The year 2020 was one of loud and urgent calls for societal change, as the country’s racial and economic divides were starkly exposed by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the most unconventional presidential campaign of our lives. The best social impact films and television shows of 2020 put the issues that traumatize, divide, unite and inspire us squarely at the heart of their narratives.
The USC Media Institute of Social Change (MISC) is dedicated to the idea that good cinematic projects can promote discussion and action on social change issues via impeccable storytelling. And since MISC is based at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, it also supports technically proficient filmmaking. The following projects tick all the boxes: brilliant writing, exciting and creative filmmaking, and emotional connections to the issues that, for better or worse, are central to the way we live now and want to live in the future.
Since we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, these recommendations were also guided by what can be streamed at home. Films like Ammonite, The Father and Promising Young Woman (put those on your list for future viewing), while presenting compelling social commentary, are not yet available for streaming.
Here are the top social impact films from 2020, all of which you can watch while staying home for the holidays.
I May Destroy You (HBO)
The only episodic series on the list of top social impact films of 2020, the latest from British actor/writer Michaela Coel — the creative force behind the massively popular off-kilter comedy Chewing Gum – blends heartbreaking emotion with Coel’s signature self-deprecating humor. Inspired by her own sexual assault, it examines the ripple effects of sexual trauma as Arabella, a smart, funny writer in London (played by Coel) tries to piece her life together after a brutal assault. The show skillfully handles consent, violence, race and gender in complicated and thoughtful ways.
The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
Ever wonder what the guys (they are mostly guys) who created addictive, social media features like the “like” button and the suggestion algorithms (how did they know I need leggings!?) were thinking? This documentary from Jeff Orlowski explores how those addictions — which were originally envisioned as features that would make our lives better — have instead threatened our mental and emotional well-being. By going behind the curtain to expose the complex forces at work when we connect online, the film tries to float some remedies that can make social media better IRL.
Immigration Nation (Netflix)
“Abolish ICE” was a rallying cry of this year’s protest movements, as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has frequently become the villain of news stories about immigrants who work, raise families and even pay taxes but are still dragged from their homes, shackled in front of their children and returned to countries they no longer consider home. But what are the policies and people behind those actions?
This series offers a deep dive into the state of U.S. immigration, utilizing unprecedented access to ICE operations. By embedding with ICE agents and undocumented families, the filmmakers capture moving portraits of both the immigrants and the agents. The film takes the time and care to explore both sides — the ramifications of living undocumented lives and of “just doing my job.”
John Lewis: Good Trouble (HBO Max)
When Rep. John Lewis passed away in July, he had built a legacy as one of the most transformative leaders in our country’s history. Dawn Porter’s documentary honors Lewis’ civil rights work, spanning 60 years of extraordinary activism in which he went from a teenaged aspiring preacher inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to one of King’s most trusted collaborators to a Congressman for almost 35 years. Every step of the way, Lewis modeled “good trouble” by disrupting systems built in the mold of white supremacy and trying to make them more equitable.
Small Axe (Amazon Prime)
Writer and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) envisioned an intimate telling of the Black London experience from the perspective of the West Indians who began immigrating to Britain from the colonies after World War II to contribute to the rebuilding effort. They were met with an expected barrage of racism and harassment but also managed to celebrate their culture with dignity and joy. McQueen captures all this in five films — Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Alex Wheatle, Education and Red, White and Blue — that cover issues like race, immigration and civil rights.
Totally Under Control (Hulu)
Celebrated documentarian Alex Gibney shines a light on the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic by having public health experts compare it with that of South Korea. Between January, when both countries discovered their first cases, and October, when Gibney’s doc was released, the U.S. had lost more than 200,000 people to the virus. South Korea’s death toll has still not topped 1,000.
Although vastly different in size — South Korea could fit into Texas many times over — the advanced science, technology and public health systems of the two countries are comparable. What differs is political will, making Gibney’s film a fascinating study in vastly divergent responses to the pandemic.
This documentary about transgender representation in cinema will have you rethinking your own responses to popular films and television shows that normalized comedic and sometimes violent depictions of how transgender persons should be treated in society. The calling out goes as far back as D.W. Griffith films and as recent as, well, now.
It accompanies powerful testimonials from famous transgender actors like Jen Richards, Laverne Cox and Leo Sheng, who remember their own reactions to the disparaging portrayals. After watching Disclosure, scenes from many popular films and television shows will, rightfully, not seem as funny the next time you encounter them.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (HBO Max)
There is no support in rural Pennsylvania for a young, pregnant girl like Autumn, who wants to have an abortion. So she and her cousin Skylar take a bus to New York City in search of the help she needs in reclaiming her future. Eliza Hittman’s film was a breakthrough at Sundance — where it won a special jury prize for neo-realism — acknowledging the pains Hittman takes to make the scenes feel natural, including when Autumn has to answer questions with the timelines of the title. Also disturbingly normalized are the lengths the girls must go to in order to access the health care Autumn needs, and the casual misogyny they encounter along the way.
Antebellum (Amazon Prime)
The film’s protagonists, both played by Janelle Monáe, are successful modern author Veronica Henley and antebellum-era slave Eden. This is a horror/thriller hybrid that has been compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Kindred, the masterpiece novel from groundbreaking sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. Like those works, Antebellum tackles big themes of systemic racism, racial injustice, white supremacy and the unequal burdens these systems force Black women to carry.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman’s last film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play about white ownership of black music, and the hurdles that black musicians face in controlling their own art. Viola Davis stars as the titular character — which Wilson based on the real-life 1920s blues pioneer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey — who wants to perform her songs her way. Boseman’s character, Levee, has struck a deal with the bosses to introduce arrangements that would be more marketable to white people. The resulting showdown is an entertaining but disheartening commentary on the exploitation of black musicians that persists today.
Sorry We Missed You (Amazon Prime)
In a year that companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash spent $200 million in California to pass a proposition that allows them to circumvent state laws about unemployment benefits comes this drama about the humiliating consequences of trying to raise a family with a gig-economy hustle. Ken Loach’s film is about the British working class but speaks just as eloquently for American workers who are trying to underwrite full-fledged lives with part-time gigs. The title refers to the notification delivery people leave when we are not home, but it also feels like a reverse apology that our culture owes them.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of an anti-war protest led by a coalition of students and civil rights and counterculture activists opposed to the Vietnam War. After a riot incited by the Chicago police, seven “ringleaders” would go on trial, accused by the government and a hostile judge of provoking the chaos.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and featuring lead performances by Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen, the film covers both the lead-up and aftermath of the protests. This true story gripped the nation and the world, as it shed a light on police brutality and government corruption. “The world is watching,” a chant repeated by crowds outside the trial, would have been just as relevant at this summer’s protests against police brutality.
The Surrogate (Amazon Prime)
A young woman is thrilled to be the egg donor and surrogate for her gay best friends until a prenatal test is positive for Down syndrome. Their uncertainty about how to proceed leads to questions about ethics, morals, disability rights and reproductive choice, and the fracturing of their relationship.
This debut feature from writer/director Jeremy Hersh gets high points for eschewing moralizing, instead anchoring the lead character, Jess, as the principal decision-maker. Actress Jasmine Batchelor received praise for her performance when the film debuted at SXSW.
The Prom (Netflix)
Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical about a teenage girl who is prevented from taking her girlfriend to prom in their conservative Indiana town is foundationally about tolerance. But beyond its glittery, over-the-top appearance, it also manages to include lessons about ageism, forgiveness, unchecked narcissism and a beautiful little reminder that sometimes the internet can be our friend.
On the Record (HBO Max)
In 2017 Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive for Def Jam Records, the label that took hip hop mainstream, went public with allegations that label executive Russell Simmons had raped her 22 years earlier. The film details the fallout of the revelation for Dixon, including the additional trauma of having to publicly confront one of hip-hop’s most powerful figures.
Dixon inspires and is supported by other women — including writer/director Jenny Lumet — who also allege that Simmons raped them. The film examines Black women’s loyalty to, and protectiveness of, black culture, and the resulting reluctance to expose Black male assailants.