21 Times TV Shows and Films Ignited Social and Policy Change in the U.S.

As a writer and performer, my passion is really about creating nonfiction, highly personal stories and updates that really resonate with the people who read my stuff or see me on stage. As a business owner, I’m grateful to have a team of talented folks whose collective expertise helps run the company, including producing informative resources like the ones that appear here.

Shake your money maker! We love the arts, especially when it comes to art for change campaigns and arts-based advocacy. According to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, each year, the arts and culture industries contribute over $1 trillion to the U.S. GDP through cultural diplomacy and social impact through art. These contributions not only account for approximately 4 million jobs but also deliver more than $500 billion in wages, which is vital for helping individuals, families, and communities thrive.

In addition to significantly influencing the U.S. economy’s bottom line, recent movies and series like Painkiller and Dopesick have done a great job shining a light on the opioid crisis in the U.S. This crisis was, to be clear, almost exclusively a U.S. phenomenon — mainly due to lax regulation, laissez-faire prescription practices, and aggressive marketing techniques that are so rampant in the United States and need arts-based advocacy for change.

We are committed to leveraging artistic and cultural expressions to drive social change and impact in communities. For those of you who are curious about the intersection of arts and policy, here’s a list of 21 films and TV shows that have not only shaped attitudes and promoted social justice but have also sometimes changed U.S. policy on important issues.

  1. Before the Flood (2016): Featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, it focused on the climate emergency and contributed to ongoing conversations about environmental policy and the need for global cooperation on climate issues.
  2. The Big Short (2015): Chronicling events that led up to the 2008 financial crisis, this movie brought discussions about finance industry practices, regulation, and reform. Ditto for the Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
  3. Capitalism: A Love Story (2009): Michael Moore’s documentary more narrowly focused on corporations’ influence on politics and spurred more conversations about late-stage capitalism and how it drives economic inequality.
  4. No End in Sight (2007): Focusing on the Iraq War, it showed the consequences of military interventions and the need for accountability in U.S. foreign policy.
  5. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006): Directed by Spike Lee, it shows how the U.S. government’s failures contributed to disaster and delayed response and recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  6. An Inconvenient Truth (2006): This early documentary played a really pivotal role in bringing the climate emergency to the forefront of public conversations.
  7. Trapped (2016): Directed by Dawn Porter, this documentary showed how — even before Roe vs. Wade was overturned — women seeking reproductive healthcare experienced substantial barriers to access.
  8. How to Survive a Plague (2012): Directed by David France, the film basically spells out a playbook for powerful grassroots activism that delivered concrete policy change as well as increased healthcare access and medical research funding for HIV/AIDS and beyond.
  9. Selma (2014): Directed by Ava DuVernay, this historical drama shows the importance of activism in securing and promoting racial justice and voting rights.
  10. Middle of Nowhere (2012): Also directed by Ava DuVernay, this drama focused on the very real plights of incarcerated persons and their families — including the need for systemic change.
  11. Pariah (2011): Directed by Dee Rees, this drama was so important. Racial justice and 2SLGBTQ+ rights are completely linked, and this documentary drove increased awareness of problems related to erasing BIPOC communities from LGBTQIA+ rights movements.
  12. Bamboozled (2000): Directed by Spike Lee, released 15 years prior to #OscarsSoWhite, sparked increased global attention to the entertainment industry’s racism and stereotypes. Increased media representation and cultural commentary followed.
  13. Daughters of the Dust (1991): Directed by Julie Dash, the film contributed to the systemic cultural preservation of African-American heritage.
  14. The Jungle (1914): Labor rights and food security for the win! The film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel depicted the harsh conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The novel is noteworthy because it directly led to significant changes in food safety regulations and the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
  15. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (2015-2022): We love Trevor Noah — or “Trev” as we call him. This program continues the legacy of its predecessor (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and the predecessor’s spinoff (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). Together, the shows bring attention to political and social justice issues with humor and commentary that is directly responsible for influencing younger audience members’ engagement in current events.
  16. Sesame Street (1969-present): Sunny days. This children’s educational program has addressed racial justice, diversity and inclusion, and other important life lessons about respecting everyone. It has been credited with shaping attitudes and promoting positive social progress.
  17. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001): Thank you to Fred Rogers for supporting childhood development, empathy, and emotional well-being before it was cool. The show has had a profound impact on children’s education and emotional growth.
  18. All in the Family (1971-1979): It was the 70s. Nevertheless, the show tackled racism, misogyny, and homophobia — opening up conversations about prejudices and the importance of promoting interethnic understanding.
  19. M*A*S*H (1972-1983): This was really the first show that talked openly about PTSD and other traumas of war, as well as the challenges faced by medical personnel supporting the troops. It showed the human cost of conflict, and it highlighted the importance of veterans’ care.
  20. The Invisible War (2012) had a tangible impact on bringing sexual assault in the military to the forefront. It raised public awareness, brought forth a strong amount of media coverage (and related public pressure), triggered congressional hearings on the issue, and drove policy change. As a direct result of the film and long-lasting advocacy, such as The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act including provisions that changed how the military handles sexual assault cases. In late 2023, the Biden administration issued an executive order that changed how the military handles sexual assault. Notably, it “[moved] responsibility for the handling of such crimes away from military commanders to independent military prosecutors, who are outside the military chain of command.”
  21. Black-ish (2014-2022): Not since the Cosbys has a show addressed racism and social justice from the perspective of an upper-middle-class African American family — demonstrating that racism, not simply economic factors, drive discrimination. Plus, the show featured Black History 101 lessons that we love very much. Education always matters.

A Real World Example: Our Case Study

We love making a positive difference in society through arts and cultural initiatives. TV shows and films like Interstellar, The Martian, Hidden Figures, The Big Bang Theory, and others showcase how cool science can be. We know every kid deserves the opportunity to see themselves as a future scientist — especially if they have a particular skill, interest, and passion for it.

Atlanta Public Schools have approximately 50,000 students spread across 87 schools, and the majority of the students are black. These students deserve access to educational opportunities and personal experiences that bring them closer to their love of the sciences. That’s why, to promote STEM and STEAM careers, our founder partnered with Walt Disney Studios and local leadership in Atlanta Public Schools to deliver an inclusive impact campaign reaching Atlanta’s diverse school children.

The evidence-led campaign included private screenings, social media planning, and calls-to-action to support STEM and STEAM programming for BIPOC youth. Ask how we measured and evaluated the campaign’s impact in Atlanta and beyond!

Time to Get Involved!

We have direct experience working with our contacts in Hollywood to develop impact campaigns — then working with nonprofits and NGOs to find innovative ways to use those products to champion various important causes. We help nonprofits find ways to:

  • Amplify advocacy efforts,
  • find new audiences and donors, and
  • otherwise, mobilize support in new & engaging ways using pop culture.

We also help filmmakers engage diverse audiences, extend their films’ lifespans, change attitudes and beliefs, and raise awareness about the topics and themes addressed in their films. Our founder has also served as a subject matter expert for documentarians seeking commentary related to sexual and reproductive health in the United States.

If you could use a little help with tapping the power of the arts for social change, get in touch with us. We know how to increase engagement, effect policy changes, and provide valuable data that helps you demonstrate your effectiveness. And we’re always happy to help.