Since 1990 Dr. Francis Lu and Brother David Steindl-Rast have led annual 5- or 7-day film seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Films on a particular spiritual theme (such as Healing Through Gratefulness) are shown and discussed, focusing on the participants’ personal experiences. “From Oppression to Freedom: Social Inequality and Justice in Film” was one of two themes in 2015.

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”John F. Kennedy

We are currently experiencing a revival of concern over economic inequities as well as new concerns for the unjust damage done to the environment and animal kingdom. Yet inequality and the struggle for social justice have been depicted in films since the silent era. Fifteen films, both dramatizations and documentaries, focused on America will stimulate our imagination about the origins, emotions, and consequences of inequality related to class, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Some films depict real historical visionaries such as Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Erin Brockovich and Jane Goodall. They, along with fictional dramas, tell stories that bring forth emotions necessary for social justice as noted by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum: “…all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love.”

Films shown in this order:

A Corner in Wheat – (1909 U.S., 14’) The father of the American narrative film, D.W. Griffith pioneered film techniques that continue to influence filmmakers. This film shows greed and its consequences. Its theme was wheat: how it’s grown, distributed and consumed.

Grapes of Wrath – (1940 U.S., 129’) John Ford’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel with Henry Fonda about an Oklahoma family migrating to California in search of a better life during the Depression. Cinematography by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane). Oscars for Best Director (John Ford) and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell). 5 other Oscar nominations. Restored print on blu-ray. Was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 2007 and 2012.

Harvest of Shame – (1960 U.S., 55’) Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest Of Shame is among the most famous television documentaries of all time. Richly photographed and arrestingly poignant, this long-acclaimed 1960 exposé on the plight of migrant farm workers resonated deeply for a nation unfamiliar with such brutally honest depictions of living conditions that, as Murrow remarks, “wrong the dignity of man.” Smartly televised to millions of Americans the day after Thanksgiving to better tap into their emotions, Murrow’s classic ultimately fostered permanent changes in the laws protecting workers’ rights. In 1960, the Peabody Awards recognized CBS Reports, citing, in particular, Harvest Of Shame: “commends David Lowe as producer of this unflinching account of how the migrant worker lives in America, and Fred Friendly, executive producer of the CBS Reports series; and carries a special citation to William S. Paley, Chairman of the Board of the Columbia Broadcasting System, for his valor and vision in espousing the cause of public enlightenment by underwriting these documentary studies of the world of reality and airing them in the face of formidable opposition from the competing world of unreality.”

American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver  – (2008 U.S., 86’) first 11’ 30” clip about his idealism about eliminating poverty and his role during the 1960 Presidential election in helping to free Martin Luther King, Jr. from jail.

Salt of the Earth – (1954 U.S., 94’) Based on an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico, the film deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. The women in the community were critical to the strike. The director, writer, and producer among others were on the Hollywood blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The cast consisted largely of non-professional actors, and the film has been called the only example of American neorealism similar to Italian neorealism of the day. The film was blacklisted in the U.S., and only attained general distribution in the late 1960s in the U.S. It was seen internationally.

On the Waterfront  – (1954 U.S., 108’) Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Director (Elia Kazan), Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, and Screenplay. The Eva Marie Saint character engenders compassion in the Marlon Brando character, who finally defeats the corrupt union bosses. Musical score by Leonard Bernstein. With Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Martin Balsam, Rod Steiger. Criterion 4K restoration blu-ray. Elia Kazan did testify at the Congressional hearings.

Norma Rae – (1979 U.S., 113’) Sally Fields won an Oscar as Best Actress for her role based on a true story of a woman organizing for a union in a southern textile factory. Many “isms” depicted: classism/feminism/racism. Oscar for best song “It Goes Like It Goes.” 2 other Oscar nominations.

King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis – (1970 U.S., 181’)This movie consists almost entirely of documentary news footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade for racial equality from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott up to the time of his assassination in 1968 in Memphis. It features a wide diversity of gripping footage… interviews, sermons, marches, press conferences and speeches by Dr. King. There are short “bridge segments” by Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, James Earl Jones, Harry Belafonte, Charleston Heston, Clarence Williams III, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara Anthony Quinn, and Burt Lancaster. It was shown in 600 movie theaters for one night in 1970 as a fundraiser and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. It was just released on DVD in 2013.

Milk – (2008 U.S., 127’) The story of Harvey Milk and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official. Sean Penn won a Best Actor Oscar, and the film won a Best Screenplay Oscar. 6 other Oscar nominations. Gus Van Sant directed.

Cesar’s Last Fast – (2014 U.S., 96’) This is a new documentary film that starts with his last fast in 1989, covers his entire life work, and ends his death. Shown at Sundance. Trailer: Marc Grossman, who had known Cesar for 24 years and was his press secretary, speechwriter, and personal aide, was present as a discussant.

Inside Job – (2010 U.S., 105’) 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Details the origins and development of the 2008 financial crisis based on greed leading to increasing inequality in America as the general public suffered with no accountability for those responsible. Narrated by Matt Damon.

North Country – (2005 U.S., 126’) A fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States — Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, where a single woman with 2 kids who endured a range of abuse while working as a miner filed and won the landmark lawsuit. Oscar acting nominations for Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, who had won Best Actress Oscars for earlier films. With Spissy Spacek. Niki Caro (Whale Rider) directed.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry – (2014 U.S., 92’) Documentary on the women’s movement (1966-1971), which combines archival footage and interviews with 30 leaders. Trailer:

Made In Dagenham – (2010 UK, 113’) Based on a true story about a 1968 UK women’s strike for equal pay at a Ford Motors plant. The film illustrates from a UK perspective an issue contemporary to the U.S. seen in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Stars Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike.

Erin Brockovich – (2000 U.S., 131’) Julie Roberts won an Oscar for Best Actress and the film got 4 more Oscar nominations. Based on a true story of a mother of 3 working in a law firm (boss played by Albert Finney) taking on PG & E over environmental and health hazards. Directed by Steve Soderbergh.

Leonard Bernstein introduction to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – (1979, 6’)
Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9th Symphony –  Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9th Symphony (1990 GER, 80’) in which he substituted “Ode to Freedom” for the “Ode to Joy” in the 4th movement by changing the word “joy” to “freedom.” Filmed in Berlin at Christmas 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein conducted an orchestra and chorus formed from musicians from both East and West Germany (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden), as well as the United States (New York Philharmonic), Great Britain (London Symphony), France (Orchestre de Paris) and the Soviet Union (Orchestra of the Kirov Theater). The 4th movement was shown at the Esalen film seminar in 2001.

Pride – (2014 UK, 119’) Based on a true story of London lesbians/gays supporting striking miners in Wales in 1984, that eventually led to a law protecting lesbians and gays in the UK.

Jane’s Journey – (2010 U.S., 107’) Documentary that traces her life work from studying the chimpanzees to saving our planet. Quiet and contemplative. Shows work on injustices to the animal kingdom and the environment that were mentioned in the film seminar description.

Bonus Films

Far From Heaven – (2002 US, 108’) Todd Haynes directed a film set in Connecticut in the late 1950s about what seemed like the “perfect” couple and children in suburbia. The screenplay, acting, cinematography and musical score evoke the melodramatic films of Douglas Sirk, especially All That Heaven Allows about intolerance toward the lower class, here updated to expose discrimination based on race and sexual orientation. 4 Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Julianne Moore. Was shown at the 2008 Esalen film seminar.

Metropolis – (1927 GER, 146’) Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece about workers of the underground and the masters above ground. The owner’s son Fredrich is moved by Maria. The 2011 complete restored version on blu-ray with the original orchestra score re-recorded was shown over 2 afternoons. Was shown at the 2011 Esalen film seminar.

See this page about the original film seminar:

Healing through Gratefulness: A Film-viewing Adventure

More film themes you might want to explore:

Twenty Favorite Films from the Esalen Film Seminars 1990-2011

Twenty More Favorite Films

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.