Film is a great medium for entertainment, but it can also be great for telling stories that increase our understanding of the world and people around us. Whether you want to learn about different people, difficult scientific concepts, or historical events, there are films that do a great job of showing us something we’re probably not familiar with. Here are 10 films that stood out to me for bringing greater understanding to the general public on issues that mainstream culture isn’t really familiar with. Give these a watch—you might just learn something.
10. Ex Machina (2014)
What you’ll learn about: artificial intelligence
The term artificial intelligence is thrown around so much that it can be hard to know what it really means. Are those dumb customer service chat bots really AI? What about scripted video game characters? What’s the difference?
Ex Machina rather succinctly lays out what makes a true AI, what some of the hurdles are for creating one, and what ethical quandaries a true AI would present. And it’s all wrapped up in a smart, tense thriller that’s very watchable.
There are a lot of films that have used AI as a plot device to great effect, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and, of course, AI (2001); but I can’t think of one that does a better job of really discussing what it means than Ex Machina. This film takes some very heady concepts and breaks them down into bite-size chunks that make it much easier to grasp.
9. Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
What you’ll learn about: relationships between people with mental illness
I myself struggle with a serious mental disorder (bipolar disorder), and it presents some unique challenges in relationships. Silver Linings Playbook shows us two characters with mental illness (including one with bipolar disorder) and does a pretty good job of showing us how that affects their relationship.
Most films featuring mental illness will use it as a plot device, borrowing from it when needed for the plot and conveniently ignoring it the rest of the time, with little regard for facts and research. The mental illness we see in these mainstream films is often all-consuming, preventing the characters from leading any sort of normal life until they have some sort of breakthrough (which also doesn’t happen all that often).
Silver Linings Playbook tells a story of two mentally ill people trying to live a normal life. It’s normal in ways that other portrayals completely miss, and some of the less-discussed difficulties are also present. If you’ve ever wondered how day-to-day life looks for people with mental illness, this is a great film to teach you.
8. The Deer Hunter (1978)
What you’ll learn about: the effects of war on soldiers
There are a plethora of war films, many of them excellent at showing us how awful war can be. The Deer Hunter is a bit unique in that only about a third of the film is set during the war. The rest shows life before and after the war for the three soldiers from this small town, and the contrast between the first act and the third act of the film is where the brilliance lies.
The first third of the film, showing the everyday life of these three young men, is slow, even boring at times, but so essential to the film because it shows how deeply the war changed these men. After the war, they’ll never be the same again, and the entire small town is impacted by this change.
Some films, like Full Metal Jacket, have done a great job of showing how hard war is for soldiers, but none go into as much detail of the long-term effects as The Deer Hunter. This is as much brilliant drama as it is war film and it conjures up deep emotions that other war films don’t get close to.
7. Spanglish (2004)
What you’ll learn about: the modern American immigrant experience
The coming-to-America story has played out many times, but it’s usually either set a long time ago or something so bizarre that it feels worlds away. Spanglish hits a lot closer to home by showing immigration through the eyes of a young Mexican immigrant coming to America with her mother and growing up in two worlds: the culture of her family, which exists in pockets in America, and the culture of mainstream America, which she engages in at school and anytime she’s not with her family. It doesn’t capture the legalities of immigration or make any political statements, nor does it intend to. Instead, it captures the heart of an immigrant family, especially as the children grow further apart from the culture the parents grew up in.
The film admittedly suffers from sitcom plotting and cliche scenarios, but it captures the feelings of its characters brilliantly and makes them relatable to those of us whose families have lived in America for generations. If the word immigrant is to you more of an abstract concept than a group of real people, this film will give some great insight to break down that wall of anonymity.
6. Secretary (2002)
What you’ll learn about: what BDSM relationships really look like
50 Shades of Gray may have presented BDSM as a tantalizing forbidden fantasy, but it’s actually a practice that’s been a part of relationships for years for a small subset of people. What’s often the subject of poorly-written smut novels or the butt of raunchy jokes is actually very normal for some people, and it bears very little resemblance to what most movies show us.
Secretary tells a story of how a healthy relationship with BDSM might develop and shows us what kinds of people these really are. It’s a bit graphic at times, but not gratuitous, and it ends up being surprisingly sweet. One thing it really nails is the power dynamic in relationships like this: the submissive one ends up holding all the power because he or she sets the boundaries for the relationship and gives the dominant one space to operate. I had never seen a realistic portrayal of a BDSM relationship in film before this and it was very eye-opening for me.
5. Rain Man (1988)
What you’ll learn about: autism spectrum disorder
Name five films that feature a main character with autism. Are you having trouble? It’s not a popular topic in Hollywood, even as portrayals of mental illness and rare medical conditions (which are very different) become commonplace. If you actually tried to make a list, though, no list would be complete without Rain Man. This film doesn’t just focus on a character on the autism spectrum—it portrays him in a sympathetic, positive light, and that’s more than most films do.
Actor Dustin Hoffman spent countless hours getting his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt right, spending a year working with autistic men and their families and rehearsing scenes endlessly with his co-star, Tom Cruise. The result is probably the best portrayal of autism in film to date. Raymond has problems that can’t be fixed in a simple Hollywood fashion, but is also an admirable and very likeable character, giving great insight into this often misunderstood condition.
4. PK (2014)
What you’ll learn about: how religion is misused—and how it works best
It often seems very normal to us, but conversation around religion is often encoded in little stories and sayings that communicate truth without being fully true. What would happen if we took those things at face value and just honestly believed everything? PK, a Hindi film, answers that question by showing us an alien stranded on earth who turns to religion to help solve his problems. When the title character doesn’t get what he needs from the gods he worships, he asks why, and his answers go way deeper than any other film I’ve seen on religion.
I wouldn’t say this film has any mind-blowing revelations, but the questions it asks and the discussion surrounding them are challenging, thought-provoking, and important. What’s really amazing is that this film challenges religion in a way that’s still optimistic and pro-religion, in a way that makes religious people think about what they believe and what they should believe.
3. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
What you’ll learn about: the modern face of racism in America
Discussions around racism are at a high point now in my lifetime, which brings with it good and bad—good in that we’re finally able to start resolving some of these issues, but bad in that it’s been extremely divisive due to misunderstanding. The fact that “Define racist” is such a popular sentiment today shows how misunderstood the concept is. Many people think that if there’s no lynch mob present, it’s not real racism, and that mindset allows more subtle but still very harmful racism to flourish.
BlacKkKlansman shows us the shift from lynch mobs and cross burnings to legal intimidation and political oppression as the tactics of white supremacist groups changed in the 70s to go more mainstream. Racists got smarter and found less objectionable but equally damaging ways of accomplishing their goals, and seeing the movement in its infancy explains a lot of what’s going on today.
Healing the wounds of racism won’t happen until we understand how it operates today, and BlacKkKlansman is an excellent primer.
2. 12 Angry Men (1957)
What you’ll learn about: the American judicial process
From a legal standpoint, what do the terms innocent and guilty mean? Ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers, and many will be wildly different than the legal definitions. But in a nation where ordinary people decide the fate of the accused, understanding this distinction is vital. And failing to understand the biases we all have can lead to wrong verdicts and gross injustice.
12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in one room as a jury decides the verdict of a young man accused of murder. It’s an outstanding drama, but it also covers the judicial process, concepts of guilty and innocent, and many different kinds of bias that can creep into our conceptions of the accused. Justice isn’t just a moral matter—it’s a legal matter, and there are many thoughts and experiences that can cloud that.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
What you’ll learn about: the Holocaust
Reading about the Holocaust makes it seem terrible, but it’s still nothing compared to the real thing. These atrocities killed many, but their effect on the living was equally horrifying, and that’s something that simple explanations of the events miss. Oppressed groups became caged animals, compliant people became monsters, and good people either gave up or became heroes. The Holocaust wasn’t about events; it was about people, and that can be easy to forget in reading about the events.
Schindler’s List shows us the realities of the Holocaust with one German man working to make a difference for as many Jewish people as he can. We see many stories play out: the skilled Jewish professionals forced into manual labor, the German officers struggling with the morality of their actions and choosing to comply anyway, the brave resisters struggling to keep saving people as new laws and proclamations make it increasingly difficult. This is one of the most important films ever made, and it was very eye-opening to me even after reading about the events of the Holocaust.