 1966 two African American men by the name of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale created a group known as The Black Panthers. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution examines the rise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and its impact on civil rights and American culture.
5) Harlan County, USA (1976)
Directed by: Barbara Kopple
This documentary follows Harlan County coal miners and their wives while they strike for safer working conditions, decent wages, and fair labor practices. The film is impactful because rather than using narration to tell the story (which is typical in most documentary formats), the director lets the words and actions of the miners carry the film. Instead of being told what’s happening, you become involved in the world of the miners and their struggle to fight against capitalist greed.
In this documentary about labor tension in the coal-mining industry, director Barbara Kopple films a strike in rural Kentucky. After the coal miners at the Brookside Mine join a union, the owners refuse the labor contract. Once the miners start to strike, the owners of the mine respond by hiring scabs to fill the jobs of the regular employees. The strike, which lasts more than a year, frequently becomes violent, with guns produced on both sides, and one miner is even killed in a conflict.
6) Easy Rider (1969)
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Genre: Drama | Adventure
When Easy Rider was released in 1969, it started an entirely new movement in the filmmaking industry known as American New Wave. Before the film’s release, movies were almost entirely studio-produced which meant the studio (i.e Universal Pictures or 20th Century Fox to name a few contemporary examples) had complete control of a picture. American New Wave broke the mold and encouraged directors/filmmakers to make their own films on their own budget without a studio backing them (ie. independent film). This allowed filmmakers complete creative freedom (on a generally lower budget).
Easy Rider isn’t only a protest against the American studio system, but the film’s content is a comment on the ways in which humans often ostracise and otherise one another.
Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two Harley-riding hippies, complete a drug deal in Southern California and decide to travel cross-country in search of spiritual truth. On their journey, they experience bigotry and hatred from the inhabitants of small-town America and also meet with other travelers seeking alternative lifestyles. After a terrifying drug experience in New Orleans, the two travelers wonder if they will ever find a way to live peacefully in America.
7) Thelma and Louise (1991)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Genre: Drama | Adventure
Thelma and Louise is one of the first films that cast females (in starring roles) as runaway outlaws. The film has been praised by critics as one of the most impactful feminist films to date. Thelma and Louise is a commentary on chauvinism and toxic masculinity.
Meek housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) joins her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), an independent waitress, on a short fishing trip. However, their trip becomes a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a bar. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, and Thelma joins her. On the way, Thelma falls for sexy young thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and the sympathetic Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed.
8) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Rating: Not Rated
In arts and literature, the male gaze is the act of depicting women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes turns the male gaze on its head by using the camera to show us what women (albeit only straight, able-bodied, “traditionally beautiful”, white women) want to see instead of what men want to see. Although this film is somewhat outdated, at the time, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge step cinematically because it spoke to female viewers first and attributed the main female characters a complexity that wasn’t present in other films.
Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) is a beautiful showgirl engaged to be married to the wealthy Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), much to the disapproval of Gus' rich father, Esmond Sr., who thinks that Lorelei is just after his money. When Lorelei goes on a cruise accompanied only by her best friend, Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), Esmond Sr. hires Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), a private detective, to follow her and report any questionable behavior that would disqualify her from the marriage.
9) The Crazies (1973)
Directed by: George E. Romero
Anyone who is marginally into cinema hears the name George Romero and immediately thinks of his zombie films. Romero, however, has a portfolio of other works and has always hid political messages within his films. In The Crazies, Romero uses metaphor to highlight the ways in which the United States has been evolving into a militarized police state. This film came out during the Vietnam War and Romero, a pacifist, wanted to protest against violence and humanize “the enemy”.
A military plane crashes near a small town, infecting the water supply with a deadly virus that causes insanity then death. The army moves in to control the situation, only for the civilians to treat them as invaders and then infect them as well.
10) Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Directed by: Dalton Trumbo
Johnny Got His Gun is clearly a protest film. The 1971 classic resists the the idea of war and highlights the horrors and suffering that follows these violent affairs. The film is an adaptation of the book (also by Trumbo) which was originally published in 1939 which was banned during World War II. Trumbo was blacklisted in the 1950s for the novel.
War has plunged Army soldier Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) into an unending nightmare. Hit by an artillery shell in World War I, Joe has suffered injuries that have all but erased his humanity: he's lost his sight, speech, hearing and sense of smell. But he still has the ability to think and remember, which, in the end, may be more a curse than a blessing. Trapped in his body, Joe realizes there's only one way out of his misery: death. Can he get a sympathetic nurse to help him?