The Exploration of Justice Through Film


Have you ever seen a movie that changed your mind about the way the world works? Between now and June, the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library screens cinematic classics largely from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in their “Justice in Film” series. The idea is to “explore how film has tackled social strife, morality, and the perennial struggle between right and wrong – conflicts that manifest across cultures and history.”

We are true believers in the power of film to spark conversations that lead to social change, and yes, justice. Look at some of the films we’ve supported that recently premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and you’ll see several “Justice In Film”future programming possibilities.

For the next “Justice In Film” program, I nominate “Whose Streets?” It’s a simply stunning outpouring of a community’s cry for justice, answered by the government’s militarized police force. What started as outrage over the death of Michael Brown, shot by Ferguson, MO police and left on the street for hours, became a national scandal of racism and police misconduct. By the time the credits roll, I guarantee that directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis will have shocked viewers into a personal examination of their concept of justice.

Where is the justice for the (mostly) women whose doctors cannot explain the physical symptoms, so they suggest that the patients are psychologically disturbed? First-time director Jennifer Brea searches for justice and answers in her documentary “Unrest.” The film explores gender bias, illness, and the price that patients pay for having Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Jen’s film chronicles the creation of an international movement of patients and their families, demanding more funds for research and treatment. (This film won Sundance’s Editing Award, which seemed like a “just” outcome)

The highest price ever paid for a documentary at Sundance went to “Icarus,” the film responsible for bringing the Russian athletic doping program to the front page of The New York Times. This is an international quest for justice, as athletes in nearly every sport struggle to excel while competing in a field made unfair by doping. Audiences groan at the obvious miscarriages of justice throughout the film, and the unmistakable, rampant cheating is now revealed, waiting for Justice.

Like the old story of the five blind people describing an elephant, finding the top moments of justice in the films of Sundance depends on one’s perspective.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sundance’s focus on environmental justice as a theme for special programming including Al Gore and “An Inconvenient Sequel,” his followup to 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Who are the economic victims of the world’s desire to curb carbon emissions? Who suffers as the developed world demands that emerging economies stop burning fossil fuels and thus stifle their growth? Environmentalists say that forcing industries, individuals, and countries to curtail their energy use is the only justice issue that matters because if the Earth is destroyed, no other issues will survive.

Good stories well told have (so far!) survived the test of time, and we will continue to invest in the ones we think will make a difference in the present moment and reverberating in the decades to come.