1. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996)
To claim that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills or its follow-ups—Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory—were responsible for the release of “The West Memphis Three” earlier this year would be inaccurate and grossly unfair to the lawyers and other advocates who labored for 18 years to free them. However, the films undeniably lit a spark that grew into a persistent flame. In 1994, three Arkansas teenagers—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley, Jr.—were convicted of the murder and sexual mutilation of three 8-year-old boys. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s camera was on the scene early, and to watch the film is to witness what appears to be a stunning miscarriage of justice, based on sketchy evidence, a coerced “confession,” and, mostly, a perception of the accused as heavy-metal-loving Satan worshipers. The pressure to close the case quickly, combined with the hysteria kicked up around these suspects, created a bias that was impossible to overcome. Berlinger and Sinofsky made a strong case; it just took nearly 20 years of convincing.
2. Super Size Me (2004)
In March of 2004, two months after Morgan Spurlock’s hooky indictment of the fast-food industry drew headlines (and a relatively large independent distributor in Samuel Goldwyn) at the Sundance Film Festival, McDonald’s announced that it was discontinuing the extra-large “super-sized” option on its menu. Customers happy to wade through 7-ounce cartons of fries and 42-ounce tide pools of soda would have to settle for more modest accompaniments to their Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, as if this were the Soviet Union or something. Of course, McDonald’s spokespeople vociferously denied that Spurlock’s movie had anything to do with their decision, but surely a second round of bad press from Super Size Me’s theatrical release that May would do the company no good. As it stands, Spurlock’s gimmicky month-long stunt to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at McDonald’s turned out to be enough bad PR for the fast-food giant anyway, grossing $20 million at the box office. (Evidence is sketchy, however, that Spurlock’s intrepid sleuthing for the 2008 documentary Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? aided in the killing of the al-Qaeda leader.)
3. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Director Errol Morris called on his previous career as a private investigator for The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that got Randall Adams, a man convicted in the 1976 shooting of a Dallas police officer, out of a life sentence. (Adams notoriously returned the favor by suing Morris for the rights to his life story. That matter was settled out of court.) Combining testimony from Adams and David Ray Harris, the teenager who fingered Adams for the crime (and was in prison for another murder that landed him on death row), with groundbreaking use of reenactments, Morris constructed a counter-narrative so persuasive that an evidentiary hearing was held. At the hearing, Harris recanted his previous testimony as the prosecution’s star witness and the case for Adams’ conviction unraveled from there. It would take Morris longer to persuade some critics—and the Academy Awards—that his style was as legitimate as his argument.
4. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
A wide-ranging essay on the culture of guns and violence in America, Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling For Columbine cut a broad swath through the issue, with ironic montage sequences set to “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “What A Wonderful World,” analyses of damning statistics, heart-tugging testimonials, and even a chat with (or ambush of) aging NRA spokesman Charlton Heston. But one stunt paid dividends: Moore took Mark Taylor and Richard Castaldo, two surviving victims of the Columbine shootings, to KMart corporate headquarters in Michigan to ask for a refund on the bullets still lodged in their bodies, which the killers had bought from a KMart store. To Moore’s clear astonishment, KMart officials, after putting up the expected resistance, came forth with a decision to stop selling handgun ammunition in its 1,300-plus outlets. It was a rare tangible victory for a filmmaker/activist more accustomed to tilting at windmills.
5. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
Did Abraham Lincoln really greet Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words, “So this is the little lady who started this great war”? Most likely not. Nobody reported those words until well after the end of the Civil War. But there’s a reason the story has had a long life. Published in 1852, Stowe’s novel, subtitled “Life Among The Lowly,” became the bestselling novel of the 19th century and showed how a work of fiction can sometimes carry a cause forward on fronts activism can’t. True, its characters read as condescending caricatures to modern eyes—there’s a reason “Uncle Tom” has become a synonym for black men who are deferential to white authority—but it also helped readers see enslaved blacks as humans, when before they might have only thought of them as an issue to read about in the newspaper. It’s hard to resume thinking of people as abstract concepts once you’ve started thinking about them as flesh and blood.
6. Like Stars On Earth (2007)
Inspired by the story of Akira Kurosawa, who struggled in school for years before finding encouragement from a particularly conscientious art teacher, screenwriter Amole Gupte and his film-editor wife, Deepa Bhatia, spent the better part of a decade formulating the script for the Bollywood drama Like Stars On Earth. Known in India as Taare Zameen Par, the film focuses on young Ishaan (Darsheel Safary), whose poor academic performance is turned around when his teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan), realizes that the boy is dyslexic. Audiences quickly embraced Ishaan’s story, with Anjuli Bawa, founder of Action Dyslexia Delhi, estimating that the number of parents contacting her office had increased tenfold in the wake of the film’s release, but Like Stars On Earth also served to trigger changes in educational systems throughout India. Within mere weeks of the film’s release, the civic body of Mumbai had created a dozen dedicated classrooms for autistic students, with the education administration of Chandigarh following a similar path, instituting a course to assist teachers in how to deal with children with learning disabilities.
7. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Positive social change sometimes comes from the unlikeliest of places. Heaven’s Gate is a legendary boondoggle for a number of reasons: a runaway budget, an endlessly extended shooting schedule, terrible reviews, and a paltry box-office return just for starters. But one disastrous element of the film had an unintentionally positive effect. While shooting Heaven’s Gate, writer-director Michael Cimino reportedly killed four horses, including one that blew up with a rider on top of it (the rider survived, the horse did not), disemboweled cows, and conducted genuine cockfights in a woefully misguided stab at realism. How did he get away with it? By banning the American Human Association—which has fought the abuse of animals in the entertainment industry since 1940, spurred by abuses on the set of the 1939 film Jesse James—from his set. Animal-rights activists were predictably horrified, and their public outcry caught the attention of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers, whose combined force contractually authorized the AHA to oversee all animal action in film and television productions. So we indirectly have Cimino to thank for those “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie” credits you see at the end of films these days.
8. Gimme Shelter (1970)
It’s difficult to separate the impact of the Maysles brothers’ brilliant documentary from that of the catastrophe it documents: the hastily relocated free concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969, which ended with four people dead. The movie certainly presents the Rolling Stones’ attempt to stage a West Coast answer to Woodstock or Monterey as doomed from the start, a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, and bad vibes that culminated in the stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by one of the Hells Angels the Stones had hired as their security force, and crystallized the notion that free love and goodwill were no substitute for logistical forethought. The Maysles’ footage was also an exhibit in the trial of Hells Angel Alan Passaro, clearly showing that Hunter had drawn a handgun before Passaro stabbed him, and played a key role in his exoneration.
9. The Day After (1983)
Even those who didn’t watch the Nicholas Meyer-directed TV movie The Day After when it aired in November of 1983 were left feeling as if they had. The film, which graphically depicted the effects of a nuclear war in the middle of the United States, dominated both the news and conversations even before its broadcast. One early viewer was President Ronald Reagan, who recorded his feelings in his diary: “very effective and left me greatly depressed.” End of the story? Maybe not. In The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy And The End Of The Cold War, Beth A. Fischer dedicates a fair amount of space to showing how Reagan’s viewing of The Day After coincided with a change in his thinking about nuclear policy. “There are still some people at the Pentagon who claim a nuclear war is ‘winnable.’ I thought they were crazy,” Reagan said of a Pentagon briefing in October that same year, an opinion the film could only have sharpened. It’s more than likely that the horrors of The Day After had the same impact on the man who would sign the INF treaty in Reykjavik in 1987 as it did on terrified viewers who didn’t have their finger on the button.
10. El Général, “Rais Lebled”
Before its government fell in January of this year, Tunisia was a notoriously oppressive police state that tolerated no dissent in any form. That’s why El Général’s “Rais Lebled” (“President Of The Country”) was “uncommonly courageous or unbelievably stupid,” as Spin noted. Released on Nov. 7, 2010—the 23rd anniversary of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s coup of his predecessor—it railed against Ben Ali and the everyday strife faced by Tunisians. (“We are living like dogs / half the people living in filth / and drink from a cup of suffering.”) A month later, when a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest his treatment by the police, it sparked a nationwide revolt for which “Rais Lebled” would provide the anthem. When El Général, a 22-year-old Tupac fan named Hamada Ben Amor, was arrested in January, the song became even more popular—and later soundtracked similar uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain.
11. Black Beauty (1877)
Kids reading Black Beauty for the first time will likely experience it as an exciting, sometimes thrillingly grim novel about the adventures of a horse in Victorian England, as seen through his own eyes. For adults, though, it reads as a florid, transparent tract on horse rights, as seen through the eyes of an angry reformer who loved animals and wanted to make her peers as angry about their abuse as she was. The gambit worked: Anna Sewell’s book quickly became a bestseller, and its lurid descriptions of horses being beaten, starved, and particularly subjected to a fashion called the “bearing rein”—a strap across the chest that forced them to hold their heads up by choking them if they held their necks at a more natural angle—incited public concern for the treatment of working animals. After Black Beauty was published, bearing reins quickly fell out of favor. The British government also lowered cab license fees, apparently in response to the novel’s story of a cheery, good-hearted horse-cab driver struggling to make ends meet in spite of those fees, but ultimately dying in the attempt.
12. The Jungle (1906)
Muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair was a rabble-rouser whose vitriolic novels decried capitalism and unsubtly aimed to dispel negative notions about socialism. To his chagrin, though, his biggest success in fomenting social change came from a relatively peripheral aspect of his most famous book. The Jungle is a vociferously angry novel about abuse of immigrants and the working class, as a Lithuanian family comes to Chicago, gets work in the stockyards, and fervently embraces the “work hard and you will succeed” ethic. American Dream notwithstanding, they gradually learn that every part of the system is designed to exclude them from power or betterment, while using them up, wearing them out, and discarding them. But the social message—which, after all, only pertained to the poor and working class—tended to be ignored, whereas The Jungle’s graphic descriptions of life in a meatpacking plant caused an uproar. For instance, in one passage Sinclair describes sausage-makers dealing with a rat infestation by putting out poisoned bread, then tossing the resulting dead rats into the grinder, along with the leftover bait. Furious public response to the book prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch secret inspectors to investigate Sinclair’s claims, and new laws about food inspection and food purity quickly followed, with the government taking the initial steps toward developing the Food And Drug Administration. Meanwhile, socialism did not spontaneously take over Chicago. The annoyed Sinclair is widely reported to have responded, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”