There’s no denying that 2017 is a year like no other. Our in-boxes are filled with pleas to “join the resistance” and support non-profit organizations. Many weekend plans are being set aside to make banners, mail postcards, and get involved in crucial causes whose futures are being decided by lawmakers in Washington. Indeed, this Saturday is the People’s Climate March in D.C., and Monday is May Day, a holiday that traditionally marks a date that people demonstrate against social inequality and injustice.
Just as every great march begins with a single step, every movement begins with one person deciding to take a stand. Focus Features has proudly brought to the screen the heroic stories of people who, moved to take action, helped create social movements that continue today.
As part of Focus Features’ 15th anniversary celebration, we spotlight five films that show us the power of social change.
A century before Pussy Hats, there were the fierce women of Suffragette.
Messages for women to take control of their destinies at the Global Women’s March this past January powerfully echoed the speech delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) in Suffragette. Sarah Gavron’s film recalls the extraordinary period in British history when women demanded to be heard by gaining the right to vote. Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a young laundress who transforms from working woman to political activist when historical circumstances teach her how little power she actually has as a woman and mother.
Dallas Buyers Club reminds us that health care is a human right.
Based on a real-life story, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club seems almost too far-fetched to be true. In an Oscar-winning performance, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a very heterosexual Texas electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy, who contracts HIV in the mid-eighties and goes on to lead a revolution in health care. Jared Leto won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Rayon, a fictionalized trans woman who works alongside Woodroof to launch a buyers club. Together they provided people with AIDS unapproved drugs to keep them alive during a period when HIV was considered by most a certain death sentence.
Witness the birth of the LGBT rights movement in Milk.
Milk, Gus Van Sant’s powerful drama about the 70s’ San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, is a poignant portrait of the early days of the gay rights movement. Cleve Jones, who worked alongside Milk in crafting his successful campaign to become an openly gay member of the San Francisco City council, told the Telegraph that “Watching Sean Penn on screen, I could almost believe we were back in those days, and that Harvey was still with us." Penn would go on to win a Best Actor Academy Award for his inspiring performance.
Milk’s spirit continues to spur debates taking place in different state legislatures over the issue of trans rights. As The New York Times’ A. O. Scott said of the film: “What makes all of this cohere is art, and history. This is how change happens. This is what it looks like.”
The power of words unite a community in Talk to Me.
In Kasi Lemmons' Talk to Me, the outrageous ex-con Washington D.C. radio personality Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) becomes the unlikely voice for the civil rights movement. A shock jock known for his biting social commentary, Greene took on a new role after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. He consoled a community consumed by anger and grief. As riots erupted through D.C., Greene used his microphone to speak about this terrible historical moment.
His words still feel relevant today as African American communities continue to be hit by violence: "Put your anger away till we can sort all this mess out. I ain't saying I know how we gonna do it. I just know that we will."
The anti-apartheid revolution triumphs in Catch a Fire.
Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire chronicles the life of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a South African mine worker whose life is permanently changed in 1980 when a corrupt cop (played by Tim Robbins) falsely accuses him of an act of violence. After he and his family are beaten and tortured by the South African police, Chamusso dedicates his life to dismantling the apartheid system by joining the militant faction of the African National Congress. In his fight for freedom, he is eventually arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island along with rebels like Nelson Mandela.
The film concludes with a nod to even more powerful political gestures––forgiveness and reconciliation. As Chamusso told the Guardian, "Hate could go on and on and on, but someone must break the cycle, and I am happy to break the cycle."
Get Catch a Fire at Amazon.