70 Best Woke Movies to Watch Right Now

70 Best Woke Movies to Watch Right Now

May 30, 2024

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Movies are no stranger to wokeness. Even before the term “woke” was adapted into mainstream use, cinema has had a long history of raising social awareness and rousing audiences into action. From the social class films of the ’50s to the blaxploitation craze of the ’70s to the plethora of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ movies that dominate today’s screens, woke cinema has always been here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. 

Below, we list the most piercing, compelling, and illuminating social justice movies you can stream right now.

61. A Thousand and One (2023)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

A.V. Rockwell, Female director

Actors

Adriane Lenox, Amelia Workman, Aven Courtney, Bianca LaVerne Jones

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

At once intimate and sweeping, A Thousand and One seamlessly weaves Inez’s personal turmoil and familial troubles with the systemic inequality that was rampant in ’90s New York. The hideous faces of gentrification, poverty, and police brutality are constantly appearing in the film, not merely because they lend weight to the story, but because they are inevitable for people like Inez. People who, despite their best efforts at achieving upward mobility are continually pushed down by self-serving institutions. 

It’s easy for social issue dramas like this to buckle under the weight of their lofty goals, but nothing about A Thousand and One feels forced. Just the opposite, the film has an authentic quality to it—almost documentary-like in its precise depiction of Harlem throughout the years. It’s deeply personal and achingly tender, and everything else—the social commentary and the political beats—stems from that specificity. 

62. How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Daniel Goldhaber

Actors

Ariela Barer, Brian Landis Folkins, Calhoun Koenig, Christopher Hagen

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Gripping, Intense

On the one hand, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a tense thriller—an excellently set-up heist that makes you wonder, until the end, whether the low-budget operation succeeds or not. On the other hand, it’s a thoughtful rumination on the evil and influence of Big Oil, which despite its relentless destruction of environments and communities, continues to run scot-free. 

Together, these parts make for a powerful, nerve-racking film about both the danger and necessity of eco-terrorism—a radical act that is impressively humanized and spared from caricature here. How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s themes may be big and its means explosive, but its rich characterizations of the young activists ground it into a relatable reality. One is dying due to toxins released by the nearby plant, another is forced to give up his property to make way for the construction of a pipeline. All are tired of the fruitlessness of government promises and peaceful protests. Rousing and relevant, there’s never been a more timelier film than this. 

63. Farha (2021)

best

8.0

Country

Jordan, Sweden

Director

Darin J. Sallam, Female director

Actors

Ali Soliman, Ali Suliman, Ashraf Barhom, Sultan Alkhail

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

Based on a true story, Darin J. Sallam’s controversial debut feature Farha is, at heart, a brutal coming-of-age film. Set in 1948, the film is about a girl who gets locked into her family’s storeroom at the start of the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe. Sallam’s choice to limit most of the film’s perspective to that small storeroom is brilliant – in some ways, it echoes the surrounding discussion about the conflict. Most of what the world knows of Palestine is limited due to having to deal with censorship, lost records, and only hearing word-of-mouth stories from ancestors who just barely survived. But what we see is already too horrific to begin with. And what the film knows is the tragedy of losing your home – having to leave childhood, leave your dreams, and leave a vibrant and living culture in order to survive.

64. Saving Face (2004)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Alice Wu, Female director

Actors

Ato Essandoh, Brian Yang, Brittany Perrineau, David Shih

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Heart-warming

Before the late 2010s push for more Asian American and lesbian cinema, there were movies already making strides toward better representation. One of the first to achieve this was Saving Face. Despite this film being the first feature for writer-director Alice Wu and actress Lynn Chen, and the first lead role for Michelle Krusiec, the three women lead the film with ease. Wu’s clear mastery of rom-com and family drama tropes directs us through some predictable moves, but with unpredictable twists. Krusiec and Chen’s Wil and Vivian are easy to root for with their striking chemistry, but at the heart of this film is Wil’s relationship with her mom Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen). Their dynamic—expressed through passive-aggression, bilingual bickering, and their need for the other’s honesty—turns this easygoing rom-com into a light yet cathartic family drama.

65. Blue (1993)

best

8.0

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Derek Jarman

Actors

Derek Jarman, John Quentin, Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Intense

Part documentary yet part surreal daydream, director Derek Jarman’s final film is one last rallying cry into a blue void. Against an unchanging screen of International Klein Blue, most of the film is Jarman’s voice, drifting through various subjects, from day-to-day complications of AIDS to contemplations about the color blue. Some of his frequent collaborators chime in. Choirs singing about damnation occasionally pop up too. While essentially a radio drama, the combination of voices, foley, and scores all merge together into an ethereal, haunting soundscape, that sticks in your head long after the film ends. Mirroring his partial blindness, Jarman’s last experiment leaves an impression of his own experience. It’s absolutely devastating.

66. Last Resort (2000)

best

8.0

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Paweł Pawlikowski

Actors

Adrian Scarborough, Bruce Byron, Dave Bean, David Auker

Moods

Raw, Romantic, Touching

The title of Paweł Pawlikowski’s sophomore feature has a double meaning: it’s not only about the extraordinary lengths a Russian mother goes to remain in the UK, but it’s also set in the last seaside resort anyone would ever want to visit. While travelling to meet her English fiancé, Tanya (Dina Korzun) and son Artyom (Artyom Strelnikov) are detained at customs after failing to satisfy the immigration officer’s queries. With her fiancé refusing to answer her calls, Tanya panics and claims political asylum, not knowing that doing so means she’ll have to wait for over a year in a grim coastal town requisitioned as an asylum-seeker “holding area.”

Pawlikowski uses realism to highlight the crushing bureaucracy, dehumanizing conditions, and threats of exploitation that come with being an asylum seeker, but remarkably, bleakness isn’t the overriding tone. Local arcade worker Alfie (Paddy Considine) takes a shine to the duo and does what he can to brighten their gloomy situation — and, in the cruel limbo they find themselves in, his warm generosity and fondness for them imbues the film with an undeniable sense of hopefulness. It never detracts from the film’s realism (see: its bittersweet ending) but neither does Pawlikowski allow the precious gift of someone who genuinely cares to go ignored.

67. 12 Angry Men (1997)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

William Friedkin

Actors

Armin Mueller-Stahl, Courtney B. Vance, Dorian Harewood, Douglas Spain

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

Even a director of William Friedkin’s caliber had his work cut out for him with this remake of the towering 1957 drama tracking a jury’s fraught deliberations in an apparently open-and-shut murder trial. Wisely, he changes little: most of the incisive dialogue remains the same, and the film still only takes place in one sweltering room on New York’s hottest day.

There are some key differences, though: namely, in a few of the characters (most notably Mykelti Williamson’s ex-Nation of Islam member Juror #10, who helps update the story to the ’90s) and the intensification of the ensemble’s star power. The all-star quality of the cast is never wielded to call attention to itself, though; everyone, from James Gandolfini and William Petersen to Tony Danza and Edward James Olmos is on fine character acting form here. Replacing the unforgettable Henry Fonda is Jack Lemmon (exuding warmth and good sense) as the principled lone dissenter who calmly wages a war of words with George C. Scott’s bigoted Juror #3 to give real justice a chance. The 1957 version is admittedly a timeless classic, but Friedkin’s version isn’t very far off from reaching its predecessor’s dazzling heft plus, this stands as a compelling argument that every era should have its own 12 Angry Men.

68. Selma (2014)

best

8.0

Country

France, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Ava DuVernay, Female director

Actors

Alessandro Nivola, Andre Holland, Carmen Ejogo, Charity Jordan

Moods

A-list actors, Discussion-sparking, Gripping

The award-winning third feature by director Ava DuVernay, Selma, was released around the 50th anniversary of the historically significant marches (Selma to Montgomery) that aided the civil rights movement’s efforts to assure African-American citizens can exercise their constitutional right to vote, harassment-free. The film has been celebrated not only as an artwork, but also as a historiographically accurate one. While it features the role Martin Luther King Jr. played in the marches, it does not reduce the activists’ effort and struggle to make it come to fruition. With her uncompromising directorial approach, DuVernay crafts a thrilling period film that has all the markers of a well-done genre feature, but uses its mechanisms to tell an emotionally potent story about both the peaceful marches and the nation-wide outcry resulting from the violence they were met with.

69. American Fiction (2023)

best

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Cord Jefferson

Actors

Adam Brody, Alexander Pobutsky, Bates Wilder, Celeste Oliva

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Easy, Lighthearted

On the one hand, American Fiction is a razor-sharp satire that pokes fun at the hypocrisy of the literary and entertainment industry. It’s only when Monk (Wright), a genius but esoteric writer, decides to pander and give in to what publishers have come to expect from Black authors (that is: trauma porn) that he is finally celebrated for his work. But on the other hand, the film is also a tender family drama. Monk sells out, as it were, partly because he’s fascinated by the stupidity of decision-makers and supposed intellectuals, but mostly because he needs to pay for his ailing mother’s care. His relationship with his siblings and deceased father likewise informs much of his character, and they complicate what could’ve been just an intellectual approach to a social issue. This is an educational and entertaining film, yes, one that looks at the complex intersection between identity, craft, and profit. But it’s also an empathetic film, told with a big heart and a surprisingly light touch.

70. Turtles Can Fly (2005)

best

8.0

Country

France, Iran, Iraq

Director

Bahman Ghobadi

Actors

Abdol Rahman Karim, Avaz Latif, Emre Tetikel, Hiresh Feysal Rahman

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Regardless of where, when, and why war came to be, war inevitably makes children grow up faster than they ought to. Turtles Can Fly depicts one such boy, a thirteen year old refugee nicknamed Kak Satellite whose limited English and resourcefulness transformed him into a leader for the rest of the children as they scrounged for scraps, sweep for landmines, and set up satellites for news. It’s a harrowing experience. Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi depicts it in a grounded, real way, with the Kurdish cast directly re-enacting the same horrors that they’ve gone through the year before, and the same practical nonchalance that they cling to for survival. Regardless of how viewers feel about the Iraq invasion, or other wars with refugee crises, Turtles Can Fly simply asks viewers to see their faces.

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