Screening Social Justice
Many screen adaptations of the classics are informed by social justice concerns. Films construct a social space—a space for socialization and discussion of social justice issues—where the characters’ and audiences’ universes intersect. Some films imagine the classics to have a remedial effect on our society. Others illustrate the questions of inequities raised by the familiar, canonical story. These works use their literary sources to host social reparation.
While, in the U.S., “reparation” often refers to remediation of historical injustices, such as efforts to restore land rights to indigenous people, I use the notion of social reparation here to theorize remedial uses of Shakespeare in adaptations that give artists and audiences more moral agency.
Inspirational narratives, in particular, have instrumentalized the canon to serve socially reparative purposes.
Films That Address Social Justice Issues
Socially progressive film adaptations remedy injustices in our times and power asymmetries that inform Shakespeare’s play. In this sense of reparation, we might say artists have “rescued” Shakespeare from a patriarchal tradition of interpretation. The ills these works seek to mend include misogyny and attitudinal biases against homosexuality.
The recent social justice turn in the arts has given relevance and purpose to art. Emotional investment in a story spurs people into action, and it is validating and encouraging for audiences to see themselves represented on screen.
Since 2009, the Social Justice Film Institute in Seattle has supported activist filmmakers through its Social Justice Film Festivals, and the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York has sponsored the Justice Film Festivals since 2015 to inspire justice seekers by presenting films of unexpected courage and redemption.”
Analyzing Films through a Social Justice Lens
While analyzing films, we can also bring social justice concerns to bear on “imperfect” specimen. Here are some examples and themes to consider:
- Point-of-View (POV) shots may turn a female character into a sexualized object through the leery eyes of an observer or the camera-eye.
- Framing that fragments female body parts singles them out for consumption disconnect the characters from their environment.
- Such camera movements as slow motion and tilt disassociate characters from real time in the narrative. These techniques make the characters more sensual and take away their control of the space they inhabit. Slow pan or slow tilt also prolongs the amount of the time.
- Lighting can flatten female characters’ features, making them attractive but less three-dimensional.
- Intentioned and inclusive casting practices can contribute to films’ social justice causes. Since diverse casts disrupt the status quo, detractors of Rob Marshall’s 2023 The Little Mermaid, Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra, and of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series claim that casting Black and Asian actors undermines these stories. Casting choices involve real-life individuals in a fictional world, and (self) representation can be socially reparative. Of course, there are pitfalls. Diverse casts alone is not enough. We need inclusive filmmaking techniques (such as lighting and framing, see above). As Aja Romano writes, “diverse casting can be a shortcut to appearing progressive without actually being progressive.” Alexa Alice Joubin has researched this phenomenon, writing that “advertising trends sometimes give false impressions of the works’ inclusiveness.”
- A combination of these and other techniques, such as a fuzzy focus and an extreme close-up with no discernible background position the characters outside the narrative time and space. Due to the ways in which audiences are invited to view them, these sexualized characters become “inconsequential” to the story. When characters are disconnected from their environments, they are disempowered. They are not able to influence their surroundings and appear more abstract and less of a real person.
Promoting Social Justice Causes through Parody
Another tool at filmmakers’ disposal is parody. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) satirizes both the goofy and equestrian patriarchy of the human world and the matriarchy of Barbieland by alluding to several films and by flipping well-known tropes without launching into explicit expositions of feminism.
For example, Barbie’s opening sequence, with voice-over narration by Helen Mirren, depicts how Barbie rescues girls from prehistoric ideologies. The scene pays homage to, and features the same musical soundtrack and the same sunrise as, Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
- As shown by the side-by-side comparison in the video below, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of hominins smash bones to create new tools. The appearance of a mysterious, futuristic black monolith speeds up the evolution as the sun rises over the horizon. Accompanying the epic scene of evolution is Richard Strauss’s “Sunrise,” the opening fanfare of his 1896 symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra (learn more about the music in the Gramaphone Newsletter).
In Barbie, a group of girls are playing with nondescript baby dolls. Suddenly, a supersized Barbie (based on the original 1959 doll) appears on the scene wearing a black and white striped swimsuit. Little girls used to play with baby dolls to rehearse motherhood. After Barbie appears, little girls smash the baby dolls in favor of diversified roles for women that range from the astronaut and surgeon to the CEO. The girls’ awakening is accompanied by the rising sun over the horizon.
Diverse Casting and Inclusiveness
As mentioned above, diverse casting alone is not enough to make films inclusive, and while social justice issues are a serious topic, screen works can present the issues through humor. American Born Chinese (dir. Kelvin Yu, Disney+, 2023) is one such example. The television series does not use its diverse cast ornamentally but rather substantively. It respects the cultures its cast and characters represent.
Further, the series conveys tensions through humor. In the first episode (season one), a misfit Asian American high school student Jin Wang (Ben Wang) who has been bullied is talking to the soccer coach Garrett (played by Larry Bates). When asked “do you know who the real coach in life is?” the visibly anxious Jin hesitantly answered with a question: “Are you going to say Jesus?” Jin comes from a Buddhist family, and his words reflect racial and religious tensions in school.
People often feel uncomfortable or are reluctant to discuss identity politics or talk about who we are as a society. This course provides you with a tool box of critical theories to discuss these topics.
The first rule of thumb is that we should always use people-based language, by which we mean words that put people first and humanize people. Some examples include wording such as people with disabilities. Instead of saying the insane, we should say people with mental health conditions.
So that we do not unconsciously assume one group is more normal or more valuable than others, we should also pay attention to able-bodiedness. Someone may be socially disabled in one context, but able-bodied in another context.
Gender-neutral (or better: gender inclusive), identity affirmative language is also very important, such as queer people. In general, it is preferable to defer to terms that a community prefers rather than labeling them on our own.
Here is a short lecture by Professor Joubin on socially inclusive language.
Even flawed films can serve as a productive specimen, in the anthropological sense, for discussion of social justice. Consider, for instance, the politics of gender behind film trailers. Trailers often feature low, masculine voices in their voice-over narration. Lake Bell parodies and critiques this tradition in In a World (2013):
Film trailers in each era have their own conventions and different “social justice quotient.” Read more about theories to analyze film trailers in the Lesson Unit here.
You may also wish to reference Keith Johnston’s Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009).
There is a long tradition of using literature as coping strategy. Works such as Malcolm X (dir. Spike Lee, 1992) have played key roles in American civil rights movements and current struggles for racial equality, and Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America has been an iconic text in the gay movement. Likewise, adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid are a constant point of reference among young trans girls in mainstream media. Meanwhile, renowned for their all-female productions, London’s Donmar Warehouse (led by Phyllida Lloyd) aims to “create a more … functional … society and inspire empathy,” because they “believe that representation matters; diversity of identity, of perspective, of lived experience enriches our work and our lives.”
As Alexa Alice Joubin and Lisa Starks have argued, “literature gives language to victims of psychological trauma who lose speech.” Adaptations offer a simultaneously distant and personal relationship to literary works, allowing, as Joubin notes, us to discuss sensitive topics through fiction “without putting individuals on the spot and without requiring them to engage in uncomfortable, public forms of confession.”
As a familiar and canonical playwright, Shakespeare has often offered orientation and even emotional refuge both to people in crisis and to those contemplating it. Joubin’s research reveals that “King Lear became a political allegory of division in the post-Brexit era, and Anglophone pop culture gravitated towards Shakespeare through memes and quotes during the global pandemic of COVID-19. Shakespeare’s plays have also been used to depict largescale social dislocation. Kozintsev’s 1971 film of King Lear opens with an anxious multitude gathering to learn the fate of the kingdom.
More recently, in Richard Eyre’s 2018 film King Lear, Anthony Hopkins plays an exiled Lear who finds himself an unaccommodated man. He stumbles upon and overnights in a refugee camp under pouring rain, wandering among makeshift tents.
Your Turn: Use a social justice lens to examine the opening scene of Adam Smethurst’s racially diverse Twelfth Night (2018). Factors to consider include class, race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, accents, diverse body types and images, and age (an important element of diversity, equity, and inclusion).
Twelfth Night is a “coming out” story of self-discovery. Read more about the comedy and the full text on Folger Shakespeare Library’s open-access site.
First, watch the opening scene where Viola (played by Sheila Atim) is washed ashore in Illyria and assumes that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned. How does the film connect the image of a shipwreck victim to our contemporary refugee crisis?
Context: Europe’s recent refugee crisis, peaking in 2015, saw over one million asylum seekers, driven by wars and environmental disasters, arrive in Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Taking the social media by storm was a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a sandy beach in Turkey. “The Syrian boy’s lifeless body had washed ashore after the rubber boat carrying him and his family — to what they had hoped would be new lives in Greece — capsized.”
Next, watch this viewtorial of the scene produced by the film studio Shanty Production. The short video features the opening scene and Professor Carol Chillington Rutter’s explanation of contemporary relevance of Twelfth Night not only to the refugee crisis but also transformations of life.
- Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. Transgender Cinema. Rutgers University Press, 2019.
- Biesen, Sheri Chinen. Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen. Wallflower, 2018.
- Joubin, Alexa Alice. “Screening Social Justice: Performing Reparative Shakespeare against Vocal Disability,” Adaptation 14.2 (August 2021): 187–205. Open-access full text on Oxford University Press’s site.
- Over, William. Social Justice in World Cinema and Theatre. Praeger, 2001.
- Ruiter, David. The Arden Research Handbook of Shakespeare and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury, 2022.
- Sexton, John. Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Palgrave, 2017.
- Thakur, Gautam Basu. Postcolonial Theory and Avatar. Bloomsbury, 2015.
- Wu, Constance. Making a Scene. Scribner, 2022.