Six Social Justice Films for Your Bucket List

Edward-McNultyEdward McNulty has spent 37 years publishing film reviews, study guides and books that explore the inspiring connections between faith and popular culture. Thousands of men and women have enjoyed his books, the full Visual Parables Journal , or talked with him at his workshops in the US and Canada. In 1990, while serving as a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, he began sending out a one-page newsletter with short reviews of films called Visual Parables. These newsletters expanded and eventually became a full-scale magazine: Visual Parables Journal.

FilmDayton heard Mr. McNulty make this presentation at Pecha Kucha night last and asked if we could share this with our readers.  Mr. McNulty graciously agreed.  We hope you enjoy!


I love films that challenge the mind and explore important issues of society. From the thousands of films I’ve reviewed, I’ve compiled a list of over 700 dealing with social justice issues. Here are six that should be on your bucket list.


SALT OF THE EARTH is the only film to be banned by theater owners. Its director Herbert Bieber was one of the Hollywood Ten accused of being Communist. It’s about a miner’s union strike. A court forbids the men to picket their unsafe mine, which means scabs can get through to break the strike.

The miners’ wives volunteer to walk the picket lines, but one man objects. “The women aren’t strong enough. And who will cook & take care of the kids?” The men don’t like the women’s answer, but the next day the women, carrying signs, march around the mine’s gate. This delightful 1954 film celebrates the dignity & power of women, as well as the union to stand up to oppression. We see how Esperanza, an under appreciated wife, learned to do this, and also help her patriarchal husband to grow up.


SIN NOMBRE involves Sayra, a Honduran teenager riding on top of a freight train with her father, uncle, and many others. Hoping to escape their homeland’s violence, they plan to join relatives in the U.S.. After the train enters Mexico, a gang of young toughs clambers aboard to rob the refugees.

One of the robbers is the troubled Casper, upset because Lil’Mago, his leader has killed his (Casper’s) girlfriend. When the leader tries to rape Sayra, Casper intervenes and shoves Lil’Mago off the train. Although her father and Uncle still are suspicious of him…

A friendship develops between the two young people as the train continues north. This blossoms into a romance when the two become separated from her relatives. But can it last with Casper’s former friends urging other gangs all along the way to spot him and kill him?



v1THE LONG WALK HOME focuses on the foot soldiers & not the generals in the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the late Fifties. Whoopi Goldberg is Odessa, who walks miles back & forth to the home where Sissy Spacek’s Miriam employs her as a maid. In church scenes we hear but never see Martin Luther King, Jr. inspiring the walkers.

Slowly naïve Miriam becomes aware of her maid’s hardship and the cruelty of the racist system her husband accepts without question. Meanwhile Odessa and the two other house servants have to listen in silence to the racist comments of the husband and guests.

Miriam begins to give Odessa rides, and there is all hell to pay when her angry husband is told about this and orders her to stop. The film shows the cost to America’s blacks, and even to a few whites, for standing up to –or should I say walking against–injustice.



51fxDBsffWL._SY300_PHILADELPHIA is a story about a young lawyer fired by his bosses when they discover he has AIDS, then the scourge of the gay community. Intending to use BROKE BACK MOUNTAIN for this list, I decided to include the Tom Hanks film because it shows that minds can be changed by a well-made film.


While speaking about films at a college, a young Christian student came up to thank me and said this film showed her that her church was wrong about homosexuals. Tom Hanks as Andrew Becket opened her eyes to the humanity of gays and that they were not the demons her church had claimed.


She also saw the irony in Denzil Washington’s homophobic Joe Miller, who at first refused to accept Andrew’s lawsuit against his former bosses. At a time when most people were still prejudiced against gays, this film dared to affirm fellow human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity.



THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON stars Danny Glover as Jerry and Matt Dillon as Matthew, two homeless men trying to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan. They meet after the mentally disturbed Matthew is turned out of his public housing apartment because the decrepit building is to be demolished.


Jerry, suffering from his Vietnam War wounds, becomes a mentor to the naive Matthew. He shows him how to survive by washing windshields; finding shelter on subway trains late at night; nursing a cup of coffee for as long as the restaurant will allow, and dealing with unfriendly cops.


The film’s title refers to Matthew’s healing power that helps Jerry’s knee pain and the arthritic hands of a shoe shiner named Spitz. It also refers to the city’s Fort Washington Shelter, located in a large armory. Here on some nights the two can find a bed. But there’s a bully who does not like Matthew!


irongiantIt was hard to select a children’s film, so I chose one not as well known as Disney and Pixar films. THE IRON GIANT, set in Maine during the Cold War when fear of Communism & the Bomb set people at each other’s throats, is the story of a strange friendship between a boy and an alien robot.


Young Hogart one night sees what looks like a giant meteor falling into the woods. Venturing forth, he discovers a huge robot. Knowing how fearful adults are, he keeps his discovery secret, though because the Iron Giant must eat lots of metal, he does ask Dean if his friend can hide in his junkyard.

Federal Agent Kent Mansley is after the alien and comes close to setting off a nuclear explosion when he orders government forces to attack the I.G. Only the boy’s pleading with his friend not to fight back with his weapons avoids catastrophe. This is a great film for all ages about fear, violence, & what it is to be “human.”


All of these films expand our horizons, calling us to enlarge our hearts and make room for those whom the powerful would exploit. These films make us aware that as humans we are all bound together.


Those who would like to obtain the list of the 700+ other social justice films can obtain it by emailing me at The Word document has hyperlinks in about half of the titles that will take you to the full review at

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