Gut-Wrenching Films That Are Inspired By Human Crisis

12 Years a Slave

The global coronavirus pandemic is gifting society a lot of spare time, more than some of us know what to do with.

While most of us are safe inside our homes, wondering how to use it, many filmmakers are drawing inspiration from the current situation.

In fact, some of the greatest movies are conceived from the ashes of tragedy.

Human beings aren’t strangers to a crisis. It’s an unfortunate, yet unavoidable part of life. What we do in response is what makes us truly remarkable.

12 Years a Slave

Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, this film tells the story of a man’s entrapment into slavery. His story is unique; however, it forms the foundations for millions of other African Americans, who were bought and sold at the discretion of white profiteers.

Solomon Northup was a black man born free in the state of New York. He became a farmer and professional violinist but in 1841 he was tricked, drugged and sold as a slave in the deep south. Northup would spend the following 12 years of his life there.

Throughout his bondage, Solomon belonged to several different owners but none crueller than cotton planter, Edwin Epps. Epps enslaved Solomon for 10 years, where he had several jobs, including punishing other slaves for misbehaviour.

Steve McQueen documents Solomon’s heartbreaking journey for modern audiences, demonstrating the extreme hardships that he, along with millions of other African Americans endured for centuries.

Slavery was finally abolished in 1865, freeing almost four million men and women. Sadly, this didn’t put an end to discrimination, as African Americans continued fighting for their civil rights throughout the 20th century.

12 Years a Slave is truly agonising to watch but it’s an important insight into the underbelly of American history.


WW1 begun in 1914 with bayonets and ended four years later with armoured tanks and chemical warfare. The advancements in technology made it one of the most destructive wars in history, costing 9 million people their lives.

There are countless films about this period but, Sam Mendes’s, 1917 is perhaps the most revealing.

Mendes says his vision was inspired by a tale his war veteran grandfather told him. “It’s the story of a messenger who has a message to carry. And that’s all I can say. It lodged with me as a child.”

Mendes transformed that memory into a movie about two, young British soldiers, ordered across enemy territory to warn allies of an incoming ambush. 1,600 lives are at stake, including one of the soldier’s brothers.

Seemingly filmed as one continuous take, 1917 captures the horrors of war in real-time, creating a more realistic and immersive experience than we’ve ever seen before.

Despite the unparalleled carnage caused by The Great War, we failed to learn from our mistakes and fighting erupted again, just 21 years later.

Modern Times

Following huge economic growth in the roaring ’20s, 1929 saw the stock market come crashing down. As consumer confidence vanished so did the jobs, causing unemployment and poverty to spike. This ushered in the greatest economic collapse in history, commonly known as the Great Depression.

Charlie Chaplin used this period as the setting for his silent film about one man’s struggle adjusting to a modern industrial society.

The movie’s protagonist, The Tramp suffers a nervous breakdown after being overworked by production line machinery, sending his life into a downward spiral. The clumsy yet loveable Tramp becomes unemployed, turning to crime to sustain himself.

Inspired by love, he tries making an honest living but can’t help falling back into a cycle of employment, unemployment and homelessness.

Modern Times is a satirical look at the practical consequences of the Great Depression, a time of widespread suffering that Chaplin believes was the result of the industrial revolution.

Schindler’s List

We’ve all seen the chilling images of captured Jewish men, women and children, malnourished and dying under orders of the Nazi Party. Director, Steven Spielberg gives these images life, adding another element of poignancy in Schindler’s List.

The film’s based on the 1982 book, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Keneally was convinced to write Oskar Schindler’s story after meeting a Holocaust survivor, claiming he owed his life to Schindler.

Keneally heard how the German industrialist hired over 1,200 Jewish people to work in his factory, excusing them from concentration camps and saving them from certain death. Schindler reportedly charmed and bribed his way out of surrendering employees, leaving him bankrupt when the war ended.

Liam Neeson plays Schindler in the movie adaption, bringing the story of one man’s kindness amidst unspeakable cruelty to the big screen.

The movie’s a graphic, yet a necessary reminder of what unchecked evil is capable of. A harrowing tale about the best and worst of humanity.

Dallas Buyer’s Club

At the beginning of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, funding, education and medical support was low. Subsequently, many underground pharmacies, offering illegal relief to those infected, sprung up over the US. Including the now famous, Dallas Buyers Club run by Ron Woodroof.

After hearing about a HIV positive cowboy, peddling unapproved medical supplies, screenwriter Craig Borten travelled to Dallas to interview the man himself. After 20 years in development hell, the interview became a movie starring Matthew McConaughey.

There’s a lot of varying claims about Woodroof but McConaughey portrays him as a disgruntled, homophobic, bull rider who finds solace in helping medicate those who need it.

The film grabbed mainstream attention, helping further destigmatise AIDS/HIV amongst misinformed audiences.

Over the past 20 year, the AIDS/ HIV crisis has made significant progress and the World Health Organisation is aiming to end the epidemic by 2030.

Hotel Rwanda

During 1994 in Rwanda a civil war between the Hutu ethnic majority and the Tutsi minority raged on. Many hoped a peace treaty would end the fighting but days before it was signed, the country’s president was murdered, sending tensions overboard.

Roughly 100 days of genocide followed, with the Hutus brutally murdering up to 800,000 Tutsi civilians.

With no association to the crisis, the rest of the world ignorantly watched on, providing no help to the suffering nation.

As this unfolded, hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina refused to stand by helplessly. He used his position to house 1,268 Tutsi refugees, protecting them from the massacre happening beyond the hotel walls.

These events inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George and starring Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina.

The film packs an emotional punch, highlighting the western world’s neglect and urging them to never let it happen again.


The Catholic Church is the oldest and largest functioning Christian church in the world. At this time, it has 1.3b followers, accounting for nearly 18% of the world’s population. The institution is deeply etched into the origins of western civilisation, giving it great influence over its culture.

In 2001 The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism unit, Spotlight discovered decades of child molestation cover ups within the Catholic Church. The report encouraged thousands of other victims to come forward, exposing the church and leading to a worldwide scandal.

Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy adapted the story for the big screen in 2015, enlightening new audiences of the systemic crisis.

Spotlight is an informative film, demonstrating the power of good journalism. Much like all the films on this list, it serves as a bookmark in one of history’s darkest chapters.

The Big Short

In 2007/8 US household prices dropped sharply, causing many overstretched homeowners to default on their loans. This caused banks with excessive risk, increased borrowing and poor policies to nearly collapse, triggering a domino effect that led to the Global Financial Crisis.

Similarly, to the Great Depression, unemployment skyrocketed and while most suffered, there were a few who benefited. Their stories were told in the critically acclaimed, The Big Short.

Ordinarily, finance is a dense and confusing topic, but writer/ director duo, Adam McKay and Charles Rudolph find a formula that simplifies it. The film features several cutaway scenes where celebrities, including Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, break the fourth wall to explain financial jargon in layman’s terms.

What’s left is a movie about finance that’s not only palatable but extremely entertaining for all audiences.

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