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Reel Progress’ Top 25 Progressive Films

Vote for your favorite of these 25 influential films in our poll.

These 25 films serve as cultural barometers; each of the films, in its own way, influenced public discourse and shed light on important progressive ideals such as workers’ rights, equality in education, civil rights, national security, the environment, and the betterment of our society as a whole.

This list is meant to spark debate about what films have had the greatest influence on our political identity. So read through the list, and then vote  for your favorite progressive film!

movie img12 Angry Men (1957)

What is supposed to be an open-and-shut case of murder becomes much more complicated as a jury is rendered deadlocked by one member’s “not guilty” vote. As the story unfolds, each character’s virtues, flaws, and prejudices are revealed as the defendant’s life hangs in the balance.

movie imgAll the President’s Men (1976)

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portray the real-life Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they put everything on the line to uncover corruption at the highest levels of government during the Watergate scandal.

movie imgThe American President (1995)

This Aaron Sorkin-penned romantic comedy highlights the politics of perception as President Andrew Shepard, a widower and a father, falls for an environmental lobbyist, which despite their best efforts, causes quite a controversy—much to the delight of Shepard’s political rivals.

movie imgBrokeback Mountain (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play two men who fall in love in 1950s Wyoming. Over the course of two decades, their tortured love affair continues and neither is able to be open about his feelings for the other in the midst of a society that disapproves of their relationship.

movie imgChinatown (1974)

A lowly private detective takes on the power structure in 1930s Los Angeles by slowly uncovering a vast conspiracy centering on water management, state and municipal corruption, land use and real estate, and murder.

movie imgCrash (2004)

Written and directed by Reel Progress favorite Paul Haggis, this Academy Award-winning drama takes a revealing look at racial and cultural tensions that exist within Los Angeles’ multicultural landscape. The film follows a diverse cast during a 36-hour period as their different paths collide, changing each of them forever.

movie imgDo the Right Thing (1989)

Capping a decade of heightening racial conflicts throughout New York City, Do The Right Thing captures the tense atmosphere by taking us to Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, on the hottest day of the year.

movie imgDr. Strangelove (or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964)

Released two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this satirical farce follows the chain of reactions that unfold after an insane general deploys a squadron of bombers to attack the U.S.S.R.

movie imgErin Brockovich (2000)

The story of real-life heroine Erin Brockovich, who went from being a down-on-her-luck, unemployed single mother to an intrepid legal assistant who uncovered a California power company’s history of polluting the city’s water supply and almost single-handedly brought them down.

movie imgGood Night, and Good Luck (2005)

David Strathairn takes an Oscar-nominated turn as Edward R. Murrow, the pioneering broadcast journalist who defied corporate and political pressure to expose the lies and scaremongering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist hysteria in the early 1950s.

movie imgThe Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Based on the epic John Steinbeck novel, this film exposed the public to the migrant labor problem by following the Joad family’s hopeful journey to California in search of work during the Great Depression.

movie imgGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play a couple whose views are challenged when their daughter brings home a black fiancé. This groundbreaking film was released the same year interracial marriage was legalized throughout the United States, following the Loving v. Virginia case.

movie imgHigh Noon (1952)

Blasted by John Wayne, as “the most un-American thing [he]’d ever seen,” blacklisted co-screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman wrote this Western as an allegory for the cowardice endemic among intellectuals, as well as many of his Hollywood colleagues during the dark years of McCarthyism.

movie imgHoop Dreams (1994)

This documentary gives audiences a glimpse into black life in the inner city. Made over five years, the film chronicles the lives of two African-American teenagers who dream of becoming college basketball players on their way to professional basketball stardom.

movie imgAn Inconvenient Truth (2006)

What started out as a PowerPoint presentation led former vice president and longtime environmental advocate Al Gore to an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize for this wake-up call and rallying cry to protect the earth against the damaging effects of global warming.

movie imgLean on Me (1989)

A driven principal goes to unprecedented lengths to save his school from being declared a failed academic institution. After being arrested and alienated from the community, the principal finds vindication when his students rally behind him and pass their minimum basic skills test.

movie img Matewan (1987)

Set in a small West Virginian town in 1920, coal miners strike and attempt to unionize in response to the abhorrent working conditions. The mine owners use threats, violence, and “scabs,” but a union organizer convinces the workers that forming a coalition would force the company to meet their demands.

movie img Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart go for the heart in this story about a naïve idealist named Jefferson Smith who is appointed to serve in the U.S. Senate. It is not long before Smith starts ruffling the feathers of the corrupt political establishment, headed up by his own state’s intimidating political boss, Jim Taylor.

movie imgNetwork (1976)

In this satire of the growing genre of “trash television,” Union Broadcasting Station axes its veteran anchor Harold Beale, citing low ratings. Beale announces his impending suicide on live national television, which makes him a ratings sensation and gets him his own show where he rails against corporate media, among other things.

movie imgNo End in Sight (2007)

This documentary exposes the Bush administration’s massive missteps and a myriad of missed opportunities in those crucial first moments of the war in Iraq. Lack of experience and long-term planning have led to grave consequences for the United States and the stability of the Middle East.

movie imgNorma Rae (1979)

Sally Field won her first Oscar for Best Actress in the title role as a dependable and feisty young Southern textile worker who, in the face of potentially dangerous consequences, agrees to help unionize her mill.

movie img Roger & Me (1989)

Michael Moore takes on the not-so-simple task of trying to get a meeting with then-CEO of General Motors Roger Smith in this breakthrough documentary that examines the economic devastation left in the wake of a GM plant closure in Moore’s hometown of Flint, MI.

movie img Shut Up and Sing (2006)

This documentary about the Dixie Chicks follows the enormous backlash that the band faced—particularly from conservative groups, talk and country radio, and some members of their fan base—after lead singer Natalie Maines, made an off-hand criticism of George Bush at a London concert in 2003.

movie imgTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Building on the story of an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed, director Alex Gibney details the use of torture by U.S. military and intelligence forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

movie imgTo Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, two children watch as their principled father, Atticus Finch, takes a stand against intolerance in the rural, segregated American South during the depths of the Depression by defending a young black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

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To learn more about Reel Progress, the progressive film series sponsored by the Center for American Progress, please visit www.reelprogress.org.