Activist Films and TV Shows to Get You Ready for the Election of a Lifetime


Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo and Nathaniel Bowler
Copy Edited and Posted by Jennifer Bell 

Next Tuesday’s US presidential election is a topic of contention in every American household and a topic of concern in many households around the world. As November 3rd approaches, the importance of this election becomes clearer and clearer to everyone whether or not they live in the US. Much of our global politics has taken a turn towards the right, and as COVID-19 has shown, right-wing, conservative governments are not as well-equipped to deal with national emergencies as governments that take a stronger stance toward looking after the wellbeing of all their citizens. For Americans, who will hopefully all make our voices heard in this election, it is imperative that we vote for a better future for this nation. For the rest of the world, when your turn comes to decide on who will fill your government’s many offices, we hope that you will keep in mind the lessons learned from how different governments responded to 2020 and all the challenges this year has sent our way. 

It is hard to feel hopeful and inspired to stand up for our rights in a year such as this one, but with the invaluable help of our readers we have compiled a list of exactly the kinds of films, TV shows, and documentaries that will remind you of the power of activism and political engagement to heal personal wounds and the global ones we are experiencing today. Think we missed something? Share it with us on our Twitter, @agnesfilms, or our Instagram, @agnes.films

Films

Starr crouches next to a street side memorial for her friend she saw murdered by the police.

Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give (2018), dir. George Tillman Jr.

By Mimi Anagli

The Hate U Give is a devastatingly accurate look into the Black experience in America. The opening scene is of a father giving his kids the talk. For many households, the talk usually has something to do with the birds and the bees, but in a Black household, that’s not the case. The father is giving his children, who are no older than 9 or 10, the rundown of what happens if they ever get stopped by the cops. These unnerving first two minutes set the tone for the rest of the film. Based on the New York Times Best Selling novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is centered around Starr (Amandla Stenberg) a 16-year-old-girl who lives in a predominantly Black residential area and goes to a predominantly white private school. At school she assumes the character of “Starr version 2,” where she doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. On top of the hardship that comes with suppressing her lifestyle because of the discrimination she would face at school, Starr lives through the traumatic experience of watching her friend get shot and killed by the police. While dealing with grief, Starr begins to see the true colors of her classmates as she is subjected to more racist remarks and actions than she ever has before. Stenberg’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal. The look in her eyes as she stares at the lifeless body of her friend is bone-chilling and brings into our hearts the reality of what she has experienced better than any dialogue could. The grief, anger, and fear that Starr feels is a reality for many Black Americans right now. I highly recommend this film to anyone who wants to understand what so many of us Black Americans are feeling in these times leading up to the election. The Hate U Give is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

On the Basis of Sex (2018), dir. Mimi Leder

By Kara Headley 

Many of us know the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the badass Supreme Court justice who worked her entire life championing women’s rights, but not many know how her early life led her to the Supreme Court. On the Basis of Sex is an extraordinary RBG biopic that dives into her past, showing us how she became a powerhouse in US law. The film begins in the late 1950s at Harvard, where RBG (Felicity Jones) is one of the very few women in the law program. Jones’s energy and confidence allows her to excellently portray a woman frustrated by the way the world shoots her down again and again, not because she isn’t capable, but because of her gender. The film takes us through decades of her life. The quick rhythm constantly throws struggle after struggle at RBG which helps to put us in her shoes and experience the frustration and anger she feels when the world won’t give her a break. With the recent passing of RBG, this film feels more timely than ever as we reflect back on her life and the work she did for this country and for women around the world. Now that she is gone, we must carry the lessons she taught us into a new, even brighter future. It won’t be easy but she taught us that with determination and brains, everything is possible. On the Basis of Sex is available to stream on Showtime or purchase on Amazon Prime

Jones as RBG stands up in the middle of a lecture hall of men.

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex

Jojo Rabbit (2019), dir. Taika Waititi

By Mimi Anagli

A common way we see the entertainment industry engage in political matters is through satire. Saturday Night Live’s long reign as our political barometer and films such as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview, use satire to expose our society’s most heinous practices in a digestible way. Taika Waititi uses this tool to tackle one of the most shameful periods in human history in his film Jojo Rabbit. The film portrays Nazi Germany from the perspective of a 10 year old boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Brainwashed by Fascist propaganda, Jojo is a Nazi fanatic who is “massively into swastikas.” He spends his time training to be a soldier and talking to his imaginary friend, who is none other than Hitler, played by Waititi, a Polynesian Jewish New Zealander. After being forced to stay at home because of an injury at Hitler youth camp, Jojo comes to the realization that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. As they become friends, Jojo learns that Jewish people are not the blood-sucking monsters he thought they were. At times humorous, warm-hearted, and devastating, Jojo Rabbit highlights the complete absurdity of racist Nazi ideologies and sheds light on the heroic efforts made by German resistance. In a political climate where Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups are reviving the hatred that erupted during World War II, Waititi reminds us of the direction we could be headed towards if these groups continue to be given the fuel to grow. Jojo Rabbit is available to stream with HBO or purchase on Amazon Prime

Elsa leans to whisper in Jojo's ear, as imaginary Hitler cowers in the corner.

Thomasin McKenzie, Roman Griffin Davis, and Taika Waititi in Jojo Rabbit.

Selma (2014), dir. Ava DuVernay

By Mimi Anagli

Selma is a historical drama that transports you to some of the most crucial moments of the Civil Rights Movement. The film portrays the life of Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) leading up to and during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. In their fight for voting rights, we see the perseverance of figures like MLK, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), and John Lewis (Stephan James). It’s one thing to know these names, but to see the hard work they did and the maltreatment they faced so that Black Americans, like me, could have more equality is deeply moving. When making the film with cinematographer Bradford Young, Ava DuVernay wanted to achieve an old Kodachrome film look to highlight the era that these events occurred in. The film has an unsaturated and slightly sepia-toned color palette that creates a historical atmosphere, making it feel as if the audience is witnessing the true events unfold. Watching Selma will instill a deeper appreciation and understanding for voting rights in America. Behind every Black vote are countless lives, which we are honoring by filling out a ballot. If Civil Rights activists could endure the threats and violence inflicted on them, then the least we can do is stay politically engaged, educated, and vote in this upcoming election. Selma is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Norma Rae (1979), dir. Martin Ritt

By Alexandra Hidalgo

Ritt’s exquisitely written and acted story of one woman’s activist awakening feels as urgent today as it did when it was released. Sally Field won a much-deserved Academy Award for playing Norma Rae, a sexually-liberated single mother living in a dead-end North Carolina town and working at the town’s single employer, a textile factory that mistreats its workers with impunity. When Ron Leibman’s Reuben Warshowsky arrives from New York and books a room at the local motel, hoping to bring the textile union to her factory, she begins to realize that she has not only a talent for organizing, but a profound passion for it. The film, in which the characters are constantly drenched in the sweat that Southern humidity can bring as they speak in crisp, witty dialogue that always packs a punch, is not only a story of political activism. It is also a feminist tour de force in which a woman who’s constantly criticized for being sexually active outside of marriage and for having two children from two different men, finds pride in her own trajectory—speckled as it may be—and stands up for her fellow workers and for herself to rewrite the future into something more hopeful and daring for everyone. Norma Rae is available to stream with Xfinity.

  • All the President’s Men (1976), dir. lan J. Pakula
  • Bee Movie (2007), dir. Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith
  • Boys Don’t Cry (1999), dir. Kimberly Peirce
  • Clear and Present Danger (1994), dir. Phillip Noyce
  • Clemency (2019), dir. Chinonye Chukwu
  • Erin Brockovich (2000), dir. Steven Soderbergh
  • Fruitvale Station (2013), dir. Ryan Coogler
  • Guava Island (2019), dir. Hiro Murai
  • Harriet (2019), dir. Kasi Lemmons
  • Hidden Figures (2016), dir. Theodore Melfi
  • Malcolm X (1992), dir. Spike Lee
  • Milk (2008), dir. Gus Van Sant
  • Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins
  • SHY GIRL (2017), by the Lower Eastside Girls Club

TV Shows

When They See Us (2019), created by Ava DuVernay

By Kara Headley

When They See Us is a harrowing retelling of the events surrounding the real-life Central Park jogger case and the five Black boys wrongfully accused of raping a woman and leaving her for dead. The show begins on a cheerful note, showing the boys with their friends and families the night before they are arrested. A dark turn is quickly taken as the cops show up on the scene, and the boys are chased down and arrested for a crime they did not commit. The unsteadiness of the camera and the fast drum beat heighten the tension of the scene and will make your heart pound in fear as you realize that what you’re seeing is a close approximation of the horror experienced by the real boys—Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk/Justin Cunningham), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez/Freddy Miyares), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris/Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse/Chris Chalk), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome)—who had to undergo this ordeal. DuVernay’s directing captures the horrors they were subjected to as the NYPD interrogates and forces them to confess. Despite this case taking place thirty years ago, the reality of When They See Us is one that many still live today. With the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others murdered by the very people who are meant to protect them, we are clearly still in a place where the message of the Central Park Five case has not been heard by those who need it.  When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix.

Ellis and Herrisse walk arm in arm past a crowd of protestors, holding signs saying "Stop Racism Now"

Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse in When They See Us

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-Present), created by Bruce Miller

By Mimi Anagli

Out of all the TV series I have seen in my 20 years of existence, none have evoked such strong emotion in me as the Hulu original The Handmaid’s Tale has. Placed in a dystopian world where the US has been overthrown by a totalitarian government that has stripped women of any rights, including autonomy over their bodies, Handmaid tells the story from the perspective of handmaids, who are forced to bear children for the infertile wives of commanders. They constantly go through absolutely vile and humiliating experiences that are unfortunately not far from what many women go through in real life right now. The premise of the story is horrifying and can be triggering, but the true story lies in a resistance that stems from the valiant efforts of one handmaid named Offred (Elisabeth Moss). The bravery and unbreakable spirit depicted by the handmaids, including Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Ofrobert (Nina Kiri), was enough to bring tears to my eyes, so one can only imagine the sobfest I had as I witnessed a women-led revolution grow in a span of three seasons. Handmaid presents us with a reality that is not unimaginable. Women are still not equal under the constitution and the government is still deciding what we can and cannot do with our bodies. Although I doubt that the US will be overthrown by a totalitarian government, Handmaid does bring into question a valid and relevant concern over the autonomy women have over their bodies. If there is anything history has shown us is how quick civil liberties can be taken away and how change can happen overnight. Having been born in 1939, Margaret Atwood, who wrote the book the series is inspired by, knows that better than most. The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream on Hulu

Whitford and Moss wear red robes and white bonnets.

Bradley Whitford and Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale

Star Trek (1966–1969), created by Gene Roddenberry

By Kara Headley

While Star Trek is well known for being one of the first and most popular science fiction TV shows, many may not be aware that it was considered one of the most progressive shows at the time of its airing. Join the crew of the USS Enterprise as they take to the stars, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life. As the crew, led by Captain James Kirk (William Shatner), explores the galaxy, they encounter unique and often powerful civilizations. The colorful uniforms, the clunky “futuristic” technology, and the 60s acting gives this show a unique charm that is impossible to replicate (yes, pun intended, you nerds). One of the most remarkable aspects of the show was its emphasis on portraying a future where racial discrimination is nothing but a distant memory. Characters like Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Lieutenant Sulu (George Takei), a Black woman and a Japanese man, were groundbreaking in the world of television. Uhura served as an inspiration for many women of color in STEM, and Nichols would go on to work for NASA on a campaign encouraging African Americans to join the service. Takei’s portrayal of Sulu was one of the first portrayals of an Asian man on television in a positive, non-stereotypical light. I would be remiss if I did not address the shortcomings of the show. Despite the progressive nature of the show when it was made, by today’s standards, many of the plot lines and character portrayals do fall flat. While the show is celebrated for creating a better future for the human race, there are plot lines that will make you say “yikes.” However, it is an important addition to this list because it gives us a glimpse into the future, from the past, and allows us to reflect on how we can work together to create a more diverse and compassionate world in decades to come, whether we take to the stars or not. Star Trek is available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), created by Greg Daniels, Michael Schur

By Kara Headley

In the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana, the Parks and Recreation department works to maintain the culture and beauty of their small town. Parks and Recreation stars Amy Poehler, who also wrote for the show, as Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department. Leslie believes in the power the government has to enact positive change in the lives of its citizens. We watch as Leslie and her best friend, Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), do their best to transform lives through the power of cheerfulness and bureaucracy, never tiring despite the constant challenges thrown their way often by the very citizens they are trying to help. This show is styled like a mockumentary, offering the audience interviews with the characters, which allows us to get to know their thoughts and feelings more intimately. It’s like The Office, but instead of getting an explanation for the cameras being there, we are left in the dark, adding another level of hilarity to this already delightfully bizarre show. This light-hearted comedy will remind you that there are still good people trying to do good things in our government and that there is no force in the world that can stop a determined woman from turning a large sinking hole into a park for all to enjoy. Parks and Recreation is available to stream on Peacock and Hulu Premium.

Washington as Olivia Pope wears a red pant suit and sits in the middle of the frame.

Kerry Washington in Scandal

Scandal (2012-2018), created by Shonda Rhimes

By Mimi Anagli

Scandal is a political drama filled with seven seasons of romance, corruption, and the infamous “Olivia Pope walk.” The show follows Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who in the span of the show is a campaign manager, white house communications director, CEO and founder of a crisis management firm, and the White House Chief of Staff. To put it simply, she is a Black woman with power, which isn’t something you see on TV everyday. Pope is the one who handles all the political scandals, while she just happens to be involved in the biggest one. During her time as a  campaign manager, Pope becomes romantically entangled with the married presidential candidate, who is eventually elected into office. Created by the brilliant Shonda Rhymes, who brought us Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal has more than enough drama, plot twists, and cliffhangers to last a lifetime. While some episodes are purely fiction, others are based on real government scandals. Pope’s character is inspired by Judy Smith, who was the Deputy Press Secretary for President Bush and the CEO of her own crisis management firm. On top of being immensely entertaining, Scandal normalizes diversity in politics. With storylines centered around a gay chief of staff and vice president and a woman who becomes the president, Scandal gives traditionally marginalized token characters a voice. Scandal is available to stream on Hulu Premium or buy on Amazon Prime

  • Dear White People (2017-Present), created by Justin Simien
  • House of Cards (2013-2018), created by Beau Willimon
  • Little Fires Everywhere (2020), created by Liz Tigelaar
  • Mrs. America (2020), created by Dahvi Waller
  • The Newsroom (2012–2014), created by Aaron Sorkin
  • The Politician (2019-Present), created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy
  • Veep (2012–2019), created by Armando Iannucci
  • West Wing (1999-2006), created by Aaron Sorkin

Documentaries

The Silence of Others (2018), dirs. Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar 

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

If you missed The Silence of Others, fresh off two Emmy wins and currently streaming on Netflix, now is the time to get lost in Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s transformative documentary about a group of Spanish citizens’ tenacious struggle to force their government to come to terms with the brutal legacy of Francisco Franco’s decades-long dictatorship. The film manages the intricate task of telling a complex political tale while presenting deftly crafted portraits of the individuals fighting for justice. The character that for me embodies the documentary’s heart is María Martín, a brittle, elderly woman constantly dressed in black who speaks in a haunting whisper. She wants to recover the body of her mother, who was brutally murdered by Francoist soldiers and placed in a mass grave when María was six years old. In María’s face, which reminds us of time’s passage with countless hard-earned wrinkles, and in her unflinching determination to reconnect with the remains of the mother she lost, we see not only for how long these national wounds have been allowed to remain untended, but that much of what Franco’s victims desire is not revenge but to have the injustices they and their ancestors were subjected to acknowledged, and for the government to make the gestures required to help them rebuild their lives. As we undergo unprecedented global trauma in 2020, Silence reminds us how vital it is for societies to respond in a compassionate manner to the pain inflicted upon those who live in them. Otherwise we leave today’s injuries as our legacy for future generations to grapple with. The Silence of Others is available to stream on Netflix.

Elderly María Martín wears a black dress and sits next to a highway leaning against the metal guard rail.

María Martín in The Silence of Others

Whose Streets (2017), dirs. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

It is both deeply distressing and not unexpected that Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s fearless documentary Whose Streets is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it shook screens across the country with its passionate portrayal of the 2014 Ferguson protests, which took place after unarmed teenager Michael Brown was murdered by the police outside his apartment building. Rather than focusing on Brown himself, the film makes an argument for the existence of systemic anti-Black violence by following a number of resolute activists who have grown up surrounded by this violence and are now peacefully but shrewdly fighting back. The film’s most powerful and devastating moments happen when we see the activists participating in stirring protests filmed by themselves and the documentary’s crew, only to cut to the mainstream media’s coverage of the same event as the work of angry, uncontrollable mobs. I would like to tell you this coverage comes primarily from Fox News, but it does not. As a matter of fact, the film’s most enraging moment, at least for me, comes as ABC News George Stephanopoulos interviews Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown six times. Stephanopoulos nods sympathetically as Wilson tells us that he’s just a normal family man who did what he did because, “All I wanted to do was live,” to which Stephanopoulos reminds Wilson that he’d described Brown as looking at Wilson as a demon would. The clip ends as Wilson denies race had anything to do with his choices. “You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” he says. As Whose Streets so eloquently shows, however, racism isn’t only deeply embedded in every aspect of our police system, our media is shamelessly complicit in the ingrained mistreatment of Black citizens. Whose Streets is available to stream on Hulu

A young Black woman holding a megaphone stands amidst a group of people in a black and white photo of the Ferguson protests.

Protestors in Whose Streets

Equal Means Equal (2016), dir. Kamala Lopez

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

As the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to become the 28th Amendment of the US Constitution heads to the Supreme Court, Kamala Lopez’s passionate examination of the ERA’s history and the vital need for the amendment to finally be passed is an eye-opening call for gender equality in the US. The film features compelling interviews with long-time women’s rights activists like Gloria Steinem, Patricia Arquette, and Lakshmi Puri, as well as with a number of legal luminaries who break down the ways in which not having gender equality under the Constitution leaves women vulnerable when trying to protect themselves from the abuse they face at the hands of partners, employers, and the institutions that run our country. The documentary, which through countless grassroots and community screenings lit a spark in states around the US to pass the ERA in their own constitutions, also makes the case for why we need gender equality by providing chilling statistics about women’s subjugation through emotive graphics. Blending personal stories from victims and activists alike with a larger narrative that explains the social and political context within which gender inequality unfolds in the US, Equal Means Equal is an ideal film for inviting viewers to figure out where sexism comes from and what they can do to stand up to it for themselves and for generations to come. Equal Means Equal is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Patu! (1983), dir. Merata Miti

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

Every time I teach Patu! in my history and theory of documentary courses, students get lost in a hypnotic trance as a group of New Zealand activists launch a protest against their own government for allowing a series of rugby matches between one of their own teams and a South African team to take place in their country. The protesters argue that by hosting the team, New Zealand becomes complicit with South Africa’s ruthless apartheid politics. Filmed in one of the most arresting examples of the immediacy and authenticity that the handheld verité style can bring to a story, we watch our protesters start with simple pamphlets and theatrical reenactments of apartheid violence on the streets, only to end up being pummeled by police fists, boots, and batons as the protests intensify. Miti, who is a Maori filmmaker and as such painfully familiar with the ways in which New Zealand’s government systematically oppresses its Indigenous citizens and other populations of color, turns Patu! into a critique of racism in her homeland. From the handheld cinematography to the inside look at how examining another country’s crimes can help us confront our own country’s faults, this film indeed hypnotizes as it invites us to dig as deep as we can into our own prejudices and what we’re willing to do to transform ourselves and our societies. Patu! is freely available to stream on NZ On Screen.

A crowd of people carry protest signs with sayings like "Rape is Rape" and "Silence is Violence"

Protestors in The Hunting Ground

 

The Hunting Ground (2015), dir. Kirby Dick

By Alexandra Hidalgo 

The Hunting Ground opens with a montage featuring home videos of students finding out they’ve gotten into the college of their dreams. Surrounded by loving relatives, the elated expressions on their faces are the stuff the American Dream is made of. However, like the American Dream, the college experience, especially for women, can come with crippling side effects. The Hunting Ground follows two college activists, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who were raped while in school and then callously mistreated by their university when they tried to report the crime. As the film shows, neither the fact that they were raped, nor the university’s cruel victim-blaming responses, were isolated incidents. We watch student after student from around the country discuss not only the ways in which perpetrators hurt them, but also the equally damaging wounds inflicted by their universities in doing everything they can to silence victims who bravely speak up. Through these testimonies, the film articulately argues sexual violence against women is rampant on American campuses because the institutions themselves are complicit in allowing that behavior to continue. Instead of giving up before what is clearly an issue that affects campuses around the country, however, Clark and Pino start a grassroots movement across colleges in the US to fight back in one of the most empowering stories about young people coming together to create a better world. The Hunting Ground is available to stream on HBO Max or rent on Amazon Prime

  • 13th (2016), dir. Ava DuVernay
  • American Factory (2019), dir. Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert 
  • Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2014) dir. Freida Lee Mock
  • Athlete A (2020), dir. Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
  • Bananas!* (2009), dir. Fredrik Gertten
  • Becoming (2020), dir. Nadia Hallgren
  • Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004), dir. Shola Lynch
  • Disclosure (2020), dir. Sam Feder
  • Dolores (2017) dir. Peter Bratt
  • For Sama (2019), dir. Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
  • Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012), dir. Shola Lynch
  • Get me Roger Stone (2017), dir. Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme
  • Hacking Democracy (2006), dir. Russell Michael, Simon Ardizzone
  • Hillary (2020), dir. Nanette Burstein
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020), dir. Lisa Bryant 
  • Made in LA (2007) dir. Almudena Carracedo
  • Knock Down The House (2019), dir. Rachel Lears
  • Merchants of Doubt (2014), dir. Robert Kenner
  • RBG (2018), dir. Julie Cohen, Betsy West
  • Saving Capitalism (2017), dir. Jacob Kornbluth, Sari Gilman
  • The Fifth Star (2010), dir. Naomi Nelson
  • The Great Hack (2019), dir. Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
  • The Vote (2020), created by PBS

What political and activist content you love didn’t make the list? Be sure to tweet us @agnesfilms! You can learn more about MimiKara and Alexandra on their profiles.