We’ve all heard cinema be described as ‘escapism’ or ‘a break from reality. Of course, this is true of most - but it would be false to say that reality and film are two separate entities. Films not only reflect society, but they can also change it by telling compelling, shocking, or impactful enough stories. There are examples throughout history of a film having an immense cultural impact, from widespread Dirty Dancing fever to Potter-induced mania. But it’s not just culture that can be rocked by movies - politics, law, and widespread fear or hatred of a person, animal or group have all been induced. Here is our list of films that changed the world, for better or for worse.
Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
There’s a reason Jordan Peele’s Get Out was chosen by the Writers’ Guild of America as the greatest script of the 21st century thus far. Of course, it’s effective as a horror film - complete with jump scares, tension and eeriness. Horror has always been used as a tool to show the flaws in our society. It can be seen throughout the 20th and 21st century, from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other extraterrestrial films honing in of fears of otherness brought on by the Cold War, right through to The Babadook, which does a beautiful job of creating a physical entity embodying overpowering depression.
But Get Out made it onto this list because it does such a powerful job of exploring American slavery and it does so, not from the dusty 1800s of the Deep South, but from the more familiar, modern New York state. As Esquire puts it, it’s an “artistic and scientific framework for an understanding race as a technology across time and space”. The exploitative party are smiling, warm and eerily recognisable for audience members of today, bringing the very real and prevalent issue out of the distant past.
Super Size Me (2004)
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock set himself the challenge of eating nothing but McDonald's for 30 days. As expected with a diet like this, he gains weight, but it’s the amount he gains, as well as the unexpected side effects, that make this documentary one of the most talked-about of its generation. He gains an excess of 30 pounds, his energy massively depletes, he loses a lot of muscle mass and even suffers from depression and a decreased libido.
It wasn’t just people’s raised awareness of the dangerous effects of fast food that have given this film a place on this list. McDonald’s actually removed the supersize meal option from their menus following the alarm of the American people. The clean version of this film has been used by health classes worldwide as a warning to teenagers about bad diets. (Not to mention, it’s also immensely enjoyable and delivers the message without holding back on laughs).
Directed by Jonathan Demme
In recent years, there's been plenty of incredible films and TV releases that have sensitively and movingly portrayed the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 80s; Russel T. Davies’ It’s a Sin, Yen Tan’s 1985 and Robin Camilla’s BPM are all brilliant examples of this. However, when Philadelphia was released in 1993, there was still widespread prejudices in the media and panic throughout the general public - the conversation was taboo if not driven by a disdain towards gay men.
Philadelphia brought the conversation around HIV and AIDS into societal discourse, destigmatising the disease by examining how it drove homophobia and misguided fear.
The film had a global butterfly effect and marked the change towards a more empathetic view of the epidemic. Perhaps seeing Tom Hanks, a globally adored actor, play someone inflicted with the killer disease meant that people were able to humanise victims in a way the media so often failed to do.
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, David Hand, Samuel Armstrong, Bill Roberts, James Algar, Paul Satterfield, Graham Heid, Arthur Davis and Norman Wright
When it was released, Bambi was the most ambitious Disney Animation yet. Artists had to make sure spots on Bambi’s back were replicated perfectly in every frame. They also used an oil painting technique for depth in the backdrops, meaning there were two animation styles at play.
But of course, it’s not just the animation style that made waves. As a result of that scene in which Bambi brutally loses his (yes, we’re always equally shocked when we are reminded that Bambi was a boy) mother to a hunter’s gun, deer shooting as a sport took a blow. Recreational hunters were moved by this cartoon so much that they soon abandoned their hobby, decreasing hunter numbers by 50%. This so-called ‘Bambi effect’, meant that he soon became a national animal rights symbol, changing the course of the hunting industry and those who participate in it.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
If for some inexplicable reason you haven’t seen Parasite, it tells the story of the Kim family, who are struggling to make ends meet. They are then offered an opportunity to work for the much wealthier Park family, each being given a role within their household. Soon, the Kims start making themselves at home in their new luxurious surroundings and do everything to risk being found out for their new parasitic tendencies.
Of course, Parasite became the first international film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, with Bong Joon-ho’s incredible winners’ speech giving us the quote, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. But it’s not just its record-breaking ability that puts it on the map. Following its release and depiction of poverty, Seoul authorities were prompted to investigate the Banjiha, the basement-level apartments occupied by many in the city. As a result of their findings, a scheme was put in place to renovate 1,500 of its basement apartments.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Blackfish lifts the curtain on ocean aquariums to reveal the cruelty that goes on at holiday parks like SeaWorld. Tilikum, the focal Orka in the film, has taken the lives of three people since her capture, but this film shows us that it’s humans, not whales, that are to blame for holding these highly intelligent animals in captivity. The year that Blackfish was released, SeaWorld’s popularity dramatically declined. Their image was so badly damaged that, in 2014, their stock fell by 50%. Thanks to the unflinching film and the impact it had on how we perceive animals and entertainment, in 2016 SeaWorld announced that the current generation of captive killer whales will be their last.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho is a movie of firsts. For starters, violence and sexuality to the extent that was depicted in Psycho had never been seen on the big screen before. It’s argued that this is one of the reasons Hitchcock decided to release it in black and white, in order to make the bloody scenes more palatable. "The shower scene in colour in 1960 would have just been unshowable," says Michael Brooke, Screenonline curator at the British Film Institute.
Psycho toys with perspective and audiences emotions in a way no film that came before it had. Our central character is killed brutally a third of the way through the movie, and suddenly we’re seeing everything from the perspective of someone responsible, which was groundbreakingly disconcerting. In short, Psycho rendered all previous horror films irrelevant and marked the end of the oppressive conformity of the 1950s in art and culture, reflected in society in the following years.
The Birth of A Nation (1915)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Unlike the majority of the films on this list, The Birth of a Nation changed the world in all the wrong ways, with devastating effects. The film, set in the American Civil War, was made in 1915 - many decades after the war was over and the Klu Klux Klan’s numbers were drastically dwindling following the victory of the American Union and the abolition of slavery. However, The Birth of A Nation showed the Klu Klux Klan as saviours and incited far-right audience members to join the group.
In terms of narrative, the film follows the Cameron family, who are attacked by black soldiers. They are then rescued by members of the Ku Klux Klan, which inspires the eldest son of the Cameron family to join the KKK, rising the ranks and eventually becoming the leader. Following the film’s release, the almost defunct Klan grew back up to 4 million members in the 1920s.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Al Gore, an American Politician and environmentalist who served as Vice President under Bill Clinton, wrote and created this presentation with the aim of demonstrating the severity of climate change. Gore initially presented this slideshow at a Town Hall meeting, where he got the attention of producer Laurie David, and they set out to turn it into a feature documentary.
As the title suggests, the comprehensive presentation features detailed graphs, flow charts and stark visuals. It urges viewers to change, warning them about what the future holds if we don’t, and demands we act quickly if we want to save the earth. According to numbers reported by the Breakthrough Institute, “the split on the question of whether global warming constituted a very serious problem had risen from 30% to 35%” in just two years following the release of the film.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Jaws is another of the films that demonstrates the possible negative impact film and popular movies can have. With great power comes great responsibility and who has greater power in Hollywood than Stephen Speilberg? Jaws is set on the quiet island of Amity, and it takes place one summer when the inhabitants are terrorised by a huge, bloodthirsty great white shark. To save the day, a marine biologist, a fisherman and Amity’s chief of police team up to catch and kill the “monster”, with the lives of some of the locals being lost along the way.
Famously, beach attendance dropped dramatically after the film's release. For those of you who have seen Jaws, you’ll know the feeling in your stomach when you go swimming and the thought of a 25-foot, 3-tonne shark pops into your head. Of course, humans have killed millions more sharks than sharks have killed humans, but Jaws makes the animal the antagonist and, as a result of this portrayal, the popularity of shark hunting increased, which in turn led to a noticeable decline in the shark population. But it’s not all bad news; Peter Benchley, the author of the novel that Jaws was based on, later realized how misguided his portrayal of sharks was. He dedicated his life, as well his Jaws royalties to shark conservation efforts.
Films can, undoubtedly, be a catalyst for widespread change. When people dismiss them merely as entertainment, they forget their potential to be politicians, propaganda, trailblazers, scientists and teachers. Most of the time, they don’t change the world in any obvious way, but on a micro-scale, they can change the course of people’s lives by moving or educating them in ways school syllabuses cannot.