From the Editor: Films and Societal Change

V. Krishna Kumar, photo credit Debbie Joffe Ellis

V. Krishna Kumar, photo credit Debbie Joffe Ellis

V. Krishna Kumar, PhD

The film industry has produced hundreds of notable films that depict the effects of various horrors (e.g., holocaust, genocide) and social injustices (e.g., racial, ethnic, and gender prejudices) in the “so called” developing and developed societies. Many films also depict how a few courageous individuals have fought hard to bring about massive changes at the societal level on ordinary matters of human dignity for people of color and those who pursue different lifestyles.  Such matters include having equal opportunities in education, work and income, receiving equal recognition for the same quality of contribution, and to live a life of one’s sexual preference or gender orientation.

Films on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela and on Nazi atrocities come easily to mind. The films on Alan Turing and Joan Clarke (Imitation Game), Srinivasa Ramanujan (The Man who Knew Infinity), and Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson (Hidden Figures) powerfully depict how deep societal prejudices relating to color, gender, and/or sexual preference can lead not only to the denial of due recognition of great talent, but also to bullying and harassment.

Indeed in these films it was often the educated elite who acted on behalf of society to remind the incredibly talented, but “different” men and women of their “rightful” lower place in the society. Such individuals also appear not to experience any dissonance in aggressively asserting their privileged status. In their minds, their actions were justified for the good of society as it was expected of them to do so.

In one poignant dramatized (historically inaccurate, see “Questioning the Story,” History vs. Hollywood) scene in Hidden Figures, Katherine Goble, an African American super mathematician, keeps running to the colored bathroom in a separate building “half-a-mile away” with a stack of file folders in her hands (to keep working in the bathroom) because she was not permitted to use the white women’s restroom in the same building.

Goble’s immediate supervisor Paul Stafford (a fictional white character created to represent the prejudices of the times) routinely dumped folders on her desk and asked her to conduct “dummy checks” of his computations, due by the end of the day, and asserting his “numbers” were always “spot on.” To him, as well to others in the agency, she was a “colored computer” and not a mathematical genius.  He denied her access to critical information by blackening it out in papers because she did not have security clearance.  Gobel believed that the denial of access to the latest information held her back significantly in making important timely contributions.  Consequently, she requested Paul Stafford that she be allowed to attend Pentagon briefings to keep up with the ever-changing information. He denied her claiming she did not have clearance to attend such briefings.  However, the Director of NASA’s Space Task Group Al Harrison (another fictional character created to represent different Directors who had served the role) sensing a problem intervened and took her along to the meeting upon her request.  The film makes it clear that to her white peers, Katherine Goble was merely a “colored woman” who did not belong in the same room with them.

Diana Barrett of Harvard University stated that films that aim at social change can “promote ‘accelerated crowd learning,’” and “a good film, artfully told, can be a ‘platform for a more complicated strategy for bringing about social change’” (as cited by Gary, 2010). However, consider the case of a highly popular film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Nolan (2017) found, with samples of community moviegoers and students, that although the film helped increase their knowledge, concerns and willingness to change, it did not result in measurable actions to engage in pro-environmental conservation efforts a month later.  Nolan reviewed other research that suggests media campaign efforts (newspapers, television, billboards) have hardly changed conserving behaviors.  If Al Gore’s documentary based on scientific research has little effect on changing people, can we expect films aimed at improving social and political harmony have any impact on the society at large?

Examining the impact of an Indonesian genocide film The Act of Killing, Tyson (2015) concluded that

Joshua Oppenheimer’s widely celebrated film … has not become the catalyst for change that many assumed it would. The risk of victim re-traumatization has been given insufficient consideration by the director and the crew, whereas their claims of truth and justice are inflated. (p. 194)

If such films had wide ranging positive impact, assuming they are viewed widely, then we should not see violent protests or the existence of hate groups (see Time, August 28, 2017) or maltreatment of “different” individuals in work places and even institutions of higher learning.  Owens (2017) describes his experiences as a black student at the University of Pennsylvania—“a huge kingdom filled with mini-castles you’d find in Harry Potter books” (p. 44). Assuming that high caliber students with excellent prior education enroll at Penn, some of his experiences of being treated as out of place appear shocking. A yard worker once asked Owens if he was lost as he was walking to class one early morning; an outwardly friendly peer asked him during class “just curious, don’t mean to offend you or anything, but how much of a role do you think affirmative action played in your college admission?” (p. 46); campus security “stopped him and frisked him” while his “white peers could run around University City publicly intoxicated on weekends”; checked his student ID before he entered his own dorm walking back from a fraternity party (p. 50); and “in the classroom,” he was “often” informed that the “subject matter pertaining to black social issues wasn’t ‘academic enough’ and told to ‘pick a more researched topic’ for a sociology term paper [he] was working on about civil religion after the killing of Trayvon Martin” (p. 50).  Such experiences made Owens feel “Penn viewed diversity more as an obligatory chore than as an evolving principle” (p. 50).

There is little doubt that films, media reports, and images about social injustices can move people, but it is not clear how many people view them as pleas for social change. Some people may see them as propaganda films and engage in counter efforts and work against change.  Compliant behaviors may occur when laws are passed, but such expressions of behavior do not necessarily imply changes in peoples’ values, and surely there will always be people who would love to have it the old way.  Imagine living with a law that requires separate housing, schools, and restrooms for diverse people.  This was so not so distant in the past, but could this be a possibility in the future? A scary thought!  Hopefully, just paranoid ideation!


Nolan, J. (2017). “An Inconvenient Truth” increases knowledge, concern, and willingness to reduce greenhouse gases. Environment and Behavior, 42, 643-658. DOI:10.1177/0013916509357696.

Owens, E. (2017, September). A black face in a white space. My four years inside Penn’s Ivy-covered walls. Philadelphia, 44-56.

Tyson, A. (2015). Genocide documentary as intervention. Journal of Genocide Research, 17, 177-199.

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