six iconic films that left a major impact on our world

From animal rights activism to abolishing anti-LGBT laws, these motion pictures played a key part in how we live today.

by Douglas Greenwood
22 January 2018, 11:03am

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

Whether we’re moved by the artistry or affected by the message, there’s no denying that films can leave a legacy that lasts longer than their runtime. They can create movements; galvanizing people to fight for something better, or enlightening them on a subject they may never have unearthed otherwise.

We rarely question what cinema tells us. And while that trustworthiness is a brilliant benefit for films preaching good, it also can cause vitriolic levels of harm too. In the past, that immediacy has been abused, with vicious Nazi propaganda during WWII and the critical adoration for the problematic, pro-KKK epic The Birth of a Nation back in 1915 — a film that managed to bluff its way to a White House screening and cause a hideous spike in KKK membership soon after.

But there are — and always will be — directors that feel urged to tell stories with a purpose. Whether they’re designed to show us how to treat the earth’s animals with dignity, or school us on how society used to treat the queer community cruelly, these are six of the films that played a pivotal role in shaping the world we live in today.

Blackfish helped spawn a new generation of "anti-captivity" activists
Few movies in the past ten years have had a social media-bred impact quite like Blackfish. Already a film festival hit, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s controversial 2013 documentary about the way we mistreat killer whales in captivity was given a new lease of life when the social media-savvy crowd caught on to it. A primetime TV slot on CNN in the US beamed the story of Tilikum (a SeaWorld-owned orca who killed three of his trainers and injured several others while being contained in pokey marine parks across America) into the homes of over 20 million people.

Shocked by Gabriela’s depiction of how these creatures were treated behind the park gates, Tilikum’s story became a call to arms for a generation desperate to end the entertainment value of gawking at animals through thick glass. Fueled by the tweets, online petitions, and Facebook video shares, Blackfish’s rationale quickly became public knowledge, and the companies responsible felt the effects. SeaWorld’s ticket sales dropped that year, the theme park phased out its killer whale breeding program, and it announced it would be ending their famous live shows with "Shamu". Not bad for an indie doc, right?

A Short Film About Killing swayed lawmakers on the death penalty
It’s not the most upbeat arthouse film, but Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing had a monumental impact on the way lawmakers in Poland, and further afield, understood the moral implications of "an eye for an eye". The film, released in 1988, takes us to a grimey, post-Cold War Warsaw, where a young and adrift man is arrested, tried, and executed for murdering a taxi driver. Cleverly, it puts the brutality of a man’s desire to murder beside the callous way he’s forced to pay for his crime by the State, indirectly asking the viewer: Are either of these actions just?

A controversial success at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, the movie marked the final chapter in Poland’s association with the death penalty, which was abolished soon after its release. Not only that, but the film’s visceral final scene – which shows us just enough to haunt us, but not too much – permeated a conversation at the United Nations about the same subject, proving that fictional films can also influence the minds that make change.

Imitation of Life taught cinemagoers to champion PoC representation on screen
In the fraught political situation of the 1930s, with the civil rights movement in full swing, it was rare to see the whitewashed, male-dominated line-up of Hollywood directors shine light on the stories of people of color. For so long, the community had been cast as savages or background characters — slaves and servants — with no purpose or agency in a film’s narrative. 1934’s Imitation of Life changed that. Telling the story of two single mothers — one a wealthy, white widow, the other her faithful black servant — John M. Stahl’s film about the entrepreneurial friendship between two women who support each other through adversity was one-of-a-kind when it was first released.

It gave the character of Delilah, played by Louise Beavers, a story of her own, illustrating the social struggle of people of color in a way that was real but that directors, until that point, had been unwilling to address. Beavers’s performance was a knockout, gaining her some strong critical acclaim, but when the film grabbed three Oscar nominations and snubbed her, people knew what was up. In an #OscarsSoWhite-style campaign that was 80 years ahead of its time, a journalist from California Graphic Magazine pointed out, clear and simple: “the Academy could not recognize Miss Beavers [because] she is black”.

Super Size Me forced us all to switch up our diets
Morgan Spurlock is one of the documentary filmmakers who forgoes artistic flare in favor of a meaty piece of journalism. His 2004 McDonald’s doc Super Size Me, in which he spent 30 days eating extra large fast food meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to prove how awful it was for us, has been staple viewing material in school classrooms ever since. Part sensationalist slice of fear mongering, part sobering doc about how laziness can kill us, it turned the lucrative, billion dollar fast food industry on its head.

After the film was released, McDonald’s removed the option to "Super Size" its meals, and caused many a hideous flashback for every viewer that may have been tempted by the drive-thru. Whether or not the doc’s "experiment" reflected reality (Who realistically would eat that many burgers every day and not even attempt to exercise?) the film played a big part in forcing millions of people, and the fast food outlets themselves, to clean up their image.Which is why your local McD’s now has lettuce and tomatoes on its wallpaper.

Victim changed Brits’ sympathy towards the gay community
Since being gay was illegal back then, the presence of LGBTQ+ characters in films was pretty much non-existent in 1961. Victim helped change that. In an era of queer demonizing by tabloid media, it confidently told the story of a closeted lawyer who risks his prestigious position by fighting for justice on behalf of a former lover, one who took his life when he was outed and imprisoned for being gay. It took viewers to the heart of that tumultuous world and painted a gay character in an understanding and sympathetic light. Today, it’s remembered for playing a key role in making some politicians reconsider their bigoted opinions of queer men and women.

The film premiered on television in the midst of a debate over whether to pass the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which would make homosexuality legal. Widely watched following its controversial beginnings in movies theaters (the BBFC tried to ban it, after all), Tory politician Lord Allen penned a letter to the film’s lead star, Dirk Bogarde. Allen revealed that, after many saw the film, the parliament’s opinion had increased from 48% to 63% in favor of legalizing homosexuality, proving that a blistering reflection of reality could sway the most stoic men and women in the country.

Rebel Without a Cause — and James Dean — gave teenagers an identity
The early 30s saw young high schoolers break free from their parents’ grasp and experiment; a whole era defined by cigarette-smoking and sexually active youths in their late teens. It was a stage of adolescence so formidable that it spawned the term "teenager", but cinema took its time catching up. The media outlets of the mid-20th century weren’t too sure of how to present the lives of these young, middle-class people in film, perhaps at the risk of condoning the kind of behavior teens were becoming notorious for. But Rebel Without a Cause, the 1955 James Dean classic about a set of teenagers lost in their ways, marked the first time this age group had an on-screen idol to identify with.

It’s a film about insouciance and naivety, relationships and rebellion, and the way it showed young people that they could carve their own path in life still bears similarities to today’s disenfranchised teens. Rebel wound up solidifying James Dean’s matinee idol status, and is still considered his strongest work to date. Before the film was released, he died tragically in a car crash at the age of 24. As if by fate, in a fleeting moment a generation gained and lost an on-screen hero.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

rebel without a cause
Super Size Me
a short film about killing
imitation of life