What is social commentary? You may have heard the term thrown around in video essays or seen it pop up in book, music, or film analysis without knowing precisely what it means. In this post, we will define social commentary, examine the different ways it can manifest in cinema, and take a look at a few great examples of films that nail social commentary.
What is Social Commentary
Let’s define social commentary
Social commentary is a bit of an abstract concept to unravel. If you stumble across any other unfamiliar writing terminology, our ultimate glossary of screenwriting vocabulary can help demystify the jargon.
SOCIAL COMMENTARY DEFINITION
What is social commentary?
Social commentary is an element of a narrative that levels a comment — usually a critique — on societal issues or general society as a whole. Any issue relating to or ingrained aspect of a society can be a target. The presentation of social commentary can range from obvious and on-the-nose to subtle and layered within subtext. This type of commentary can be found in literature, music, television, and cinema. Not all stories contain an element of social commentary. Targets of this commentary and criticism can range from extremely broad, such as the concept of racism, to more specific, precise targets such as Reagan’s handling of the AIDS epidemic.
Social Commentary Characteristics:
- Critical of a society or societal issues
- Not present in every story
- Can appear any type of narrative or artwork
Art with Social Commentary
How to present social commentary
Social commentary can be implemented in a multitude of ways across different narrative and artistic mediums. There is an interconnected relationship between it and other literary devices such as satire, symbolism, and theme.
Social commentary is most closely linked to literature, but creative minds with messages to say can inject commentary into songs, television shows, paintings, graphic novels, movies, and more.
Here's a fantastic breakdown of how Donald Glover brings commentary into his work across multiple mediums.
There are three main avenues for infusing stories with social commentary: through concept, through character, and through actions. Let’s focus on social commentary in cinema and look at the work of a filmmaker who has excelled at it through each of these avenues: George Romero.
Considered by many horror fans to be a master of social commentary, the large, great George A. Romero has used all three of the aforementioned avenues to include strong commentary within his groundbreaking zombie series. Find out where Romero’s films land on our ranking of the best zombie films ever made.
Dawn of the Dead is a perfect example of social commentary through concept. By setting a zombie film within a shopping mall, Romero is able to skewer consumerism without the commentary slowing down or getting in the way of the plot of this exciting horror film.
Day of the Dead makes use of the social-commentary-through-character approach. It does this by using the villainous Captain Rhodes as a representative of the U.S. military and an indictment of their short-sighted violence. His bulldozing effort to impede the vital work of scientists speaks for itself. The fact that he has one of the best horror movie death scenes in history is the icing on the cake.
We can look all the way back to the film that birthed the entire zombie genre for an example of social commentary through actions. What is the action in this case? A white posse shooting the black protagonist dead after he has survived the initial zombie onslaught.
The shocking ending of Night of the Living Dead was controversial and groundbreaking upon its release in 1968 and remains powerful to this day.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this particular commentary is that George A. Romero did not create it intentionally. The character was not written to be black, so the charged racial connotation of the ending only arose after casting Duane Jones in the lead role.
It speaks to the somewhat abstract nature of social commentary that a thought-provoking critique can be implicit within a film’s text without the creator necessarily crafting it that way.
Social Commentary Movies
Social commentary examples
There are countless examples of great social commentary in cinema across all genres. Even in settings that might not seem conducive to the examination of contemporary societal issues.
Period pieces can sometimes critique current social issues by relating them to the same or similar social issues found in the days of old. The best of this type of temporal juxtaposition often asks audiences to examine how far we’ve come or haven’t come. It also forces us to understand that issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice still plague contemporary society.
Little Women tackles sexism, The Favourite skewers classicism, and both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Handmaiden critique homophobia and the male gaze. Though the characters may have lived long before contemporary audiences were born, these films can still hold up a mirror to modern issues.
The best sci-fi films often use a futuristic setting to comment on contemporary social issues by offering a vision of what could happen if the current issues are left unchecked and continue to exacerbate. This type of social commentary can often serve as a cautionary tale, though the warnings seem to frequently be ignored as life imitates art and vice versa.
Snowpiercer critiques class set aboard a futuristic train. District 9 uses aliens to level a critique against apartheid. And They Live is here to critique consumerism and chew bubblegum, and it’s all out of bubblegum.
Let’s run through examples for some of the most common targets of social commentary. Classicism is common subject of critique and is skewered in Parasite, High-Rise, and The Platform amongst many other films including another entry in George A. romero’s Dead series, Land of the Dead.
Issues surrounding the legal system become the fodder of social commentary in films like Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem, Just Mercy, and Vera Drake amongst others. Many courtroom dramas might praise the judicial system or use it as a simple framing device for compelling drama. But these films take aim at fundamental flaws in the legal system of their country of origin and level a weighty critique through their characters and dramaturgy.
Just Mercy explores racial bias and injustice in the U.S. legal system by focusing in on a specific trial. Vera Drake critiques the anti-abortion laws of the UK by offering a thorough character study into the life of an abortionist. And Gett: the Trial of Vivian Amsalem takes a critical look at sexism and antiquated divorce laws by tracking the disheartening experiences of one woman as she is denied a divorce by Isreal’s rabbinical legal system.
To find films that critique racism through social commentary across different genres, we can look to Get Out, Fruitvale Station, Detroit, or The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And, brilliant films like Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You take aim at race alongside many other topics in their social commentary covering everything from police brutality and social identity to gentrification and the monopolization of Amazon.
Politics and government are frequently the subjects of social-commentary critique in cinema. The gamut of political social commentary can range from lighter, comedically minded films like Dave, Bulworth, and Election to grounded, true to life stories like Malcolm X, The Iron Lady, Frost/Nixon, and Show Me a Hero. All the way to satires that relentlessly skewer the very notion government and politics like Brazil, Dr. Strangelove, and even Idiocracy. Armando Iannucci has built an impressive catalog of film and television projects revolving around scathing political satire including The Death of Stalin, In the Loop, The Thick of It, and Veep.
Satire is often incorporated into social commentary to poke fun at and critique the most pressing of social issues because, as the old adage goes, we laugh so we don’t cry.
Learn about the three types of satire every storyteller should know
While some war films celebrate or glorify warfare, other films use their subject matter to take a decidedly anti-war stance. Films that take this avenue of social commentary include the likes of The Deer Hunter, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, and Son of Saul amongst several others.
Even more specific social commentary targets, such as the morality of news media, have been critiqued in a great number of films from Network to Nightcrawler with a dozen others in between. Social commentary might not be present in every film, but many great films contain some element of social commentary if you scratch beneath the surface.
Try injecting social commentary into your next story. And, when you do, use StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to do it. It’s free to get started.
What is Satire?
The next time you’re working on a script, try to inject an element of social commentary into the story. One popular way to infuse a film with social commentary is through the use of biting satire. But, what is satire? Learn about Horatian, Juvenalian, and Menippean satire, up next.