sociology and films for the classroom, 2016: a guest post by tim gill

Tim Gill is a sociologist who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University. His research focuses on political sociology and sociological theory. In this post, he discusses how you can use recent films to explore sociological issues. 


As an instructor in the classroom, I am continually thinking about ways in which I can put students’ minds to work. I have found that this is especially important within introductory and undergraduate theory courses. In both sorts of classes, students are exposed to an array of sociological concepts that, at times, might seem ethereal.

In order to pull these ideas down to the ground, I use a number of strategies. One dependable way that I have found to get burgeoning minds working is by having a reference point of a film. That is, by screening popular films in the course, this allows students to look at particular experiences and, where possible, to work with sociological concepts and ideas that we have previously encountered.

At this point, there seems to be a canon of sociologically-oriented films that instructors work with, particularly in undergraduate theory courses. Brazil, for instance, pops up on a number of syllabi, and I have indeed shown it in several theory sections myself. Increasingly though, the film come to look a bit worn, a bit dated, and I can only imagine what students now think of it.

As a result, whenever I have watched recent films over the past few years, I have continually remained conscious of I how might use them in the courses that I teach. In more recent years, I have shown, for example, Selma in my undergraduate political sociology course when discussing the civil rights movement, and, in theory, I have shown Snowpiercer as a transition from Durkheim to Marx, a film which, in brief, features widespread conflict within a highly stratified train that traverses the globe in order to generate heat for its passengers amid a post-apocalyptic, frozen tundra world.

Indeed, towards the end of each recent year, I have engaged in a bit of a marathon to view many of the critically acclaimed, and often Oscar-nominated, films from the previous year. I was particularly struck this year with how many films I could potentially use in the classroom in order to spark discussion. I wanted to share my thoughts here on a few of these films and how other instructors might also use them in their courses, should film screenings be of interest.

A number of excellent releases this year dealt with issues involving race and, in particular, racial discrimination, including Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving, and Moonlight. Moonlight, in fact, earned the Golden Globe award for Best Picture just a few weeks ago, and remains a top contender, alongside Hidden Figures, for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

With the exception of Moonlight, the other three films focus on historical episodes or historical periods within the U.S. Set in the mid-20th century, Fences examines working class life among African-Americans and centers on the Maxson family. Although the film largely centers on the particularistic dilemmas that confront each family member, the film is set against a backdrop of limited opportunities for African-Americans during times of segregation, as well an overwhelming sense of patriarchy. Troy Maxson, for instance, reveals his own tragic story involving petty crime amid poverty and his nearly successful, but ultimately failed aspirations to become a professional baseball player. Despite his son’s own intentions to pursue athletics in college, in large part to obtain a scholarship, Troy discourages these pursuits, which subsequently result military enrollment. And, in his work as a waste collection specialist, Troy faces his own battles to obtain a better position beyond working the back of the truck. Themes of patriarchy become heavier throughout the film, but I’ll avoid entirely spoiling it. Needless to say, though, Viola Davis undeniably deserves another award for Best Supporting Actress.

Both Hidden Figures and Loving focus on particular historical episodes within U.S. history, respectively: the involvement of African American women within 1960s NASA space missions, and the landmark Loving v. the State of Virginia Supreme Court case. In the Loving case, the Supreme Court would prohibit all remaining national restrictions on inter-racial marriage and end all miscegenation laws. The film, however, is a bleak reminder of how white supremacists have inhabited judiciary and law enforcement positions, and how they have willingly utilized their positions to perpetuate white supremacy. It also illustrates how judges often deployed a religious discourse to justify overtly racist behavior.

On the brighter side, the film is a testament to the persistence and perseverance of human actors, and, despite daunting structural impediments, how individuals still retain a chance to make history – albeit, as Karl Marx famously noted, not under circumstances of their choosing.

Hidden Figures offers a warming depiction of the success and dignity that several African American women would find within NASA during the 1960s and at the height of space competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. While African American women at NASA intensively contributed to the success of John Glenn’s mission and other space-related endeavors, the film reminds viewers how the status they acquired by work within an esteemed institution didn’t eliminate the intersectional inequalities that continue to confront African-American women.

The film recurrently illustrates the systemic, everyday violence that African Americans faced during years of segregation: the inability to access education; the inability to access libraries; the absurd divisions involving water fountains and bathrooms; and the anxiety and fear that became associated with interactions with law enforcement officers. Indeed, many of these dynamics persist, and the film can provide instructors with an avenue into discussing how racism continues into the 21st century and how U.S. society has, if at all, changed.

Moonlight unfolds in three segments that correspond with three stages in the life of the film’s main character, Chiron. The film documents the path of personal destruction that ensued for many individuals as a result of crack cocaine usage throughout the U.S. during the 1980s, and its casualties, including Chiron and his troubled youth. As Chiron ages, he not only faces the punishing obstacles that correspond with urban poverty in the U.S., but he also grapples with his own identity, and more specifically his sexuality, in the prove-yourself-masculine environment that characterizes much of adolescence. And, finally, the film visualizes the criminalization of black youth in the U.S. and how these dynamics condition personal trajectories. It’s an important and stunning film that competently deals with an array of sociological topics: race, masculinity, sexuality, poverty, drugs, and crime.

In some ways similar to Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women hones in on the experiences of women during the late 1970s. However, it focuses on three white women, and a son of one of theirs, at different stages of life in comfortable California. The persistent theme throughout the film centers on age and the doubts and anxieties that correspond with each period of life. In particular, middle-aged Dorothea Fields remains troubled by her seeming inability to successfully raise a fifteen-year old boy, who is increasingly coming of age, that is, by discovering punk rock, feminist theory, and his own sexuality.

The film beautifully captures the discrepancies that exist between age cohorts and the particular doubts and dilemmas that women face at particular points in their life: exploring sexuality, confronting illness, and, in some instances, becoming a mother. If you listen closely, you might even hear the term “sociological” appear in dialogue.

Should you be interested in viewing a film more overtly focused on punk rock and youth subcultures, Green Room provides an intense tale involving a violent confrontation between, on the one hand, progressively minded punks and, on the other, neo-Nazi-oriented punks. While the genre has historically been populated by the former, there’s been no shortage of intrusions by vile personalities and acts over punk rock’s now 40-year history as an American subculture. It’s a brutal film, but it graphically illustrates some of the tensions that have unfolded within many working-class subcultures in the U.S.

Finally, the journey of Lion, which is based on true events, can undoubtedly provide much content for discussion within courses and units focused on issues surrounding the Global South and the differences that persist between this region and the Global North. In the film, a young Indian boy named Saroo mistakenly falls asleep in a train-car within a desolate rural village, and ultimately finds himself thousands of miles away in Calcutta, where he possesses no knowledge of the local language. Saroo continues to encounter extreme poverty both in the Indian countryside and now in the urban setting of Calcutta. Unfamiliar with the language and vulnerable, Saroo is eventually shuffled into an orphanage before becoming adopted by an upper-class family in Tasmania.

The sharp disparities between impoverished India and pristine Australia are neither lost on the viewer nor Saroo. After meeting other Indian students at a professional school, Saroo realizes that he possesses an incomplete and haunting past that he cannot reconcile with his current situation. So begins Saroo’s odyssey into discovering the roots of his life. Like Moonlight, identity is a central issues to the story, and, although we often change, many of our early experiences shape how we think about ourselves and how we understand the world.

In comparison with other recent years, it’s fascinating to see how sociological many of the most celebrated films were this year. Of course, it’s also interesting to see how La La Land, perhaps the least sociological film, has garnered more awards than any other 2016 film. Surely, there’s something sociological in there, but it’s not quite as overt as the sociological elements we find within many other films from the past year.

Documentaries, of course, also provide an excellent window into social life, and there were no shortage of excellent documentaries from the past year. However, there is an undeniable power to feature-length films that explore sociological issues and often remain based on true events. They also possess the ability to captivate students and allow them to creatively put sociological ideas to work. I have noted just a few films above from the previous year. If there are films that other instructors work with in their courses, I would eagerly like to hear about them. Please feel free to provide any examples below and in what sort of context you show them.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2017 at 12:34 am

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