Stories about activists
November 3, 2016 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I want novels/TV/movies about activists, people who devote time to fight for a cause they believe in.

I want the stories to be entertaining, so no boring academic texts or politically motivated stuff thinly disguised as art. It would be best if the cause is something I can get behind (left-leaning) and relate to (1930s or later, North American or Western European, not religious). Fiction is probably ideal, but I want something psychologically realistic about the humans involved that includes the ugly bits of activism -- the infighting, egos, compromises, and so on.

I have seen this but I'm not that into graphic novels. Most of this is too academic.
posted by Frenchy67 to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
In The World According to Garp, Garp's mother is a feminist activist and a prominent character in the book.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:34 PM on November 3, 2016

Best answer: I haven't read this yet but it seems like what you're looking for.
posted by dysh at 5:36 PM on November 3, 2016

The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson and Moving Mars by Greg Bear.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:41 PM on November 3, 2016

Piers Paul Read's fiction is very different from one book to the next, but the characters are often devoted to some leftist cause. Try The Free Frenchman, The Professor's Daughter or A Married Man.
posted by BibiRose at 5:48 PM on November 3, 2016

Best answer: Sarah Schuman's AIDS and queer activism novels, especially People In Trouble.

Vida by Marge Piercy.

Zami, A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde.

Valerie Miner's short story collection Movement - hard to find but I felt that it really captured something.

If you can find it, Letters of Insurgents is supposed to be very good.

Doris Lessing's Children of Violence series, particularly the second volume onward, deals with the protagonist's involvement in anti-racist work and communist activism.

Would you consider memoir at all if it were entertainingly written? I can think of far, far more fascinating memoirs by radicals than I can novels that focus intensely on activism, especially really good novels.
posted by Frowner at 5:55 PM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge has a couple of activist characters. It's also so, so good.
posted by kandinski at 5:57 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Zodiac by Neal Stephenson is more action-adventure, but the adventures are those of an activist/chemist.

I would bet Terry Pratchett has something relevant, but can't think which one.
posted by sibilatorix at 6:12 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. The characters fight against intrusive government surveillance.
posted by irisclara at 6:12 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of the best movies about an activist is Wajda's Man of Marble - it's about a young woman film-maker who becomes fixated on finding out the truth about a vanished Stahknovite worker - much of the movie is different narratives by people who knew him, but the parts about her are also significant and interesting. The sequel is really blah, IMO - a friend told me that Wajda had to tone down the woman-centering and feminist themes from the first one because of the pressure to make the Solidarity movement look reassuring and not too feminist, etc. So don't bother with the sequel if you love the character from the first one - I couldn't even finish the second. It's a great movie, yes, but it's a horrible let-down if you really cared about the first one.
posted by Frowner at 6:19 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Norma Rae
The Monkey Wrench Gang
posted by Morpeth at 6:45 PM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

posted by praemunire at 6:48 PM on November 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, and Silkwood.
posted by praemunire at 6:49 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pride
posted by modesty.blaise at 6:51 PM on November 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Oh, and also The Organizer. It was made in the 1960s, but is set in the late 19th century, so it's a bit earlier than the time period you're interested in, but I think it does a good job with the "ugly" bits of activism.
posted by modesty.blaise at 6:53 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Meridian by Alice Walker
posted by BicycleFace at 7:07 PM on November 3, 2016

Malcolm X, both the book and the movie, fit your profile to a degree, though I suppose you could say it's "politically motivated stuff thinly disguised as art. "
posted by cnc at 7:30 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Waking the Dead, wherher the novel by Scott Spencer or the film with Jennifer Connelly and Billu Crudup.
posted by vunder at 7:46 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Since someone above mentioned Terry Pratchett, I will put forward the golem liberation movement in the Discworrd series. It starts in Feet of Clay and features heavily in Going Postal.

(There's also Reg Shoe, the Dead Rights activist, who shows up most prominently in Reaper Man and Night Watch, but is more of a parody activist and so may not be what you're looking
posted by darchildre at 7:49 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This hot off the press novel, Hot Season.
posted by perhapses at 8:03 PM on November 3, 2016

Best answer: The East. It's a movie about anarchist eco-terrorists.
posted by cushie at 8:11 PM on November 3, 2016

Best answer: Loose Change by Sara Davidson or The Drifters by James Michener. Both were weirdly formative novels of my adolescence. Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King.
posted by Aquifer at 8:23 PM on November 3, 2016

Best answer: Made In Dagenham
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:18 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maetwan is about a union organizer in the 30s working with miners. Early Chris Cooper.
Cradle Will Rock is about lefties in the 30s putting on a political musical with WPA money. Fantastic cast.
The Milagro Beanfield War
Panther directed by Mario Van Peebles about the Black Panthers.
Trumbo about Dalton Trumbo and the McCarthy era Hollywood Blacklist

I know you specified fiction, but I highly recommend a couple of documentaries...
Harlan County, US, which won the Oscar in 1976 follows a violent miners' strike
Street Fight is about Corey Bookers first, and failed, run for Mayor of Newark.
posted by brookeb at 9:34 PM on November 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'd check out Subversives. It's a look at then-governor Reagan and the FBI's war on the activists in the University of California system in the 60's. It doesn't follow any activist in particular, though it focuses on Clark Kerr, the future head of the UC system, and Mario Savio, the most prominent of the student-led Free Speech Movement. Mostly it was just amazing to hear about what Hoover turned the FBI into and the relentless smear campaign he orchestrated against Kerr.

I just realized you asked for fiction, but I already wrote all of the above out. These stories were really gripping for me, but that might just be from growing up in the shadow of the UC. I'm seconding the suggestion on Malcolm X too, his autobiography eloquently shows his turning from a life of crime to leading a movement.
posted by crossswords at 9:38 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not a novel but this will knock your socks off,
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:46 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Garbage Warrior, a documentary about the guy who developed earth ships -- he fought for years to establish off-grid homes as allowable by the housing boards and permit departments of many states, got his architectural license revoked, and is still fighting for land owners' rights to power and heat their own homes without being connected to municipal power and services.
posted by ananci at 10:13 PM on November 3, 2016

Hilda Bernstein, who herself played an important role in anti-apartheid struggles, wrote a fantastic novel called Death is Part of the Process, which explores the paths/options open to three activists - one black, one Indian and one white - under the apartheid regime in South Africa.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 11:23 PM on November 3, 2016

I thought the Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground (streaming online in multiple places, including Vimeo), about the U.S. leftist group that conducted a number of domestic bombings in the 1970s, was very entertaining and educational. Infighting and flaws among the members played a big role in their history, and in the movie.
posted by mistersix at 11:47 PM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ok so I look specifically for this in films so I have a few...

German and intense, the marvelous films of Margarette von trotta
- Rosa Luxembourg
- Marianne and Julianne

Have yet to see it but The Rochdale Pioneers is a drama about the founding of the first formal co-operative.

Also German- the Nasty Girl

UK TV series
White Heat (soap opera with 60s activist group as backdrop)

UK film
Suffragette (shows first instance of police surveillance of activists!)
Jimmy's Hall

Faye Weldon had a pretty funny book that was a spoof of a woman's press. Taking the piss, but not nastily.

Us films:

On a lighter note, there are lots of mysteries that feature activists in sub plots.
When I was working at a PIRG law and order has a NYPIRG episode. It was pretty hilarious that they imagined such a large fancy office

The Sarah Woolson novels by Shirley Tall man feature several social issues as a addressed by a lawyer and sometimes.her journalist brother. Historical settings featuring early women's shelter and SPCA actions.

I also highly recommend Howard Zinn's memoir, you can't stand still on a moving train
Which features many accounts of ordinary people organising and is flat out amazing.

Also Barbara Kingsolver's Bean Trees and her first book, which was fabulous non fiction and about women during a mining strike who held the line.

The Juliet stories by Carrie Snider

Finally, the trotsky a hilarious canadian film with Jay baruschel as a young student organizer who believes he is trotsky reincarnated.
posted by chapps at 12:08 AM on November 4, 2016

Also you may like the suggestions and commentary here

Finally Vicar of Dibley parish council meetings are the best spoof of organizational board meetings ever!
posted by chapps at 12:21 AM on November 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions.
Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist.

Stefan Australia, The Baader-Meinhof Compex.
posted by yesbut at 2:16 AM on November 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Long Walk To Freedom.

The South African 'They fought for freedom' series is good but out of print. Chris Hani - Oliver Tambo - Steve Biko - and more.
posted by plep at 3:54 AM on November 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Our Friends in the North. Particularly the character of Nicky.

Citizen Smith is pretty funny.
posted by plep at 3:56 AM on November 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Children of the Revolution is an excellent film. It's about Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu (of the Japanese Red Army) through their respective daughters (both journalists).
posted by plep at 4:19 AM on November 4, 2016

Best answer: I want something psychologically realistic about the humans involved that includes the ugly bits of activism -- the infighting, egos, compromises, and so on.

Non-fiction memoir, but Mark Steel's Reasons to be Cheerful is a very funny and sharp account of his dedicated activism in UK left-wing politics.

As someone who spent many years active in a similar organisation (I was a member of the Judean People's Front Socialist Party; Mark was People's Front of Judea Socialist Workers Party), I can confirm that the details ring hilariously (and occasionally wince-inducingly) true.

Just as absurd, for anyone who's attended a few demonstrations, is when the press reports that there was an 'organized' force from outside the area. Organized! How little they know. If only the true outside force, the police, had the same level of organization as most demonstrators. Then the inspector would arrive half-an-hour late at the assembly point and splutter, 'Oh no, the sergeant’s locked the truncheons in the boot of the panda.'
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 4:25 AM on November 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Harlan County USA is a documentary about a union strike that does an especially great job celebrating the miner's wives and the role they played in keeping a difficult strike going. And it certainly captures the ugly bits.
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:38 AM on November 4, 2016

Grassroots is pretty funny as is Citizen Ruth.

Also Drop City (about a hippie commune that moves to Alaska to live off the land) is worth checking out. Great fiction and one of my favorite books.
posted by brookeb at 11:04 AM on November 4, 2016

Some Australian films:

The Man Who Sued God, about a man who does just that after being denied insurance money on the basis the incident was an act of god

The Castle, about a family fighting against their home being compulsorily acquisitioned

Mabo, a biopic of Eddie Mabo, the indigenous Australian who successfully battled to overturn pre-colonial terra nullius in Australia
posted by goo at 4:12 PM on November 4, 2016

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee--about Sierra Club founder David Brower--is something of a classic in this area. It is nonfiction but reads a lot like fiction. It's certainly not dry or boring . . .

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey is something else you might look at. Again, it's nonfiction but extraordinarily compelling writing. In this case, the "activist" is Abbey himself, as well as many of his friends.
posted by flug at 10:35 PM on November 4, 2016

Response by poster: Wow, I'm so blown away. Thank you everyone. I've got a couple of years of reading and watching in here, and such diverse responses. (Those I didn't mark as favourite are mostly because I'm seen/read them already, but even then I've bookmarked many of them to read/watch again).

Memoirs and documentaries are just fine as long as they're story-driven.

@plep, Our Friends in the North is what inspired this question. I think it's the best thing Christopher Ecclestone has done. I watched it in the 90s and haven't stopped thinking about it since. Sadly, I'm in Canada and haven't been able to get access to a video that will play on VCRs here (it's a different format in the UK). I don't think it was ever released on DVD.
posted by Frenchy67 at 7:19 AM on November 5, 2016

Response by poster: Oops, I was wrong about Our Friends in the North. It was released on DVD but it's only available in the European/Region2 format. Thanks to the lovely MeFi folks who pm'd me to say there's an easy way to convert them. I've ordered the series from Amazon and can't wait to rewatch.
posted by Frenchy67 at 5:47 AM on November 7, 2016

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI is a book and the basis of a documentary, 1971.
On March 8, 1971 eight ordinary citizens broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Philadelphia, took hundreds of secret files, and shared them with the public. In doing so, they uncovered the FBI’s vast and illegal regime of spying and intimidation of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.
posted by bleary at 10:00 AM on November 8, 2016

Favela Rising.
posted by anshuman at 12:51 PM on November 9, 2016

Emma Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life.
posted by anshuman at 12:55 PM on November 9, 2016

The Legacy of Luna, by Julia Butterfly Hill
posted by anshuman at 12:56 PM on November 9, 2016

If you can get past the religious aspects:

The Hiding Place (the book, not the movie), about a family of devoted Christians who saved Jews in Holland during the war. I'd also learn more about Franz Jagerstatter (documentary The Refusal is here), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Warsaw Uprising. (Sorry, no links for those last two.)

I'd also read about the Catholic Worker movement (and the related Open Door Community, in Atlanta). I've never found Dorothy Day's writing very accessible, but Jeff Dietrich (who's helped run the LA house for about 40 years) may provide a way in. See, e.g., Broken and Shared.
posted by anshuman at 1:15 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Life and Times of Harvey Milk -- great documentary (Milk the movie is OK as well) but even better book. Really compelling page-turning read and captivating movies.

A Civil Action

Erin Brockovich

Comic book: Concrete meets EarthFirst
posted by jlittlew at 10:39 AM on November 18, 2016

I can't believe I forgot the amazing documentary from the Canadian National FIlm Board: Final Offer

The auto workers allowed an NFB documentary crew inside their offices during a very tense negotitation ... it turned out to be an historic moment in Canadian union history, where the canadian unions seperated from an international union. You see Bob White playing tough with both the owners and his own members as they stage wild cat strikes. It is utterly gripping. And hopefully streams free in the US -- it does in Canada on the NFB site.

The NFB has a wide selection of documentaries that feature activism, particularly from the heyday of the Studio D (women's film) section before it was closed there was a lot of features that highlighted feminist action.

Another personal favourite: Sisters in the Struggle

And a couple of films related to the Quebec independence movement:

Octobre, a tense film about the abduction and murder of an english official during the October Crisis

And similar moment, but a lighter side -- in Robert LePage's brilliant film No features a Quebec arts couple -- one an actress, another an author. While she is away preforming Japan's worlds fair (unhappily preforming in a French (from France) play to highlight Quebec culture rather than a Quebec play) her husband is hosting friends from the FLQ, their bomb, and is attempting to improve their terribly written manifesto.

Some other interesting ones at NFB...

Occupation, which is about a student strike in the movement to democratize Canadian universities (which as a result of this struggle includes students as voting members in university governance)

Encounter with Saul Alinsky

(Thoroughly enjoying this thread and all the recommendations, so thanks for asking this question!)
posted by chapps at 1:20 PM on November 19, 2016

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