Movies are meant to entertain, but film is an art and, as such, has the capacity to show and teach audiences things they may not know about the world. Documentaries do this, of course, but creatives can use fiction to inform beyond true stories as well, utilizing metaphor and other symbolic language to reach people’s emotional core. In showing unique perspectives and sometimes unorthodox conflicts that audiences may not even be aware of, movies have a special way of helping people more thoroughly understand the world.
Issues of class and equity have been around since the formation of society, and filmmakers have explored these issues since the beginning of cinema. Sometimes, these films are rooted in realism to show the world as it is, and other, more abstract films symbolically represent the world to incorporate their message in different ways. These films may not lead to revolution, but class-conscious art can inspire audiences to make changes internally and externally.
Update January 19, 2024: This article has been updated with even more great films about class consciousness and where each title is currently streaming.
10 District 9 (2009)
Release Date August 5, 2009
In 1982, an invading alien spaceship arrives over Johannesburg, South Africa; inside are more than a million dying extraterrestrials. The government places these beings, derogatorily referred to as “prawns,” in a camp called District 9, a slum that only gets increasingly worse as time goes by. In 2010, weapons manufacturer Multinational United (MNU) is tasked with relocating the aliens once again, but things take a turn when the man tasked with leading this project, Wikus (Sharlto Copley in his feature debut), is infected by alien fuel and begins turning into one himself. Now hunted, Wikus learns the truth about his employers and the aliens he’s been taught to hate.
District 9 Uses Aliens to Discuss Real-World Racism and Classism
Alien films typically take this moment of first contact as a big grandious event (see the attack on the White House in Independence Day), so it’s immediately strange to see the extraterrestrials in District 9 landing in Johannesburg and also the world just moving on from it rather quickly. Fittingly, the film is a reflection on South African apartheid—the title itself alludes to Cape Town’s “whites only” District 6—as well as an allegorical take on the tens of thousands of impoverished South Africans living in substandard conditions to this day. In making the immigrant “alien” an actual extraterrestrial, writer/director Neill Blomkamp makes it abundantly clear whom he’s talking about. And in making the aliens heroes fighting back against the lying, tyrannical government, and MNU, it’s obvious that this intrinsic fear of the “Other” can only lead to cruelty, corruption, and horrific violence. Stream District 9 now on Hulu.
9 Dream Home (2010)
The 2010 Hong Kong slasher film Dream Home, by famed Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung, explores another side of the class struggle: unaffordable housing. Told through a series of flashbacks, Dream Home follows young homebuyer Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) on her quest for revenge after her buying experience turns sour. In a market so bloated that prices skyrocket for even the tiniest “coffin apartments,” Lai-sheung dreams of owning a home overlooking the bay and so works tirelessly to save up for one. But when the time comes and she’s finally able to purchase, the sellers opportunistically raise the praise yet again, and Lai-sheung snaps. What ensues is a bloodbath as the young homebuyer is fed up with the broken system and broken enough herself that she’ll do just about anything to get the home of her dreams.
Dream Home is a Splatterfest with a Message
For just about anyone who’s tried to purchase a home in recent years, it’s easy to see how much of a metaphorical bloodbath real estate can be. While the hero of Dream Home is a cold-blooded killer, her plight is utterly relatable to anyone who’s dealt with the difficult modern housing market; even if the film takes place in Hong Kong, the story of an out-of-control market and out-of-luck buyers is rather universal. As housing becomes even more unstable the world over, younger generations grappling with the dream of homeownership versus the reality of rising costs and heartless investors are likely to find Dream Home’s bloody solution a cathartic salve. That said, Dream Home is made for the gorehounds, a Category III film that revels in its blood and violence while still cutting to a relatable emotional core that’s an absolute must-see if you can stomach it. Rent Dream Home now on Apple TV+.
8 They Cloned Tyrone (2023)
Taking place in a downtrodden neighborhood known only as the Glen, the Netflix film They Cloned Tyrone is about a trio of residents who discover something isn’t quite right around them. The film stars John Boyega as Fontaine, a drug dealer without much direction, as well as sex worker Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) and her pimp, Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx). After Fontaine is shot and presumably killed, he surprisingly wakes up with no injuries or memories of the previous day, but Slick and Yo-Yo know what happened and convince him to investigate. Together, the three work to solve the mystery of Tyrone’s return and uncover the truth about the Glen and its inhabitants.
They Cloned Tyrone Uses Blaxploitation Tropes to Expose Truths About Race and Class
They Cloned Tyrone is a stylish movie, taking heavy inspiration from 1970s Blaxploitation and 80s and 90s hood films for its characters, soundtrack, and visuals despite taking place in the modern day. Writer/director Juel Taylor doesn’t just use this as aesthetic dressing, though, instead exploring the ways in which the stereotypes perpetuated by those films function as a tool of further oppression. Like Boots Riley before him, Taylor does this with a heavy dose of science fiction panache, addressing questions of prevailing narratives around race and class as well as the cycles they trap people in by literalizing them as a grand conspiracy that can have no other overseer than “The Man” himself. None of this would work, though, without the stellar performances at its center: while ostensibly playing caricatures (at least in the beginning), Boyega, Parris, and Foxx lend their characters depth and humanity that makes you root for the trio on their Scooby-Doo style quest. Stream They Cloned Tyrone now on Netflix.
7 Snowpiercer (2013)
Before Bong Joon-ho captured our class-conscious minds with Parasite, he explored the cavernous class divide in his 2013 post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. Based on the French comic of the same name, Snowpiercer posits a world where humanity has destroyed the climate and brought about a new ice age. The outside is untenable, and so the last remnants of the human race live on the titular, self-sustaining train; the people within are segregated according to class, with the lowest classes in the back and the elites all the way up front. We follow Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a passenger from the back of the train, as he leads his people on a revolt toward the train’s front to confront its creator and leader, the mysterious Wilford.
Snowpiercer Simply Illustrates the Class Divide with Style
Filmmakers have delved into the climate crisis for decades to create tension and anxiety, but rarely do they lay out the inextricable relationship between climate change and capitalism in the succinct, stylish, and biting way as Joon-ho does in his English-language debut. The train is a centuries-old symbol of capitalist progress; in trapping the Earth’s citizens within one, Snowpiercer makes it abundantly clear that this train specifically is capitalism incarnate, its inhabitants physically unable to leave as the cars barrel on forever. Everyone in Snowpiercer has a role to play—even the revolutionary back passengers—that is ultimately feeding into the train’s perpetual motion engine. Every bit of suffering and life lost is a sacrifice to the status quo, the engine constantly progressing with no end but to keep Wilford and the elites safe. Stream Snowpiercer now on Netflix and Hulu.
6 Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood
Release Date July 12, 1991
Featuring an all-star cast—including Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and Ice Cube—Boyz n the Hood shows one summer in the lives of three young men growing up in Los Angeles’s Crenshaw neighborhood. The three couldn’t be more different, with Ice Cube’s Doughboy resigning himself to life in a gang, Morris Chestnut’s Ricky eager to attend college and play football, and Gooding Jr.’s Tre wary of the culture of gang violence that envelopes his neighborhood thanks to his father’s warnings, and yet they remain friends.
Boyz n the Hood Reveals the Stark Reality of Gang Violence in 1990s LA.
Boyz n the Hood spawned numerous imitators, but none lives up to writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 classic. Taking inspiration from his own life, Singleton tells a story that, up until then, had been largely absent from mainstream media depictions of Blackness in America. These weren’t just boys engaging in violence for its own sake, but rather as a symptom of a system that seems designed to make Black men fail. The core trio of Boyz n the Hood all have hopes and dreams, but the harsh reality is that their circumstances in life make those hopes and dreams nearly impossible to attain. Featuring powerful themes of poverty, gang violence, white ignorance, and American neglect toward its impoverished communities, Boyz n the Hood is a certified classic that aims to change hearts and minds by showing an uncomfortable reality first-hand. Stream Boyz n the Hood now on Netflix.
5 Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men
Release Date September 19, 2006
Cast Juan Gabriel Yacuzzi , Mishal Husain , Rob Curling , Jon Chevalier , Rita Davies , Kim Fenton
Children of Men is set in a futuristic world in which women are no longer able to give birth. The cause of this sudden reproductive failure is unknown, and unrest ensues without the ability to continue humanity’s lineage. The UK, which has one of the few remaining functional governments, has devolved into a police state where immigrants are detained and often executed. Cynical about fighting the system in a world with no future, people like protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) live out their daily lives as bureaucratic worker drones just waiting for it to all end. But when Theo meets Kee, a young, pregnant refugee, he is tasked with getting her safely to the scientists that might have an answer to humanity’s infertility problem.
Children of Men Demonstrates the Power of Hope in the Face of Ultimate Disaster
Like the P.D. James novel on which it’s based, Children of Men explores the futile depths humanity might sink to in the face of absolute collapse. Though the novel gives clearer answers as to why this dystopian world is the way it is, director Alfonso Cuaron wanted the film adaptation to be more open, allowing Kee’s pregnancy to be seen more clearly as a metaphor for hope amid despair. The movie is shot exceptionally well, with Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki giving it a realistic documentary style that makes this horrible future feel all too real. Rent Children of Men now on Apple TV+.
4 Sorry to Bother You (2018)
The 2018 dark comedy Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a Black man who discovers he can find greater success in his telemarketing job by using his “White” voice. Cash, his girlfriend Detroit, and their coworkers Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun) plan to form a union, but Cash gets sidetracked as he rises in the ranks and discovers the secrets behind his employer. As Green gets closer to the truth, he’s forced to decide if he stands for profit or people.
Sorry to Bother You Tears Down Capitalism With Absurdity
The world of Sorry to Bother You is a surreal reflection of our own that gets more ridiculous and absurd the more Cash discovers about the conspiracy that employs him. Director Boots Riley intended the film to be a radical look at capitalism, and as such, he sometimes uses bizarre visuals and narrative devices to draw the audience’s attention to the inherent absurdity of our current system and the systems in place to fight it. The Amazon-like “Worry Free” implements modern-day company towns, and their plan to maximize production and profit culminates in literally dehumanizing their workforce. The revolutionaries in the film, too, aren’t without blame: consider, for example, the woman who gets famous (and rich) after she throws a can at Cash during a protest. Sorry to Bother You has a style that isn’t for everyone, but its surreal absurdity is certain to spur on viewers’ own delving into class consciousness. Rent Sorry to Bother You on Amazon Prime Video.
The follow-up to Jordan Peele’s breakout social horror hit Get Out, Us is about an uprising of spooky doppelgängers attempting to take out their “real” counterparts. The film follows the Thomas family—mother Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo), father Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex)—as they go on summer vacation to sunny Santa Cruz, California. Their luxurious trip is cut short, though, when an army of creepy doubles known as the Tethered—led by Adelaide’s double, Red—emerge and begin murdering those on the surface. Adelaide and her family must fight to survive and solve the mystery of the terrifying Tethered before they, too, are replaced.
Us Explores the Bilateral Nature of Privilege
In a behind-the-scenes commentary for the film’s home release, director Jordan Peele explains that “One of the central themes of Us is that we do a good job collectively of ignoring the ramifications of privilege.” Peele argues that privilege isn’t just about those who prosper but also those who suffer because of that prosperity. In Us, the writer/director shows this through the imprisoned Tethered, who are beholden to the wills and actions of their other selves up above.
The film also explores how people in the upper class (and, to a further extent, the US as a whole) will often pay lip service to concepts like equality through performative activism, as embodied in the film in the “Hands Across America” fundraising event from Adelaide’s childhood. While the official event failed to achieve its goal of a contiguous line of participants across the United States, the uncanny Tethered version succeeds, a mockery of what the wealthy could never do that illustrates the collective power of the lower class. Stream Us now on Prime Video.
2 The Florida Project (2017)
The Florida Project
Release Date October 6, 2017
Cast Brooklynn Prince , Christopher Rivera , Aiden Malik , Josie Olivo , Valeria Cotto , Edward Pagan
Sitting in the shadow of Florida’s “Happiest Place on Earth,” The Florida Project reveals the harsh reality of life for many of the state’s less fortunate residents. The film follows six-year-old Moonee, a child who lives with her young mother at a cheap motel in Kissimmee. Life is hard for the people living in motels like Futureland and Magic Castle, but the children there manage to find their own fun. The Florida Project doesn’t follow so much of a traditional narrative structure as it instead showcases vignettes from Moonee’s experiences, as well as those of the people around her, like building manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
The Florida Project Infuses Innocence Into an Awful Situation
The Florida Project is one of those movies that most people will probably only watch once because of its depressing subject, but that one time is worth it for the performances and direction. Director Sean Baker presents Moonee’s story in a pseudo-documentary style, utilizing handheld cameras and real-world locations to show the audience that, even if this is a movie, it is also something that’s happening in our reality, too.
The Florida Project also manages not to fall too far into its own despair by centering Moonee’s perspective. As a child, she can find her joy in the little things and isn’t forced to endure some of the more horrible parts of this existence. The kids in The Florida Project, especially lead Brooklyn Prince, don’t feel like they’re acting. The adults are equally compelling, especially Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the exasperated building manager who is just as involved with the lives of his tenants as he is with keeping the motel up and running. The Florida Project expertly contrasts the wealth and extravagance of Disney World with the often hard-to-watch brutality of poverty, showing audiences that the former cannot exist without the latter. Stream The Florida Project now on Netflix.
1 Parasite (2019)
Release Date May 30, 2019
The winner of the 2019 Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite tells the story of a poverty-stricken family and their relationship with the disgustingly wealthy family that employs them. This relationship begins when son Ki-woo begins privately tutoring the Park family’s young son. Once the tutoring begins, Ki-woo finds opportunities within the household for his sister and parents, though they all must pretend not to know one another to get hired. As the Kims struggle to maintain their secret, they eventually find out they aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the Parks’ extravagant wealth and ignorance.
Parasite Realistically Explores Class Dynamics Through Metaphor
In stark and often hilarious ways, Parasite directly contrasts a life of luxury with one mired in struggle. The difference in these two lives is astronomical, which writer/director Bong Joon-ho illustrates through their lifestyles and specifically their homes: the Parks live in a sleek, modern mansion, while the Kims live in a tiny, semi-basement apartment. Parasite also does something unique for class-conscious films; more like Mother than The Host or Snowpiercer, the 2019 Best Picture winner depicts the lower class not with solidarity but with a sadly realistic dog-eat-dog mentality that can be seen most clearly through the Kims’ interactions with the mysterious third family living in the labyrinthine mansion basement. Stream Parasite now on Max.