5 Oscar Winning Films that Stood on the Side of Justice

It’s Oscar season! In honor of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary on the death penalty, Paradise Lost 3, we thought it was a good time to look back at past Oscar winners that have also helped broaden our understanding of a range of human rights issues.

Movies can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about an issue, or even inspiring people to take action. And in our everyday work at Amnesty International, we aspire to do the same.

With a rich 84 year history of great films, we started looking at Best Picture winners from 1980 and onwards. Here are 5 Best Picture Winning films that not only continue to influence generations of filmmakers but also address social injustices still relevant in our world today.  Read on then let us know what films have inspired you.

Gandhi (Richard Attenborough 1982)

This biographical film documents the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) who led the nonviolent movement for Indian independence, a movement that has inspired activists everywhere as an alternative, peaceful way to protest. As witnessed in the the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, nonviolent movements of civil disobedience have been popping up to overthrow repressive regimes.

 

Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner 1990)

An injured Civil War soldier, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), is stationed at a remote military outpost on the Western frontier. In this harsh new environment, Dunbar begins to befriend the native Sioux tribe and later on embrace their lifestyle. Very few movies bring attention to the respect and dignity that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples deserve.

 

 

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg 1993)

This film highlights the true story of a German businessman, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved Polish-Jewish refugees during World War II. Albert Einstein once said that, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Like Schindler, our activists aspire to fight against against apathy and ambivalence.

 

Crash (Paul Haggis 2004)

With an all-star ensemble cast, this film interweaves and reveals racial and class tensions in contemporary Los Angeles. The film challenges its viewers’ perceptions of class and race, an important reminder for us to not only stand against discrimination but also combat prejudice in our everyday lives.

 

 

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle 2008)

Revealing an India that is not often portrayed in mainstream films, Boyle tells the uplifting story of Jamal (Dev Patel) whose lifelong quest to find his childhood friend Latika (Freida Pinto) lands him in a round of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The film vividly illustrates the poor living conditions, vast inequalities and indignities that the enormous Indian underclass experiences every day. As a response to the kind of utter destitution that this film exposes, Amnesty’s Demand Dignity campaign fights against the human rights abuses that continue to imprison people in a cycle of poverty.

We know this is a really small list of films (and we only focused on Best Picture winners) so we would love to open this discussion to all of you. What are some movies that have inspired you? They do not need to be limited to Oscar winners; they can be documentaries or even made-for-TV movies.

Alice Wu contributed to this post

AIUSA welcomes a lively and courteous discussion that follow our Community Guidelines. Comments are not pre-screened before they post but AIUSA reserves the right to remove any comments violating our guidelines.

138 thoughts on “5 Oscar Winning Films that Stood on the Side of Justice

  1. Hotel Rwanda,
    The Constant Gardener,
    The Whistlebower,
    Shake hands with the devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire

  2. Hotel Rwanda,
    The Constant Gardener,
    The Whistlebower,
    Shake hands with the devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire

  3. @Matthew – You're right, Twelve Angry Men and To Kill A Mockingbird are both fantastic movies. Because of the vast number of Oscar nominated movies, we limited this particular list to Best Pictures winners so couldn't include those this time. But it would be fun to put together a list from all movies of the past 84 years.

  4. @Matthew – You’re right, Twelve Angry Men and To Kill A Mockingbird are both fantastic movies. Because of the vast number of Oscar nominated movies, we limited this particular list to Best Pictures winners so couldn’t include those this time. But it would be fun to put together a list from all movies of the past 84 years.

  5. Paradise Now (2005)

    Elephant (2003)

    The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

    Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

  6. Paradise Now (2005)

    Elephant (2003)

    The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

    Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)

  7. Dead Man Walking
    Do the Right Thing
    The Killing Fields
    In the Name of the Father
    Gandhi
    The Official Story (Argentina)
    City of God (Brazil)
    The Take (Argentina)
    Inside Job

  8. I agree with the ones already mentioned (that I've seen). I'd add, among others:
    Au Revoir Les Enfants (French)
    A Time for Drunken Horses (Kurdish/Iranian)

    There are so many.

  9. Well-intentioned list, but Dances with Wolves is pretty offensive to a lot of Indigenous people.

  10. Well my favorite is Walkout. Which is a story of the Mexican-American students in LA during the height of the civil rights movement.

  11. Academy Award Winner: Born Into Brothels
    Independent Lens has a bunch for this list…
    My fav: Sentenced Home

  12. Gandhi and Schindler's List because they make the world a peaceful place despite the violence and the madness.

  13. - BEYOND BOARDERS with Angelina Jolie literally changed the course of my life – it made me determined to work with refugees and human rights.

    - IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER – government abuse of power, specifically reg. anti-terrorist legislation

    - MISSISSIPPI BURNING

    - J. EDGAR – what can happen when one fanatical person is in a position of power

    - THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX – fantastic movie about a real terrorist group and what made them that way, i.e. how a legitimate wish to change bad government policies turned into horrible inexcusable murderous terrorist acts – and importantly it NEVER justifies their actions! (also good to remind people that the face of terrorism is not always the the faces of "strangers" like our governments would have us believe)

    - CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR – about the US funding of the Mujhadin in the 80's and how afterwards no one wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan, which helped lead to the situation we are in now.

    - GREEN ZONE – the invasion of Iraq, the lies that were told to the public, etc.

    - KINGDOM OF HEAVEN – religious fanatics – Christians vs. Muslims – set in the time of the Crusades but it certainly applicable to how the West 'interacts' with the Middle East/Arabic world.

    - A TIME TO KILL – Racism in America and its legal system, racial tensions in the South.

  14. Ratcheting the challenge up a notch, what are good Human Rights films for kids? My nearly 10-yr-old knows he doesn't like shooter movies but what is there for his age group that shows solutions to the problems he's growing up into?

  15. Of the Best Picture winners probably only "All Quiet on the Western Front" (anti-war) and the "Life of Emile Zola", which concentrates on Zola's championing of Dreyfuss, a Jewish officer wrongly convicted of spying by the French state, are worthy of being considered alongside the five you nominate. However if it's opened up to include the Oscar for Best Director then John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" should be in there.

  16. There is a made for TV movie about Harriet Tubman that stars Cicely Rudiments that is absolutely incredible.

    Also, I was very moved by Dances with Wolves and was excited to see it on the list. When I saw it in 2002 and told my parents, they told me about a 1970s made for TV movie about the surrender of Chief Joseph. It is called Chief Joseph. Both movies are available on Netflix.

  17. I believe that Chairman Mao was ignored. Red China is still the largest offender of basic human rights and slave labor.

  18. Dances With Wolves stands out to me as the first movie I ever saw that portrayed my Sioux ancestors in a good way. Other films on my list: Blood Diamond. This one got me interested in AI. I had written about child soldiers for a school paper but to see it on the big screen and see AI's involvement with the film was a great experience. It was an Oscar nominee, as well.

  19. My previous comment got posted too soon. Adding Syriana, Hotel Rwanda, Beyond Borders, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Memoirs of a Geisha to my list. I know some people dispute Geisha's accuracy, but still it shines a light on sex trafficing.

  20. Schindler's List is one of my all time favorites but I have been inspired by all the movies in this list. Here are a few more.

    Life is Beautiful – inspiring story of a fathers love. A testament that in the midst of evil, love can insulate our heart.

    The Human Experience – two teenage brothers who grew up in nyc, given a hard hand, decided to hit the streets and document the human experience of the homeless which lead them across the globe in a year of service and personal growth.

    Boy in Striped Pajamas – we have much to learn from the hearts of children.

    Milk – life of Guy Harvey who lost his life in the fight for LGBT equality.

    Everything is Illuminated – a story that reminds us we can stil learn from the past

  21. Amazing movies that opened my eyes to injustice and/or reminded me of the dangers of intolerance and prejudice:

    The Holocaust
    Anne Frank
    Schindler's List
    The Killing Fields
    Philadelphia
    Mississippi Burning
    The Kite Runner

  22. I knew there were a lot more I wanted to add…..they're just not coming to me. Blood Diamond was excellent!

  23. The Stoning of Soraya M.

    Few movies have made me literally sob while watching. That was one of them

  24. A Better Life (2011)
    Mexican actor Demian Bichir nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor
    Alos, El Norte y La Cosecha (Documentary about the life of children of illegal immigrants, their hopes and dreams, and the dangers these children face laboring in US crops).
    All this movies deal with issues that are right in our backyard and we have only one minded frame about it, a negative one.

  25. Then you should hire me, cause this is exactly the kind of movies I want to make. And Amnesty is one of the only few places where the opportunity to make change-causing honest uncensored documentaries can be made.

  26. Already so many good movies listed.

    The Power of One
    Cry, the Beloved Country
    The Milagro Beanfield War
    The Garden (documentary – on Netflix)
    The Sierra Leone All Star Band (documentary- on Netflix)

  27. Boys Don't Cry
    Judgment at Nuremberg
    Philadelphia
    Milk
    American History X

    And many more but I can't think of them all right now.

  28. Dead Man Walking
    Do the Right Thing
    The Killing Fields
    In the Name of the Father
    Gandhi
    The Official Story (Argentina)
    City of God (Brazil)
    The Take (Argentina)
    Inside Job

  29. I agree with the ones already mentioned (that I’ve seen). I’d add, among others:
    Au Revoir Les Enfants (French)
    A Time for Drunken Horses (Kurdish/Iranian)

    There are so many.

  30. Well-intentioned list, but Dances with Wolves is pretty offensive to a lot of Indigenous people.

  31. Well my favorite is Walkout. Which is a story of the Mexican-American students in LA during the height of the civil rights movement.

  32. Academy Award Winner: Born Into Brothels
    Independent Lens has a bunch for this list…
    My fav: Sentenced Home

  33. Gandhi and Schindler’s List because they make the world a peaceful place despite the violence and the madness.

  34. - BEYOND BOARDERS with Angelina Jolie literally changed the course of my life – it made me determined to work with refugees and human rights.

    - IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER – government abuse of power, specifically reg. anti-terrorist legislation

    - MISSISSIPPI BURNING

    - J. EDGAR – what can happen when one fanatical person is in a position of power

    - THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX – fantastic movie about a real terrorist group and what made them that way, i.e. how a legitimate wish to change bad government policies turned into horrible inexcusable murderous terrorist acts – and importantly it NEVER justifies their actions! (also good to remind people that the face of terrorism is not always the the faces of “strangers” like our governments would have us believe)

    - CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR – about the US funding of the Mujhadin in the 80′s and how afterwards no one wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan, which helped lead to the situation we are in now.

    - GREEN ZONE – the invasion of Iraq, the lies that were told to the public, etc.

    - KINGDOM OF HEAVEN – religious fanatics – Christians vs. Muslims – set in the time of the Crusades but it certainly applicable to how the West ‘interacts’ with the Middle East/Arabic world.

    - A TIME TO KILL – Racism in America and its legal system, racial tensions in the South.

  35. Ratcheting the challenge up a notch, what are good Human Rights films for kids? My nearly 10-yr-old knows he doesn’t like shooter movies but what is there for his age group that shows solutions to the problems he’s growing up into?

  36. Of the Best Picture winners probably only “All Quiet on the Western Front” (anti-war) and the “Life of Emile Zola”, which concentrates on Zola’s championing of Dreyfuss, a Jewish officer wrongly convicted of spying by the French state, are worthy of being considered alongside the five you nominate. However if it’s opened up to include the Oscar for Best Director then John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” should be in there.

  37. There is a made for TV movie about Harriet Tubman that stars Cicely Rudiments that is absolutely incredible.

    Also, I was very moved by Dances with Wolves and was excited to see it on the list. When I saw it in 2002 and told my parents, they told me about a 1970s made for TV movie about the surrender of Chief Joseph. It is called Chief Joseph. Both movies are available on Netflix.

  38. I believe that Chairman Mao was ignored. Red China is still the largest offender of basic human rights and slave labor.

  39. Dances With Wolves stands out to me as the first movie I ever saw that portrayed my Sioux ancestors in a good way. Other films on my list: Blood Diamond. This one got me interested in AI. I had written about child soldiers for a school paper but to see it on the big screen and see AI’s involvement with the film was a great experience. It was an Oscar nominee, as well.

  40. My previous comment got posted too soon. Adding Syriana, Hotel Rwanda, Beyond Borders, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Memoirs of a Geisha to my list. I know some people dispute Geisha’s accuracy, but still it shines a light on sex trafficing.

  41. Schindler’s List is one of my all time favorites but I have been inspired by all the movies in this list. Here are a few more.

    Life is Beautiful – inspiring story of a fathers love. A testament that in the midst of evil, love can insulate our heart.

    The Human Experience – two teenage brothers who grew up in nyc, given a hard hand, decided to hit the streets and document the human experience of the homeless which lead them across the globe in a year of service and personal growth.

    Boy in Striped Pajamas – we have much to learn from the hearts of children.

    Milk – life of Guy Harvey who lost his life in the fight for LGBT equality.

    Everything is Illuminated – a story that reminds us we can stil learn from the past

  42. What I love about "Life is Beautiful" is that the first 1/3 or so of the film is pre-war. So instead of setting up Jews as victims, and therefore Other, it sets them up as humans, and therefore Us.

    Brokeback Mountain is a painful look at homophobia. I believe the author of the original short story said several times that it's not a story about gay cowboys; it's about homophobia.

  43. Amazing movies that opened my eyes to injustice and/or reminded me of the dangers of intolerance and prejudice:

    The Holocaust
    Anne Frank
    Schindler’s List
    The Killing Fields
    Philadelphia
    Mississippi Burning
    The Kite Runner

  44. I knew there were a lot more I wanted to add…..they’re just not coming to me. Blood Diamond was excellent!

  45. A Better Life (2011)
    Mexican actor Demian Bichir nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor
    Alos, El Norte y La Cosecha (Documentary about the life of children of illegal immigrants, their hopes and dreams, and the dangers these children face laboring in US crops).
    All this movies deal with issues that are right in our backyard and we have only one minded frame about it, a negative one.

  46. Then you should hire me, cause this is exactly the kind of movies I want to make. And Amnesty is one of the only few places where the opportunity to make change-causing honest uncensored documentaries can be made.

  47. "Letters From Iwo Jima" really made me realize that the "bad guys" are not different than the "good guys" in a war at all. We all have families and loved ones, want a peaceful life, have the same dreams. It really pointed out the futility and hopelessness of war.

  48. Already so many good movies listed.

    The Power of One
    Cry, the Beloved Country
    The Milagro Beanfield War
    The Garden (documentary – on Netflix)
    The Sierra Leone All Star Band (documentary- on Netflix)

  49. Milk (film) and The Times of Harvey Milk (documentary)
    Dead Man Walking (film)
    Born Into Brothels (documentary)
    In the Name of the Father (film)
    The Forbidden Team (documentary)

  50. Boys Don’t Cry
    Judgment at Nuremberg
    Philadelphia
    Milk
    American History X

    And many more but I can’t think of them all right now.

  51. Z
    Harlan County USA
    many of those mentioned already
    Under the Same Moon
    Fire
    M.A.S.H.
    Entertaining Angels (Dorothy Day)
    Iron-Jawed Angels
    more,….

  52. 12 Angry Men

    To Kill a Mockingbird

    The Wind That Shakes the Barley

    A Time For Burning (1969 PBS documentary. Available on DVD)

    The Accused

    In the Name of the Father

    Inherit the Wind

    Cry, the Beloved Country

    Local Hero

    Breaker Morant

    Doubt

    Erin Brockovich

  53. In my opinion, Paper Clips is one of the best movies I've ever seen in my life. It's about a group of middle school students from Whitwell, Tennessee who collected six million paper clips to represent the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The best part about it is that it's actually true.

  54. What I love about “Life is Beautiful” is that the first 1/3 or so of the film is pre-war. So instead of setting up Jews as victims, and therefore Other, it sets them up as humans, and therefore Us.

    Brokeback Mountain is a painful look at homophobia. I believe the author of the original short story said several times that it’s not a story about gay cowboys; it’s about homophobia.

  55. “Letters From Iwo Jima” really made me realize that the “bad guys” are not different than the “good guys” in a war at all. We all have families and loved ones, want a peaceful life, have the same dreams. It really pointed out the futility and hopelessness of war.

  56. Hunger
    Watership Down
    In The Name of The Father
    The Autography of Miss Jane Pittman
    Anne Frank

  57. Milk (film) and The Times of Harvey Milk (documentary)
    Dead Man Walking (film)
    Born Into Brothels (documentary)
    In the Name of the Father (film)
    The Forbidden Team (documentary)

  58. Z
    Harlan County USA
    many of those mentioned already
    Under the Same Moon
    Fire
    M.A.S.H.
    Entertaining Angels (Dorothy Day)
    Iron-Jawed Angels
    more,….

  59. 12 Angry Men

    To Kill a Mockingbird

    The Wind That Shakes the Barley

    A Time For Burning (1969 PBS documentary. Available on DVD)

    The Accused

    In the Name of the Father

    Inherit the Wind

    Cry, the Beloved Country

    Local Hero

    Breaker Morant

    Doubt

    Erin Brockovich

  60. In my opinion, Paper Clips is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s about a group of middle school students from Whitwell, Tennessee who collected six million paper clips to represent the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The best part about it is that it’s actually true.

  61. Maria full of grace, highlighting the female drug mule trade through one courageous heroine. Not up on my academy nominations, but that was an intense movie that really opened my eyes, particularly to the long-stemmed rose trade as well as the cocaine trade.

  62. Maria full of grace, highlighting the female drug mule trade through one courageous heroine. Not up on my academy nominations, but that was an intense movie that really opened my eyes, particularly to the long-stemmed rose trade as well as the cocaine trade.

  63. Inspirational films?….
    Cry Freedom
    Catch a Fire
    Romero
    Mississippi Burning
    Torch Song Trilogy
    Milk
    Sophie's Choice
    and others, the names of which I cannot remember

  64. Inspirational films?….
    Cry Freedom
    Catch a Fire
    Romero
    Mississippi Burning
    Torch Song Trilogy
    Milk
    Sophie’s Choice
    and others, the names of which I cannot remember

  65. The movie Sleeping With The Enemy was most definitely a portrayal of how
    women young and old can be deceived into relationships and their human ri ghts are neglected and "battered women" are forced to
    take extreme measures ot self-defense. The trends of Stalking in todays Society lead Women to take the same Extreme measures! Schindlers List was
    a good movie about how Innocent hard working sects of society are so easily
    targeted for Abuse and Destruction! Does HUMAN CRUELTY ever end?

  66. The movie Sleeping With The Enemy was most definitely a portrayal of how
    women young and old can be deceived into relationships and their human ri ghts are neglected and “battered women” are forced to
    take extreme measures ot self-defense. The trends of Stalking in todays Society lead Women to take the same Extreme measures! Schindlers List was
    a good movie about how Innocent hard working sects of society are so easily
    targeted for Abuse and Destruction! Does HUMAN CRUELTY ever end?

  67. Tremendous issues here. I'm very satisfied to see your post. Thank you so much and I'm looking ahead to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

  68. Tremendous issues here. I’m very satisfied to see your post. Thank you so much and I’m looking ahead to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

  69. All the already mentioned movies were excellent, but I would like to add (although not Best Picture, it was nominated) but The Ides of March about politics in the US now..as well as Margin Call about the meltdown of the investment industry due to mortgage fraud. I don't think enough people are watching both movies and they should be..they are based in reality of today's world and not the past.

    Maybe we will see a movie about Joseph Kony finally now that it has been brought to the international community's attention.

  70. All the already mentioned movies were excellent, but I would like to add (although not Best Picture, it was nominated) but The Ides of March about politics in the US now..as well as Margin Call about the meltdown of the investment industry due to mortgage fraud. I don’t think enough people are watching both movies and they should be..they are based in reality of today’s world and not the past.

    Maybe we will see a movie about Joseph Kony finally now that it has been brought to the international community’s attention.

  71. There are two documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka that are very different but each powerful in their own way: "The Truth That Wasn't There" and "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields." The producers of the latter film have just released a follow-up documentary, "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished," which is equally powerful.

    Another inspirational documentary is "No More Tears Sister," about the life of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a Sri Lankan Tamil human rights activist killed by the Tamil Tigers.

  72. There are two documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka that are very different but each powerful in their own way: “The Truth That Wasn’t There” and “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” The producers of the latter film have just released a follow-up documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished,” which is equally powerful.

    Another inspirational documentary is “No More Tears Sister,” about the life of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a Sri Lankan Tamil human rights activist killed by the Tamil Tigers.

  73. What about 'Deep Inside Daisy Clover'? A true classic, showing moo – cho dp and a lot Linda Lovelace's honoured skills.

  74. What about all of Jerry Lewis' oeuvre…including his little known French language masterpiece, "Semper Ubi sa Boobi"?

  75. …and to repeat a previous submission, the overlooked, "Mars Needs Women!".