Human Rights at the Oscars

Friday, January 29, 2016
Buffy Sainte-Marie won this Oscar in 1983. It is now displayed in the Rights Today gallery as part of an exhibit about her life and work. Photo: Jessica Sigurdson/CMHR

Issues of racial inclusion and human rights took centre stage after the nominees for the 88th Annual Academy awards were announced. For the second year in a row, all 20 nominated actors are white, with many expressing anger at the lack of diversity among nominees. The hashtag #OscarSoWhite is trending on social media and some in the film industry are calling for a boycott of the awards. Others have come out against a boycott, arguing the event is a chance to raise awareness about issues of inclusion and diversity. Yet others have noted that alongside people of colour, women and people of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations also face challenges in Hollywood. An important discussion is taking place and multiple voices are being heard.

At its best, the medium of film can promote diversity, challenge negative stereotypes and shine a light on serious human rights issues. We even have an Oscar here in the Museum. It belongs to performing artist and Indigenous rights activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, who has graciously allowed the Museum to display it as part of an exhibit about her life and work. She won the Oscar in 1983 for co-writing the song “Up Where We Belong,” featured in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. It can now be seen in the Rights Today gallery.

In honour of the role film has often played in exposing human rights abuses and fostering conversations about human rights issues, we’re listing just a few of the numerous human rights-themed films that have made Oscar history. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive – 87 years of Oscar can’t be crammed into a single blog! Instead, we’ve divided the list by human rights themes, with a special focus on Canadian contributions to cinema.1

Racial Inclusion and Civil Rights

Two Oscar-winning films about racism have a strong Canadian connection. The movie Crash, about racial tensions in modern Los Angeles, was written by Canadian screenwriter Paul Haggis and won three Oscars in 2006, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. In 1967, Canadian Norman Jewison directed In the Heat of the Night, about a Black police detective who faces racism as he investigates a murder in the Southern United States. The film won five Oscars and Jewison was nominated for best Director.

Some other Oscar-winning films that deal with racial inclusion and civil rights include movies like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, The Help, Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning and To Kill a Mockingbird.

War and Peace

Canada’s National Film Board has won 12 Oscars over the years. Perhaps the most famous of the winners is the short 1952 film Neighbours, directed and animated by Norman McLaren. The surreal story of two people fighting over a flower is a parable for the folly of war. Other Oscar-winning films show directly how war leads to human rights abuses. Taxi to the Dark Side – a documentary about the torture of war prisoners in Afghanistan – and No Man’s Land, a tragicomedy about the conflict in former Yugoslavia, are two examples of this. Still other films use a more lighthearted approach to explore the theme of conflict, like the musical comedy West Bank Story, which features competing Israeli and Palestinian falafel stands in the West Bank.

Crimes against Humanity

Movies about the Holocaust have been winning Oscars since at least 1960, when The Diary of Anne Frank won three statues. Since then, many other Oscar-winning films have told the story of the Holocaust, including Judgement at Nuremburg, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank Remembered, Life is Beautiful, The Last Days and The Pianist.

Other crimes against humanity have also been documented on film. The film The Killing Fields tells the story of the Cambodian Genocide, while The Year of Living Dangerously is set during the mass killings committed in Indonesia in the 1960s. The epic movie Gandhi recounts the Indian struggle for independence in the face of abuses by the British colonial government. Last but not least, Dances with Wolves highlighted the struggles of Indigenous peoples against the encroachment of the US government in the 1800s and won 7 Oscars in 1991.

Women’s Rights and Gender and Sexuality Rights

In recent years a good number of films about the rights of people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities have won Oscar gold. These include movies such as The Imitation Game, Milk, Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, Trevor and the documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Women’s rights also appear in Oscar history, with films such as the documentary Defending Our Lives and the feature film The Accused putting the spotlight on sexual violence against women. Movies like Norma Ray, about a woman who leads a push to unionize her workplace, have dealt with both women’s rights and labour rights. It won two Oscars in 1980.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Way back in 1947, Nova Scotia-born Harold Russell won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. Russell had lost both his hands during the Second World War and was also honoured with a second Academy Award for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures.”2 

Other Oscar-winning films that deal with the rights of persons with disabilities include the movie Children of a Lesser God and two films about Helen Keller: the documentary The Unconquered and the feature film The Miracle Worker.

And so there you have an abridged list of Oscar-winning movies with human rights themes. Are there other human rights-themed films that you think should be on this list? Movies that aren’t Academy Award winners but that still inspire you? Share them with us on Twitter with the hashtag #OscarCMHR!



1 All information about the films described has been taken from imdb.com unless otherwise noted.

2 CBC News. “Oscar-winning Canadians, from Pickford to Arcand.”  Accessed January 7, 2016.  http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/canada-oscars/