Politics on the Brain: Revolution Films for our Changing Times

On July 25th 2016, as a filmmaker,  the concept of revolution films raced to the forefront of my mind, as the Democratic National Convention came to my hometown of Philadelphia.

During the convention, America made history with Hillary Clinton’s nomination for President of the United States. The possibility of having the first woman president – after having the nation’s first black president – signals the possibility of another historic first. And with our next president (either Democrat, Republican or a 3rd party), the hope for great change.

The atmosphere inside the convention was understandably celebratory; however, as I stood outside the DNC walls, I was surrounded by protesters, and I soon realized that a lot of Americans think we haven’t changed for the better at all.  So why celebrate?

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Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. – Thursday, July 28, 2016.

With filmmaking running through my veins, and the world erupting around me, I felt obligated to document the anger of 50,000 protesters entering my city.

What I witnessed firsthand was a diverse group of people, of all ages and backgrounds, who decried a revolution. Whether they were upset about Bernie Sanders not receiving the nomination; young black men being shot by the police; or mass incarceration, they all were angry and fed up enough to march through the city screaming their message of much-needed policy and cultural change.

DNC 2016 Philadelphia, PA from MME_Online on Vimeo.

Watching my video above, I instantly think I have a revolutionary documentary on my hands. Even though I don’t have a title or logline, the passion of these protesters is channeled straight into my lens.

This public outcry made me think about the revolution films I’ve seen that I can compare to my own brewing doc. And since I want my baby to be a masterpiece and amplify the message of what’s happening around me and a deafening call for social justice, I found myself running through the best political films ever made about revolution.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone, including a few comedies, because we could all use a good laugh to break up the non-stop doom and gloom we’ve become accustomed to…

TOP 10 Politically Themed Revolution Films That Inspire

10.  V for Vendetta
Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Lilly and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving

Why it’s Revolutionary: There’s nothing better than a clever and cunning revolutionary, who leaves the audience questioning whether he’s actually friend or foe.

In other words, is V a “vengeful” terrorist or much-needed freedom fighter? To understand V’s motives is to know his past…a past in which he was tortured because he believed the government oppressed it’s citizens through totalitarianism. V’s ultimate goal is to restore democracy to a dystopia London set in 2020.

V employs violent tactics that aren’t much above the regime he’s looking to overthrow. The vigilante’s symbolic persona and mask embody an ideology that only Hugo Weaving could totally pull off in a movie. The visceral strength of his performance becomes a canvas, where we’re forced to ask what happens when a government silences the voice of the people.

Weaving’s “V” is just as slick with his tongue as he is with his sword, which means the verbal fights are just as entertaining as the stunning action sequences.

9.  Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
Stars: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson

Why it’s Revolutionary: Stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement have been told time and time again; however these revolution films only work when the actors fully embody the people they are portraying; and David Oyelowo marks a career defining performance as the late, slain civil rights leader.

The movie takes its name from King’s 1960s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which later led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film is a historic examination of Dr. King’s legacy, focusing on just a few crucial months during the mid 1960s.

You feel every bit of humility, self-sacrifice and vulnerability through Oyelowo’s empassioned, thought-provoking speeches.

But what’s perhaps most notable is that the filmmakers didn’t receive permission to use MLK’s actual speech text, so the film’s director wrote her own.

8.  Bananas
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose
Stars: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser

Why it’s Revolutionary: Revolutionaries revolt for various reasons, as you’ll gather from my list, but my favorite reason is for something we can all relate to, love.

Well, in the Woody Allen film Bananas, it’s actually heartbreak that gets writer/director Allen to join a revolution, after his activist girlfriend dumps him.

Allen plays Fielding Mellish who tests bizarre gadgets and before you know it, finds himself donning a pretty bad, red beard, as a send up of Field Castro, leading a Latin American country.

Like most Allen movies, the filmmaker plays a neurotic New Yorker, who goes “bananas” (and to the ends of the earth) to woo back his ex. Getting your girl back – as only Wood can – is as good of a reason as any to rebel against the system.

7.  The Patriot
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Robert Rodat
Stars: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger

Why it’s Revolutionary: The Patriot proves you can’t have revolution films without real hand-to-hand combat, and this film delivers when it comes to the reality and brutality of war and gore.

Set in 1776 South Carolina, this movie also forces moviegoers to experience the repercussions that war can have on an entire family, which is nearly ripped apart by the American Revolutionary War.

It’s easy to forget what war looked like before tanks and bombs, but seeing the Americans with their raw iron, untrained troops and unwavering determination gave me a new appreciation for the soldiers of that time.

6.  Gandhi
Director: Richard Attenborough
Writer: John Briley
Stars: Ben Kingsley

Why it’s Revolutionary: I was first introduced to Gandhi when I watched this film in the 5th grade and Kingsley’s voice as the humble leader still rings in my conscience today.

This biopic was exceptionally thorough to me and explored the depths of man’s greatest injustices by showing how one man’s peaceful, civil resistance was feared by an entire nation.

The political and spiritual leader forced the world to open its eyes to basic human rights and end long-standing suffering through a non-violent path.

5.  Matewan
Director: John Sayles
Writer: John Sayles
Stars: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones

Why it’s Revolutionary: Instead of rebelling against a single government entity, a group of 1920s West Virginia coal miners rebel against their employers.

It’s the classic story of the working class rising up against the corporate powers that be. I can get behind any revolution films where employees fight back against their company, especially one that’s told in such a simple yet effective manner, so that it can remind us of America’s past and present labor movement.

The dark, gritty and cold underworld, intermingled with pride, danger, and solidarity, shows how some level of sacrifice is always required to better future generations.

4.  The Empire Strikes Back
Director: Irvin Kershner
Writer: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Why it’s Revolutionary: The very essence of Star Wars films is about rebellion. ‘The Rebellion’ continues it’s mission to reign supreme in the galaxy over the Empire and the evil Imperial fleet.

Empire is a favorite because it’s also a great Shakespearian tragedy.

The main character, Luke Skywalker, rebels in the name of his legacy and family only to find out that his father is none other than Darth Vader.  

Vader offers his son the chance to the rule galaxy and unbridled power, if he turns to the Dark Side, but Luke would rather die and rejects the offer.

3.  Dog Day Afternoon
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Frank Pierson
Stars: Al Pacino, John Cazale

Why it’s Revolutionary: This is yet another form of revolution that I like to call, snap.

Our hero Sonny Wortzik (played by Al Pacino) is so fed up with the world around him, as a closet homosexual in economic ruin, that instead of, say, marching, he snaps.

Sonny decides to rob a bank and use the money to finance his lover’s sex change operation. Okay, this seems like a simple enough premise, but what kept me hooked for the entire 125 minute drama is that Sonny is the worst bank robber EVER, making it also dreadfully funny.

As hilarious as Pacino and his on-screen lover are in the film, neither character delves into gay stereotypes, which makes the writing all that more whip-smart and layered.

2.  Do The Right Thing
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Spike Lee
Stars: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee

Why it’s Revolutionary: Even 25 years-plus after its initial 1989 release, Do The Right Thing remains every bit culturally relevant.

When I first saw the film, I thought it was a comedy for the first hour. Slowly, this film turns into a battle of ideologies between residents of a culturally diverse New York neighborhood, on the hottest day of the summer.

I hate movies that tend to preach and make an issue either black or white, so what makes this film hold up, is it’s ending which doesn’t pick a side. Instead Do The Right Thing does exactly that and gives the audience a choice to make a conclusion for itself.

1.  Medium Cool
Director: Haskell Wexler
Writer: Haskell Wexler
Stars: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom

Why it’s Revolutionary: This is a hidden gem that I could watch over and over. I first saw the film in my freshman year of film school, and I’ve never forgotten the goosebumps it gave me.

Medium Cool pretty much puts today’s political theatrics on blast. It’s number one on the list because it merges non-fiction and fiction to tell the role of broadcast journalism during the height of the Vietnam War. The film fuses documentary footage of Chicago during the summer of 1968, with a loose narrative about a news reporter covering the madness. The film investigates the media’s role in social issues that the country faces.

I believe that somebody has to document history – whether it be news reporters or citizen journalists – no matter how volatile the circumstances. And since we all have the ability to hit record with our phones, I believe we all have a moral obligation to capture the news when it happens.  After all, these are the issues that has driven this country to such a critical juncture.

This film drives that point home, and to bring it full circle, it planted the seed that led to me covering this year’s Democratic National Convention.

So keep a lookout, because my documentary may one day join the next list of politically-charged revolution films.