A Social Justice Tour of Oscar Winners Through the Decades

The upcoming Academy Awards will recognize some of 2013’s best social justice-themed films. Here are some of our favorite past winners.
12 Years a Slave photo by Helga Esteb

Photo by Helga Esteb/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.


2013 was a great year for social justice on the silver screen. We saw films that overturned traditional genres (Pacific Rim), embraced the power of nonviolence (The Book Thief), and highlighted the struggle against racial inequality (Fruitvale Station). Whether you were looking for confrontational historical drama (12 Years a Slave) or surprising inversions of classical Hollywood spectacles (Gravity), you could find it in 2013.

These are films that embrace justice, challenge authority, and move audiences.

Next week, Ellen DeGeneres will host the the 86th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the industry’s most prestigious awards show. I predict this year’s ceremony will spread the awards around, reflecting the many accomplished films nominated. I think the Best Picture award will go to 12 Years a Slave. I hope so, anyway.

While Steve McQueen’s movie is an important film—there are few films that so forthrightly portray the history of American slavery without relying on the Great Man Theory to provide audiences comfort—it is also a great one: flawlessly executed, movingly acted, and beautiful to watch.

Here are eight other important—and great—Oscar-winning films, from each of the major categories. They are films that embrace justice, challenge authority, and move audiences. Not all are as accomplished as 12 Years a Slave, but each is worth seeing again—or just plain seeing if you missed them the first time around.

1. Boys Don’t Cry: Hillary Swank for Best Actress.

It’s easy to forget how powerful and groundbreaking a film Boys Don’t Cry was in 1999. Remembered mostly for Hillary Swank’s performance as Brandon Teena, the transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993, Boys Don’t Cry brought to mainstream audiences a story of such power and tragedy that it remains a must-see for anyone interested in human rights, gender equality, or independent cinema.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck for Best Actor.

This adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel of empathy and understanding is told through the eyes of the siblings Scout and Jem. But the narrative centers on their father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, and his work defending a black man accused of raping a white girl. Through their father’s work defending Tom Robinson, the Finch children are forced to confront for the first time a world of racism, poverty, and inequality. Gentle yet confrontational, the film does justice to one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

3. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: William Rose for Best Original Screenplay.

Six months before the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, seventeen U.S. states had laws in effect that made interracial marriage illegal. Then came Loving vs. Virginia, the case that led to the end of anti-miscegenation laws in America. Despite fears that audiences would be fearful of a the story of a black man’s relationship with a white woman, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a box-office hit, and remains an important milestone in the evolving acceptance of diverse stories in American cinema.

4. All the President's Men: William Goldman for Best Adapted Screenplay.

All the President’s Men maintains an incredible popular legacy (it’s been named one of the most inspirational films by the American Film Institute), and it deserves that reputation almost 40 years later. This immaculately written film tells the story of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and their investigation into the crimes that came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. It remains a powerful story of the search for truth.

5. Elia Kazan for Best Director in On the Waterfront.

This story of mob rule, labor rights, and union organizing among longshoreman is in my estimation the height of Marlon Brando’s career. And it too won awards with political drama. After Kazan’s friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, Kazan would forever be known for his complicity in the development of the Hollywood Blacklist. But his contribution to American cinema cannot be overstated, and none of his films have left a more important legacy than this one.

6. All About my Mother: Best Foreign Language Film.

Complicated and disorienting film experiences can sometimes be the most rewarding, and there’s little doubt that the most beloved film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is both complicated and rewarding. Addressing the AIDS crisis, transgender life, and gay and lesbian culture through humor, drama, tragedy, and the rich tapestry that is the history of cinema, All About My Mother is a strange, powerful film that deserves to be seen.

7. Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids: Best Documentary.

The world that confronts American viewers of Born into Brothels is about as foreign as one can imagine. With cameras provided by the filmmakers, the children of prostitutes tell their own stories by photographing their lives on the streets of Calcutta. The film has courted controversy since its release, some of it deserved, for its portrayal of Indian culture, and the sale of the photos to send the children to boarding schools they were underprepared to participate in. But the experience of the documentary remains an enlightening window into a world few American viewers have likely encountered

8. Gandhi: Best Picture.

The legacy of Gandhi is decidedly mixed. The film is plodding and preachy and has aged somewhat poorly. Some consider it to be among the least-deserving Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy Awards (at the very least, it’s better than Gladiator), and little more than a conventional hagiographical biopic. Still, there can be no denying that the Mahatma Gandhi captured in Richard Attenbourough’s film and portrayed by Ben Kingsley creates a powerful spiritual and emotional experience, especially for viewers interested in the nonviolent independence movements of the past century.