George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Popcorn pieces shaped into a heart

Teaching is an act of social justice for me. From the time I was very young, my family communicated that my reason for being alive is to make the world a little better. I chose education as a path through which I might contribute, because offering access to knowledge -- about one's self, one's history, the history of our country and world, the knowledge of reading, of how to craft your ideas into words that would move others -- is a powerful way to build capacity in others to do their part to heal the world.

Thinking of my work as a form of social activism is empowering, but sometimes leads me to a tired and demoralized place. When I look at the big picture including the widening gap between rich and poor, the continuous destruction of our environment, legislation that seems to be rolling back centuries of hard-won rights for working people, and so on, my spirit sags.

What can I possibly do, in my one little lifetime, when the waves of injustice are relentless, one after another threatening to wipe away what we've already accomplished? I've walked on this shore of despair, but most of the time when I see myself approaching it, I choose to take a different journey.

The Power of Narratives

There's one way that just about always directs me back to a place of hopefulness and power, and that is to be reminded of the struggles and triumphs of others. And there's one form through which I particularly like to be reminded -- and that's through film. I love narratives: reading them, listening to them, and watching them. Like many, I love the experience of sitting in a dark room and being drawn into a narrative that's skillfully told, visually engaging, and perhaps that has a moving soundtrack.

And of course, watching a film takes less time than reading a book, and it can be a social activity.

I want to share my favorite films that revive my "activist-educator spirit" and, within a couple of hours, leave me feeling energized, connected, hopeful, and more courageous. As I compiled this list, I fantasized about hosting a film festival for educators and showing all of these over a weekend. Until that happens, let me suggest that you hold your own film fest, either alone or with colleagues and friends.

Selma (2014)

Starting with the most recently-released film in this genre, Selma is a stunningly beautiful film about the struggle for voting rights for African Americans in the South. The scenes on the bridge are ones that I come back to over and over, alone and also in my work coaching leaders. This movie is a powerful reminder of the kind of courage it takes to make big change -- it made me realize that the little things I'm scared to do are trivial in comparison, and it reminded me that I have a wealth of strength to draw on. Go see this movie, in the theatres if you can!

Pride (2014)

Inspired by real events in England in the mid-1980s, Pride tells the story of a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists who raise money to support striking mineworkers in a Welsh village. This is a film about solidarity -- how perceptions and prejudice can be overcome to achieve a greater vision. There are wonderfully funny moments in this movie as well as some where you'll want to jump up and cheer and cry at the same time. I loved this film, as did my 11-year-old son.

Bread and Roses (2000)

Bread and Roses takes place in Los Angeles, and tells the story of a group of janitors (many of whom are undocumented) who try to unionize. This film is a reminder of the range of strategies available to those of us who are trying to make change -- some are unconventional, even humorous -- and also of the difficult decisions we have to make as we work for social change. What I love about this movie is that, like others on this list, it reminds us of what we, the little people, can do without huge bank accounts and political power.

Matewan (1987)

This is an intense, visually stunning film about a volatile 1920s labor dispute in a West Virginia coal town. Directed by independent filmmaker John Sayles, this movie introduces a history that we can benefit from learning, as well as connecting us to a historical legacy. Our contemporary struggles with immigration, racism, and labor activism are well contextualized in Matewan.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

This legal drama is based on the true story of a single mother who takes on the corporate giant, Pacific Gas and Electric. A film about environmental justice, Erin Brockovich is another reminder about courage and persistence. It's also very funny and has a female leader (which unfortunately isn't commonly depicted).

Milk (2008)

This is the true story of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into major public office in America. Engrossing and with wonderful performances, this film depicts a slice of political history that you may not know about.

The Great Debaters (2007)

Here's another true story about professor Melvin B. Tolson, who formed a debate team at a small, African American college in the 1930s. The team became the black debate team to challenge Harvard's prestigious debate champions. The Great Debaters is my only education-related film on this list (which is intentional, by the way), and it's really worth watching.

Salt of the Earth (1954)

If you've never seen Salt of the Earth, watch it! It's a classic in this genre with a "making of" story that hopefully another filmmaker will one day tell. This is a movie about a mining strike in New Mexico, the racism that immigrants endured, and the role of women in this strike. It was shot on location in the 1950s with the participation of those involved in the strike. The very making of this movie in the depths of McCarthyism was an act of courage.

Soul-Stirring Films

These movies could be described as "feel good," but for me, that's because they're about real struggle. They leave me inspired, with new ideas, feeling more courageous, and feeling connected to others. They're not superficial "feel good" movies -- they are soul-stirring, educator-activist-nourishing movies.

I would love to hear any additions to this list -- documentaries also accepted. Please share them in the comments section below.

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Desi's picture
Current Classroom Teacher; Former Instructional Coach In West Texas; Teacher @ Middle School

I must add MacFarland USA. Truly touching and inspirational!

Sheila Connelly's picture
Sheila Connelly
K-5 Computer Teacher/Technology Coach

The Pursuit Of Happyness is a movie about a personal struggle and triumph but I found it to be very inspirational.

Jodie Schnurr's picture
Jodie Schnurr
Secondary school program leader - Site Head & Lead Teacher (guidance)

I need to add "The Spitfire Grill" to this list.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

A lesser-known movie that I love to show to my 8th graders is "Unconquered." It's loaded with great stories and lessons >>> "The movie is based on the struggles of Richmond Flowers, Sr., the Alabama attorney general who opposed many of Governor George Wallace's segregationist policies in the 1960s, and his son, star athlete Richmond Flowers, Jr."
Students love the story of the son, who overcomes physical limitations to become a star track athlete and football player, but at the same time the movie weaves in true events from the Civil Rights Movement, like the bus boycott, MLK, Jr., Governor Wallace, the fight to vote and the attempts by groups like the KKK to keep Blacks down. Universal teen issues like cliques, bullying, parent/child conflicts, etc. are also addressed. There's even poetry! ("Invictus," which means "unconquered.") The movie is a hit every time I show it, and it leads to great class discussions afterward.

Monica Faherty's picture
Monica Faherty
Teacher of Deaf/Hard of Hearing

Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Good Lie, Belle - all based on true stories. Just saw Pride - it was wonderful!

E.A.'s picture

Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored - I have no idea who filmed this movie or when it was made but I watched it as a video in 1997. The setting was the South in the early 50's, is my guess, when the majority of people both black and white were "content" with thinking, "That's the way it's always been...". Very powerful for me, a white woman who had grown up during that era. It "hit me" the same as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I finally read over spring break.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

All of James Dean Films: My 7/8 graders respond well to Rebel Without a Cause. Superb teaching about teens and the responsibility of parenting.

Also, A Gentleman's Agreement. My classes are as silent as a mouse and their jaws drop. The story of anti-Semitism in the early 50's. This is a powerful story especially after reading The Diary of Anne Frank to discover the anti-Semitism was so strong in the US.
Their comments and questions are very deep and meaningful.

What a joy to teach film as literature. Children's brains are lit up!!

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