Social Awareness in Oscars 2014

86th Academy Award nominations for Best Picture are USCMISC-worthy films!...

By Phillomina Wong, USC Media Institute for Social Change

Last night’s 86th Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture are especially notable for the messages they convey about social justice issues. All nine films nominated for Best Picture touch on social justice issues present in society today. Six of the films are based on true stories; Dallas Buyer’s Club, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle. The real Philomena and Captain Phillips were actually in the audience. These six films follow a general arc throughout American history and give a historical account of social change.

About 200 years ago United States, slavery was an institution for plantation owners. Since the abolition of slavery, the treatment of African-American workers is seen as a social ill of the nation’s past. In 12 Years a Slave, the film follows the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man who is kidnapped by slave-traders.

Political corruption is another social justice issue critical to essence of democracy. Both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are exemplary the shady behavior plaguing American politics. American Hustle is a story about con artists who scam the government and a politician. The power play between the characters gives insight to the types of behavior people conduct in business and in the government. The Wolf of Wall Street is wrought with an exaggerated image of vulgar behavior and language, which has many people questioning how much of the movie was real. At the very least, the movie has started as discourse about the adaptations of a true story.

Philomena is another example of how a true event inspired a film. It raises questions about adoption and foreign relations through a unique narrative. By telling the true story of Philomena Lee and the struggles she faced in finding her son, it raises the topic of adoption. In real life, an American family adopted Lee’s son. The legality of the transaction is a point of contention the movie addresses. Like Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, the audience wrestles with what is right and wrong about what happened in history. But, ultimately it displays how one has dealt with a complicated situation.

Dallas Buyer’s Club is also based on a true story about a cowboy who starts a drug ring for people battling AIDS. During the 1980s, AIDS became a large social issue the government and several communities became involved with. The film’s portrayals show the harsh realities of disease and cancer and how it takes over one’s body. It also raises questions about drugs and sexuality—things that seem iconic of the era, but are still present and growing.


Captain Phillips is the story about the 2009 hijacking of a ship by Somali pirates. One of the questions the film raises is the effect of globalization on indigenous cultures. The action-packed film combines the drama of real-life piracy unfamiliar to most viewers.

There is no doubt these stories are filled with human strife and tales that changed or defined a time in history. It is with these films and many others that provoke human thought and brings to light the social issues of our time.