OP-ED: 5 Influential Films for Social Change in 2017

Written by Matthew Leung

2017 was a year of deeply disconcerting political turmoil, societal upheaval, natural disasters,
brutal awakenings, and a widespread sentiment of “can this year be over already?” It’s very
easy to adopt this sentiment and look back at the year in disgust, but 2017 was also a year for
some of the most powerful films that inspired social change, and it’s more important than ever
for us to honor them before jumping back into our continued fight against injustice in the new

Time Magazine’s selection for “Person of the Year” of 2017, the silence-breakers, or the women
and men who spoke out against systemic sexual harassment, appropriately sets the tone for a
year of defiance. This ethos of defiance has also permeated some of the best films this year,
whether in the form of exploring an outsider’s perspective on race, capturing the deepest fears
of African Americans in white America, documenting a teenager’s fight against an oppressive
regime, ridiculing male entitlement through complicated female bonds, or portraying the
monumental task of citizen journalists fighting a war against ISIS. The common theme in all of
these narratives is the unapologetic and powerful resistance towards oppression.

This selection of 2017 films that drive social change is by no means exhaustive; it is, however,
comprised of a diverse slate of films that represent different genres, production budgets,
production processes, distribution modes, countries, cultures and critical reputation (mainstream
vs. arthouse vs. independent). Some of them are well-known and celebrated, others were

Without further ado, here are 5 films that inspired social change in 2017:

1. Gook (dir: Justin Chon)

Asian Americans are the most excluded group from the race conversation in America, which is
largely dominated by a black-vs-white narrative. Instead, Asians are put into these arbitrary
categories of ‘model minority’ and ‘fresh-off-the-boat,’ categories that casts them as outsiders in
American society.

Actor-writer-director Justin Chon’s Sundance breakout, Gook, is an indomitable force that
confronts Asian Americans’ relationship with one of the most divisive racial conflicts in America,
the Rodney King riots in 1992. This documentary-realist look at the endearing relationship
between a pair of Korean American brothers and an African American girl explores the painful
ambivalence with which Asian Americans experience racism. More importantly, it challenges the
common misconception that Asians are apathetic when it comes to race politics. This film is a
much-needed representation of Asian Americans on screen, and a nuanced investigation on the
Asian American identity as a product of racial conflicts in America.

2. Get Out (dir: Jordan Peele)

The most powerful cinematic challenges to status-quo ideology usually involve disrupting the
Hollywood formula in both form and content. Independent cinema in America has had numerous
successes in this regard, producing films that speak defiance, such as last year’s Moonlight,
2015’s Dope and Tangerine. All three films employ conscious creative choices in both form
(Tangerine is most famously known for being shot entirely on an iPhone 5s) and content
(Moonlight tells the story of a black gay man’s coming-of-age in three parts), presenting
alternative ways to tell stories that empower those who are marginalized in society.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a fascinating film that simultaneously disrupts and embraces the
Hollywood formula, resulting in possibly the most defiant film of the year. The film employs one
of the most established Hollywood genres (Horror) and is commercially released by a major
studio (Universal Pictures); yet, it also thoroughly subverts the horror genre (the black guy
doesn’t die, for once) and was produced with a tiny $4.5 million budget by an independent
production company (Blumhouse Productions), and bravely tackles racism in America head-on. In other words, this film’s defiance extends beyond form and content, it presents a re-imagination of the Hollywood model that can both create an absolute box-office smash and a film that inspires social change. Instead of working entirely outside the Hollywood system, it
shows that defiant films can make influential changes inside the system.

3. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

The most impactful social changes in history usually started really small, with one person, one
determined soul, and one act of defiance. When Rosa Parks declared that she would not sit in
the back of the bus in 1955 Alabama, her act of defiance practically became one of the most
significant symbols for the Civil Rights Movement, which would go on to reshape American
history. There is perhaps no better example of this David-vs-Goliath narrative in contemporary
times than Joshua Wong, the teenage icon of the fight for democracy against the Chinese
Communist Party in Hong Kong.

The Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, offers a powerful behind-the-
scenes look at the revolutionary leader who inspired the Umbrella Movement, coincidentally a high-schooler who is just trying to get by like everyone else. The film manages to document the humble beginnings of Wong’s operation, which consisted of himself and a couple of friends passing out flyers on the street, and chronicle its powerful growth into a movement that receives international attention and actually rolled back anti-democracy policies from the government in
Hong Kong. It is an emotionally-evocative reminder that every important social change starts
small, and any one of us is capable of making a difference.

4. The Beguiled

There’s something about a group of women who, despite their differences, collectively turn
against male entitlement that’s incredibly empowering. This constant wave of accusations
against sexual harassment that we’re living under has made Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled that
much more timely. This claustrophobic drama, set during Civil War America, about a wounded
Union soldier who is treated at an all-female boarding school in the south, won the visionary
director her Best Director award at Cannes, making her only the second female director to do
so. It is an unrivaled ridicule of male entitlement that not only offers us a satisfying resolution,
but also delves deeply into the complicated and troubling politics amongst women who are
conditioned to the heteronormative imagination.

The film has garnered a certain degree of backlash due to its removal of the sole black
character from the novel that it is based on, but most of the critiques of whitewashing is
misguided: Coppola’s decision is simply made to prevent misrepresentation of African
Americans, whose perspective she doesn’t feel qualified to adopt. In other words, Coppola
realizes the limitations of her white feminist viewpoint and focuses on telling a story that she can
comfortably tackle. The film fails to address the intersectionality of sexism and racism, but it is
self-aware of its limits.

5. City of Ghosts

The state of free press is one of the democratic ideals that has been under the most vicious
attacks in America this year, but the most powerful film about free press in 2017 is about a little
known organization in Syria, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). RBSS is a press
outlet formed by citizen journalists in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has been under the control
of ISIS since 2014. Its mission is to report and distribute news from Raqqa that document the
dire circumstances of citizens under ISIS rule, countering the brainwashing propaganda put out
by ISIS. Its work brought international attention to ISIS’s horrific treatment of Syrians and
dissidents, even at the expense of endangering the safety of RBSS members.

Matthew Heineman’s documentary, City of Ghosts, is as brazen as its subjects. The film closely
follows RBSS’s core members as they escape from the persecution of ISIS, who murdered a
number of the RBSS members to retaliate against their reporting. It provides a visual narrative
that is as captivating as a Kathryn Bigelow war thriller and instills a vulnerable sense of
humanism at the same time, proving that humanity often shows its brightest side during the
worst of times. The film refuses to give in to blind hope for the fight against ISIS, and urges the
international community to recognize the significance of a free press against totalitarianism.


In addition to these five films, 2017 also gave us a number of films that inspired social change,
including Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, Wonder Woman, The Post, Lady Bird, B.P.M, A
Fantastic Woman, and many others. The exclusion of these films from this list is not meant to be
dismissive of them, but to highlight important films that may not have otherwise received
adequate media coverage, as well as to put a spotlight on a film that is impossible to leave out,
Get Out. These films collectively remind us of the value of socially-conscious storytelling, and
hopefully will inspire more of the same in 2018.