Screenwriters are master manipulators. It’s our job. We work hard to push emotional buttons and make audiences feel anger, pity, fear, outrage, joy, sorrow. We know that emotions generate lots of energy. Audiences cry, laugh or scream. But for socially minded screenwriters, unleashing emotions is not enough. We want audiences to harness that emotional energy and turn it into social action.
We want the films we write to make a point, to say something about life, to have social impact. Documentaries can do that, but they usually have smaller and more specialized audiences. Narrative films can present social issues in subtler, less expository ways. Screenwriters can weave social issues into the fabric of a compelling narrative story and move general audiences to act on their emotions in positive and world-changing ways. Parables still work.
Movies can make a difference in people’s lives as they did in mine.
In 1971, when I was an impressionable urchin, I saw Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill, a biopic about the life of the legendary early 1900s Swedish/American union activist who dies for his beliefs. I found that film so inspiring, that I championed the union cause everywhere I worked, joining guilds, and marching in picket lines during strikes.
Perhaps you felt the same way when you saw Norma Rae demonstrating a woman’s courage setting up a union shop in a Southern mill town.
And consider the social impact of these films:
- Philadelphia was the first mainstream movie about AIDS and reduced prejudice against people with HIV as it opened public dialogue about the disease.
- Silkwood exposed the dangers of plutonium and the corporate greed that endangered those who worked with it. A year after Karen Silkwood’s death, the plant where she worked was shut down.
- The China Syndrome demonstrated the danger of mismanaged nuclear plants. Shortly after the film’s release, Three Mile Island melted down. Audiences took notice and saw how fiction could become reality if nuclear energy wasn’t strictly controlled.
- The Insider told the story of Jeffrey Wigand, a real whistleblower in the tobacco industry whose inside information resulted in congressional hearings and the strengthening of tobacco laws. Today, smoking in public places is widely outlawed.
- Vera Drake took us back to times before Roe v. Wade and made us aware of the misery experienced by women with unwanted pregnancies and the well-meaning abortionist who helped them.
- Juno warmed us to the idea of adoption, surrogacy and sustaining life. When statistics came forward that abortion numbers were down, that phenomenon was called “The Juno Effect.”
- Charlie Wilson’s War, based on Texas congressman Charlie Wilson’s covert dealings in Afghanistan, brought the issue of landmines to public attention and supported their eradication by encouraging fund-raising for the effort.
- And last November, The Whistleblower, a film about human trafficking by U.N. Peacekeepers, was screened by its writer/director Larysa Kondracki at the United Nations and discussed in a special session. Representatives of all countries promised to crack down on human trafficking, and the U.N. promised to create stricter guidelines and over-sights for its peacekeepers.
These films had commercial and critical success, affected popular culture, entertained and informed audiences and generated social action.
If those of us who have a talent for screenwriting want to use it to benefit mankind, there’s no better way to do that than to put a social issue at the center of our mainstream scripts. We really can inspire millions, motivate them to take part in social action and make the world a better place.
Did you ever see a movie that changed your views? Tell about it in COMMENTS.