Instead of a summer reading list, I thought I’d provide a list of great films we can show our students to inspire conversations about politics, history, culture and art. For me, the most important part of this is to understand that films are their own form of literature, as profound and poetic as any book, and to inspire conversations with a cultural artifact relevant to our students’ lives.
1. Arrival (USA, 2016, PG-13)
Don’t be turned off by the fact that this is a sci-fi film about aliens coming to earth. The story is really about the power of language and how the way we speak can change how we think. Based Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the film’s message is important in our world of fragmented populations, balkanized political parties and misunderstanding. The film is as applicable to language classes as it is to social studies topics related to international relations.
2. I am Not Your Negro (USA 2017, PG-13)
This film will make you rethink your notion of race in America. Based on author and playwright James Baldwin’s letters and unfinished book about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcome X, it challenges what we think we know about people of color, racism, and the resurgence of white supremacists in the U.S. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary is a perfect compainion to social studies curriculum about current events and the Civil Rights Movement, and literature like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
3. Rashomon (Japan, 1950, NR)
Akira Kurosawa’s (Seven Samurai, Ran) post-WWII film explores the rape of a woman and her husband’s murder in ancient Japan through four different points of view. This philosphical exploration of perception, bias and human nature helped the auteur explore the ramifcations of war, but which continue to resonate in today’s world of alternative facts and anti-intellectualism.
Ask yourself and your students: What do you believe in?
4. Manifesto (USA, 2017, NR)
Kate Blanchett plays as many as 13 characters in this adaptaion of an art installation by Julian Rosenfeldt. The film explores the many political ideologies & manifestos, including the Communist Manifesto, Dada, Dogma 95 and more. This is more of an art work than a narrative film, but provides a visual way to explore political and artistic ideals, and enjoy the contrasts of the film’s settings to the written word. Consider this conversation starter when developing student voice, mission statements, and goals for your class. Ask yourself and your students: What do you believe in?
5. Life, Animated (USA, 2016. PG)
We take for granted our abilty to talk and understand each other, if even clumisly and with the wrong words. Imagine, then, a profoundly autistic child, Owen Suskind, unable to talk at all, whose only gateway to the world is through Disney animated films. This documentary walks us through such a real life experience, and humanizes those around us with autism.
The real lesson, though, is how we as the audience also use Disney films to connect to this character. Often hidden and mis-understood, Owen and those with autism are disconnected from our experience, and it is only through our shared experience with Disney that we can truly understand him and the challenges we all face communicating with one another.
6. Jodorowsky’s Dune (USA, 2014. PG-13)
Assembling a group of “artistic warriors,” that inclued Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali, experimental Chilean filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), set out to turn the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic into a Hollywood film in the mid-1970's. Long before Star Wars, Alien, Bladerunner and the “awful” David Lynch verison of the 1980s, Jodorowsky developed a plan for a mind-blowing cinematic experience.
Of course, the film was never made, but the profound effect it had throughout Hollywood is a testament to the enduring influence visionaries can have, even if they don’t personally succeed. For me, this is like teaching: we assemble a team of humans to take on the world, and we prepare their hearts and minds for that mission. Only years later do we see the results, always in ways we could’t have predicted.
For me, this is like teaching: we assemble a team of humans to take on the world, and we prepare their hearts and minds for that mission.
7. La La Land (USA, 2016. PG-13)
Musicals are always about love and the love for music. This film is about love stories themselves: The love for another person, a love for one’s art, a love for the Musical as art form, the love for Los Angeles (La La Land), the love of dreams. We know what happens in life with all of these things, and the film explores this condition with tenderness, and even an optimism that we would do well to discuss as our students embark on journeys of passion that may not take them where they plan to go.
8. Moonlight (USA, 2016. R)
The Academy Award-wining story of a gay African American boy growing up in Miami, this film questions all kinds of stereotypes about race, economics, the scourge of crack, sexuality, and of course, love. Even the film’s music score defies expectation, and, along with the steady directing of Barry Jenkins, elevates the story of black urban life to that of classic literature and tragedy.
9. The White Helmets (USA, 2017)
This raw documentary explores the citizen volunteers who rescue victims of the Syrian civil war. The raw, shocking video footage of rescues contrasts with the calm resolve of members of the White Helmets as shown through candid interviews. If there’s one thing we need desperately in history and social studies classes, its a connection to and empathy with people in conflict in the world right now. This doc puts a human face on a tragedy Americans are happy to ignore.