To kneel or not to kneel, that seems to be the question a lot of people are asking themselves lately. Taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem at NFL football games was started last year by Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, as a protest of police violence against African-Americans and other minorities. From all appearances, Kaepernick’s protest has backfired, as he is now out of a job and apparently unemployable, as the Tennessee Titans recently signed Brandon Weeden over Kaepernick as its back-up quarterback, even though the mobile Kaepernick seems much better suited to run the Titans’ offense than the relatively slow of foot, pocket-passing, Weeden. But perhaps the saddest thing of all for Kaepernick is the protest he started is now about respecting the American flag and the U.S. military. Kaepernick’s original goal of focusing the public on the issue of police violence against minorities is rarely even talked about any more. Instead, we have Twitter wars and the President and Vice President of the United States protesting the protests, and the NFL and its owners trying to tiptoe around both sides.
If each of us stops and thinks for a moment, we could come up with at least a handful of social injustices or other wrongs we would change if we thought we could. But we assume we can’t change anything, and so we do nothing. And as I learned from my own recent experience, even when we do try to influence an organization or people’s mindsets, our efforts are often squashed by those in authority.
This past month I have been mentally transported back to the turbulent 60s and 70s, and the social unrest that went with those decades of my youth. It started by me watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary, The Viet Nam War. It continued by me attending the anti-war, anti-establishment, free love musical, Hair, put on by the Dallas Theater Center. It continued further with me watching the recently released movie, The Battle of the Sexes.[i] There were plenty of protests in all three, although as history has shown, it took many years, and in some cases, lives lost, before change occurred, and some of those same battles are still being fought today.
Many movies have focused on righting wrongs and changing social injustices. While I could list dozens of these movies, in the interest of your time, here are just five favorites of mine, some new, some old, with scenes I especially enjoyed:
- Stand and Deliver[ii] – The true story of Jaime Escalante, who adopted unconventional teaching methods to help Hispanic gang members and no-hopers learn math:
- 42[iii] – The true story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the color barrier of major league baseball:
- Amazing Grace[iv] – The true story of William Wilberforce’s fight against England’s parliament and public indifference to end Britain’s transatlantic slave trade:
- Erin Brockovich[v] – The true story of an unemployed single mom who became a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brought down a California power company that had been polluting a city’s water supply:
- Battle of the Sexes – The true story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and the backstory of professional women tennis players’ fight for gender equality (you can stop watching after the first part, but the rest – the trailer for the movie – is quite entertaining):
Our hearts are warmed by the successful efforts of the heroes and heroines of these movies, but still we do little to change the world around us, whether it is in politics, religion, education, business or otherwise. Many of us have tried to change things by the ballot box, but as we have seen through the last several administrations, regardless of the political party, nothing of substance ever seems to get done, as politicians are too concerned with their images for their reelection campaigns to actually try to effectuate any meaningful change. The art of compromise has become a lost one, intelligent conversations of issues have become shouting matches, and those entering politics on any level with hopes of making a difference are soon frustrated and beaten-down, with little change to show for their efforts.
So how can we make a difference? With the help of these movie clips, I offer a few suggestions.
First, find a cause that you feel passionate about, in a realm small enough for you to influence. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver did not set out to change all stereotypes of Hispanics. He focused on math (his passion), and determined to change one classroom in one school. But like ripples from a rock thrown in a pond, his influence on his students, and his students’ successes and their influences upon others, would spread over a larger area over time.
Second, use your particular talents to instigate change. Jackie Robinson in 42 let his baseball skills do his talking for him. As fellow players and fans saw his unique skills, they started to realize that race did not define a person’s ability. Granted, few of us in any area have the superior skills that Robinson had, but all of us are good at something, whether it is writing letters, organizing meetings, talking to strangers, donating time, raising money, or when all else fails, simply saying something when we see an injustice. The other beautiful thing about Jackie Robinson in 42 is, as his coaches and teammates got to know him, they began to see him as a person and not a face from a different race, which leads me to my next suggestion.
Third, help people empathize with your cause by giving them experiences with those you’re trying to help. In Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce didn’t just talk to others about the plight of African slaves, he took others to a slave ship where they could see the conditions in which the slaves were transported and, perhaps even more impactful, smell the smells of death of so many slaves that didn’t survive the journey. In my own experience, my positive feelings toward LGBTs intensified when one of my best friends came out as gay, and several daughters of good friends announced they were lesbians. It confirmed to me that regardless of sexual orientation, people are people and should be treated with love and respect and allowed to enjoy the same right and privileges the rest of us do.
Fourth, whatever you are trying to change, make sure you know as much as anyone on that subject. Research and analyze every point of view. In Erin Brockovich, Ms. Brockovich was able to out-negotiate the high-priced attorneys on the other side because she knew the facts better than anyone, and relayed those facts through real live persons. And a bit of polluted water didn’t hurt.
Fifth, sometimes you need to take a chance and be the change you want to see. Billy Jean King and her fellow women professionals did more than just bemoan the disparity in tournament prize money between men and women. They were willing to risk their livelihoods by walking away from the established system and start their own association. Instead of just complaining about the current system, they became the solution.
Someone once said, if no one is complaining about your ideas, you are either brilliant or the boss. Most of us are neither brilliant (or at least few acknowledge our brilliance) nor the boss. We are not like those good shepherds whom the sheep naturally love and will follow anywhere. Instead, most of us are like cattle herders. If we get too far out in front of the herd, the cattle scatter in all directions behind us. So to get the cattle to go where we want them to go, we must work the edges of the herd and patiently steer them in the desired direction. It is tireless work, but the rewards can be great.
Let’s all find a cause we can believe in, even if it is as simple as making our homes and neighborhoods places of love, respect and safety. Rather than just take a knee in protest, let’s be part of the solution.
[i] Battle of the Sexes
- Production Company: Cloud Eight Films, Decibel Films, Fox Searchlight Films
- Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
- Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
- Starring: Emma Stone and Steve Carell
- Release date: September 29, 2017
[ii] Stand and Deliver
- Production Company: American Playhouse, Olmos Productions, Warner Bros.
- Director: Ramon Menendez
- Screenwriter: Ramon Memendez, Tom Musca
- Starring: Edward James Olmos, Estelle Harris, Mark Phelan
- Release date: March 13, 1988
- Production Company: Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment
- Director: Brian Helgeland
- Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
- Starring: Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Wright, Harrison Ford
- Release date: April 12, 2013
[iv] Amazing Grace
- Production Company: Bristol Bay Productions, Ingenious Film Partners, Sunflower Productions
- Director: Michael Apted
- Screenwriter: Steven Knight
- Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon
- Release date: February 23, 2007
[v] Erin Brockovich
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Jersey Films
- Director: Steven Soderbergh
- Screenwriter: Susannah Grant
- Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, David Brisbin
- Release date: March 17, 2000