Top 10 Classic Films With a Social Message

A great film uplifts while sending a profound message. And a great film also superbly entertains, with an interesting story and appealing actors.

This is a list of the top ten classic films with a social message. These choices include classics released from 1940 to 2006.

You may have seen many of these classics, but when was the last time you savored them? And have you shared these classics with your children?

Enjoy, and fire up the popcorn!

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird
Universal Pictures / Handout / Getty Images

Rated #34 on the AFI's list of the 100 Greatest American Films, the riveting film version of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a small town Alabama who chooses to defend a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The story is told from the viewpoint of Finch's young daughter.

Atticus has been deemed the #1 Greatest Hero of American film, per the AFI, for his compassion and courage in the face of the town's rage. Winner of 3 Academy Awards including Best Actor (Gregory Peck), it also features the screen debut of actor Robert Duvall (as Boo Radley).

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Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia

Columbia TriStar / Getty Images

Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas, this haunting film tells the story of gay lawyer Andrew Beckett who is unjustly fired by his firm because he has AIDS, and of Beckett's legal fight against his termination.

Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his textured, touching portrayal of Beckett, and Bruce Springsteen's title song won the Academy Award for Best Song. Denzel Washington also turns in a stunning performance as the homophobic lawyer who grows to understand the ravages of and misconceptions about AIDS as he reluctantly (at first) defends Beckett.

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The Color Purple (1985)

Whoopi Goldberg reading a bible in The Color Purple

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

This Steven Spielberg film of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel features the screen debut of Whoopi Goldberg in the decades-long tale of Celie, an uneducated woman living in the rural American south.

The Color Purple is visually beautiful, in trademark Spielberg-style, and also features wonderful performances by Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Rae Dawn Chong. Oprah loves this story so much that she produced a stage version of it that's run on Broadway since December 1, 2005.

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The Cider House Rules (1999)

Erykah Badu and Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules

Getty Images 

This endearing film won two Academy Awards: Michael Caine for his supporting role as the doctor heading a Maine orphanage during World War II, and author Irving for Best Adapted Screenplay. Set in impossibly gorgeous Maine, The Cider House Rules also offers a glimpse of the rough life of migrant workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Actors in the Grapes of Wrath

John Springer Collection / Getty Images

Ranked # 21 on the AFI's list of the 100 greatest American films, this classic is based on the epic novel by Nobel Prize recipient, John Steinbeck. The story relates the heartwrenching struggles of poor Oklahoma farmers leaving the depression-era dustbowl for the promised land of California. One critic described

Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, it won two: John Ford for Best Director, and Jane Darwell for Best Actress. Also starring Henry Fonda.

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Akeelah & the Bee (2006)

Akeelah and the Bee movie poster

William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

This film is as important, yet as sweet, as any in recent years. To describe this first film produced by Starbucks as about a girl in a spelling bee is like describing the Titanic as a boat movie.

Akeelah & the Bee is about heartfelt determination by a young girl from South Central Los Angeles to rise above her circumstances, and is set against the backdrop of a failing educational system, no father, a loving but overworked mother, and the violence and crassness of culture today. It's also about fairness and compassion for others. A thoroughly unforgettable, uplifting film.

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The Deer Hunter (1979)

The wedding scene in The Deer Hunter movie

 Archive Photos / Getty Images

Starring Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken, this searing, intense film is the definitive look at the shattering impact of war (the Vietnam War) on the lives of inhabitants of a small town America (rural Pennsylvania). One critic wrote that

Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimimo), Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christopher Walken).

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Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts Starring In The Movie Erin Brockovich Photo Universal
Getty Images / Getty Images

In her Academy Award winning role, Julia Roberts plays the gum-snapping, sharp-tongued, flashily-dressed legal assistant and single mother who brings a polluting mega-corporation to its knees over her dogged pursuit to prove its profiteering from land spoiled by life-threatening toxic waste.

It's a highly relevant story for our times, and Julia Roberts is marvelous as the brassy, justice-seeking heroine. Directed by the superb Steven Soderbergh.

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Schindler's List (1993)

Steven Spielberg
Director Steven Spielberg won an Academy Award for directing Schindler's List. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

In this Spielberg masterpiece ranked #9 on the AFI's list of the 100 greatest American films, World War II profiteer Oskar Schindler, not ordinarily a heroic man, risks all to save more than 1,000 Jews from being sent to concentration camps.

Powerful and suspense-filled, we're reminded by Schindlers' List of the cruelty and even barbarism of prejudice based on religion and ethnicity. The film garnered 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Music.

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Gandhi (1982)

On set filming of Gandhi

Columbia TriStar / Getty Images 

One of the finest film biographies, this lush epic recounts the 20th century story of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who used the doctrine of nonviolent resistance to help India gain independence from Great Britain. Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply inspired by Gandhi, as was immigrant farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez.

This film is spectacular in scale, and historically fascinating. Ben Kingsley was magnificent as Gandhi. Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Sir Richard Attenborough), Best Actor (Kingsley) and Best Original Score (Ravi Shankar).

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White, Deborah. "Top 10 Classic Films With a Social Message." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, White, Deborah. (2021, September 1). Top 10 Classic Films With a Social Message. Retrieved from White, Deborah. "Top 10 Classic Films With a Social Message." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).