6 Culturally Relevant Films that Reflect Our World Today

D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” is among the earliest examples of the power of cinema to stir up discussion regarding where our society is or may be headed.

As for the current cultural landscape, many recent films seem to directly play into the raw, divisive state of our country. But how do you define a concept as intangible as “relevance” when it comes to movies?

“A film is relevant when it—as a whole or through a component—parallels what’s being discussed in the moment,” said Nguyen Le, writer for InSession Film and The Young Folks.

Screen Rant’s Chris Agar believes the most relevant films tend to “form an instant connection with the zeitgeist.”

Despite the implication that relevance speaks to a specific point in time, Richard Newby—contributor to The Hollywood Reporter—thinks there’s more to it.

“Whether we’re talking about an individual or society, a relevant film expresses something at its core that is eternal.”

Animation of people at a movie theater. Culturally Relevant Films pbs rewire

Relevance can strike an instant connection or resonate more deeply as the years go by, said freelance film critic Danielle Solzman.  Karen Peterson of Awards Circuit believes the concept is more subjective.

“Honestly, you can probably find relevance anywhere you look for it,” she said.

Critics’ choices

So, critics don’t exactly agree on the definition of a culturally relevant film. But, based on their own definitions, we asked them to share their must-sees in this category. They reached some consensus on these six.

1. “Get Out,” 2017

Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film received near-unanimous mention among our critics, and it’s easy to see why.  The film “eviscerates people who claim to be—and usually believe they are—allies in the fight for true equality,” Peterson said.

“Get Out” uses satire and surrealism to reveal “an essential truth that black Americans … are still caught in a ‘sunken place’ where white America so often uses them as symbols of moral status and ‘wokeness,’” Newby said.

2. “Arrival,” 2016

By inverting expectations of an alien invasion film, director Denis Villeneuve presents a more hopeful vision of our future.

“It doesn’t reflect who we are but who we could be,” said Newby. “If we can close the gap on what it means to be alien in the universal sense, then we should surely be able to achieve (connection) on our own planet.”

Le boils its message down to a simple lesson: “There’s only greatness in mindfulness.”

3. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2015

“Maybe this one was a little ahead of its time, but now with the rise of Me Too and Time’s Up, its story is even more relevant,” said Agar of George Miller’s action extravaganza.

In addition to its technical achievements, the narrative of “Fury Road” replaces a masculine perspective with a feminine one, Newby said, presenting a world “led to ruin by men and that can only be saved by women.” No wonder so many consider it the most unlikely feminist masterpiece of our time.

4. “Nightcrawler,” 2014

While its star may have been notoriously snubbed at the Oscars that year, Dan Gilroy’s film encapsulates the fame-driven, anything-goes route to success. As such, it comments on the “get-rich-quick” mindset that sacrifices ethics for money, Le said.

More broadly, “Nightcrawler” sheds light on the dark side of the media and the sensationalism that drives it, Agar said. In a world of clickbait and outlets tripping over each other to break news, is this extreme really that far off?

5. “The Shape of Water,” 2017

Guillermo del Toro’s romantic drama about the bond between a deaf woman and a humanoid sea creature may revel in horror movie tropes, but the film has a ton of political commentary beneath the surface, Solzman said.

“The Shape of Water” explores a variety of surprising themes, including sexuality, gender stereotypes and white nationalism. But despite its scope, Le believes it all boils down to one singular takeaway: reach out to who society deems the “other.”

6. “Zootopia,” 2016

An animated Disney comedy about a metropolis populated exclusively by animals doesn’t necessarily lend itself to social commentary. And yet, this film—directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore—makes issues like race, class and inclusion accessible for children.

“It’s a film that says we are all different, and that’s okay,” Peterson said. “In fact, it’s good and important that we are because we can use our individual strengths to help each other move forward.”

Although these six films dominated our critics’ favorites, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Agar included 2018 box office champ “Black Panther,” which explores isolationism and the black experience. Le named morality tales “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Spotlight,” and Newby included cultural touchstones “Moonlight” and “Wonder Woman” among his picks.

Peterson listed Oscar-nominated Lebanese thriller “The Insult,” 2013 documentary “The Square” and filmmaker Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake.” Solzman stuck to buzz-worthy 2018 films, including Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” dramedy “Blindspotting” and the poignant documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

What movies have you seen that hold a mirror to our society? Share your favorites in the comments.

A headshot of a man. PBS Rewire. Robert Yaniz Jr.

Robert Yaniz Jr. is a full-time freelance writer specializing in business, marketing and entertainment. Over the last 15 years, he has covered everything from the regional business scene to the latest movies and TV shows. You can usually find him—laptop on hand—sipping a latte or chasing after his young daughter. For more on his work, check out robertyanizjr.com or email him directly at [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter @robertyanizjr.