Top 10 Movies About Real Life Heroes

This coming Thursday, May 15, is the big Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Internet event where thousands of bloggers worldwide will be blogging on human rights issues.

So, I thought I’d start the week off with my top 10 list (in no particular order) of movies with storylines centering on real life human rights heroes. All but one of the movies may be found on DVD and are worthy of watching again…and again!

1. Hotel Rwanda

Director Terry George’s 2004 film of how one man, Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager, dared what seemed to be impossible odds by protecting more than a thousand Tutsi refugees during one of the world’s worst acts of genocide. While the majority of the world turned their back on the Tutsi in Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina bravely opened up the hotel to as many Tutsi refugees as he could and at the risk of his own life and the life of his family, he stood strong against the Hutu militia and all other forces. Don Cheadle’s performance of real life hero, Paul Rusesabagina is one of the finest screen performances of all time. This is a movie not to be missed. In the midst of the most horrible of times, hope and courage prevail. To learn more about Paul Rusesabagina and his continuing work to help the women and children affected by the genocides in Rwanda and other African nations, visit the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation

2. Rabbit-Proof Fence

For more than 60 years, 1910 – 1970, children born of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander decent were forcibly taken from their parents by the Australian and State government agencies for the purposes of training them to become domestic workers and thus, integrating them into a white society. Director Philip Noyce’s 2002 film tells the true life story of three young mixed-race girls who were a part of this “Stolen Generation” in Australia. In 1931, Molly Craig, her younger sister and a young cousin were stolen from their mothers and taken to the Moore River Native Settlement 1500 miles from their home. Escaping not long after their arrival, Molly leads her sister and cousin on a nine week journey back home — all the while being tracked by both a white man of the law and a black tracker. Staying one step ahead, Molly leads the girls home by following the rabbit-proof fence that bisects the continent. This story is beautifully told in both dialogue and imagery. To learn more about Australia’s Stolen Generation, visit the European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights.

3. A Woman Called Moses

Cicely Tyson is an actress that can cause tears to well up in my eyes just at the mention of her name. To me, her ability to bring the power, vulnerability, and beauty of a character to the big screen is rarely matched. She is simply outstanding. In 1978, Cicely Tyson brought a performance to the small screen that I have never forgotten. Director Paul Wendkos’s television movie brought the real life story of humanitarian, abolitionist, and Union spy, Harriet Tubman to the public. Having escaped from slavery herself, Harriet Tubman made 13 dangerous missions to free 70 slaves through the “Underground Railroad” – safe houses set up by antislavery activists; aided John Brown in recruiting men for his raid on Harper’s Ferry; was the first woman to lead an armed exhibition in the war; guided the raid on the Combahee River liberating more than 700 slaves; and in the post-war era she fought for women’s suffrage. Harriet Tubman was a woman of great courage, faith, and determination to help change the world for the betterment of all man and woman kind and Cicely Tyson could not have been a better choice to play such a noble human being. To learn more about Harriet Tubman, visit

4. Anne Frank Remembered

Jon Blair’s 1995 Academy Award-winning Best Documentary on the life of Anne Frank and her family should be a must see on everyone’s list. With previously unseen archival footage, this film brings a picture of Anne Frank, who some call “the holocaust’s most famous victim” to life like never before. With narration by Glenn Close, Kenneth Branaugh and Joely Richardson, this story of the Frank family’s time in hiding during World War II in Amsterdam, Holland and Anne’s wise-beyond-her-years outlook on life is the first time an audience fully sees Anne for the person she was — a young girl who would change the world by teaching us that even in the darkest of hours, believing in the goodness of humanity is not only possible, but right. To learn more about Anne Frank, visit the online Anne Frank Museum.

5. The Killing Fields

Anyone who saw director Roland Joffe’s 1984 film when it was first released will probably remember leaving the theater in silence. The power of this movie earned it 7 Academy Award nominations in all of the major fields including Best Picture, and Oscar wins for Best Supporting Actor Haing S. Ngor, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography. Based upon the true story of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s coverage of the civil war in Cambodia in which 2 million “undesirables” were “ethnically cleansed” under the direction of tyrant Pol Pot. During one of the most horrific acts of genocide, Sydney Schanberg and local representative, Dith Pran record and report the most tragic of events shedding light on the truth and the madness — reporting which would lead Sydney to receive the Pulitzer Prize. When the American forces leave Cambodia, Dith manages to get his wife and children on the transports, but stays behind to continue helping his friend cover the horrific events. Being an American, Sydney is able to freely leave Cambodia, but the same is not for Dith. True life hero, Dith Pran was captured by the Khmer Rouge and spent nearly 4 years in labor camps throughout Cambodia suffering extreme hardships. This film shares the amazing story of strength in friendship and the strength in the human spirit during the reign of one of history’s most brutal dictators. To learn more about Dith Pran and Cambodia’s Killing Fields, visit The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project.

6. Gandhi

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, director Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film received an outstanding 9 Oscars in 1983: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ben Kingsley. Serving as a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Attenborough tells the tale of the lawyer turned leader who led the people of India — advocating non-violence and truth — in campaigns to organize poor farmers and laborers against discrimination and oppressive taxation; the liberation of women; the alleviation of rampant poverty; economic self-sufficiency for the nation; a commonality among the various religious and ethnic groups; an end to the “untouchability” and caste discrimination; and most of all, independence for India from foreign domination. Ben Kingsley’s moving performance of Gandhi is something to watch again if you have not seen this film since its release in 1982. To learn more about the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, visit

7. Schindler’s List

As history teaches when a brutal dictator arises, whether it be out of fear, greed, ignorance or whatever, many people, weak in character, succumb to the ways of such brutality. However, as history also teaches, greatness of character also arises within the few unwilling to give into fear, but rather bravely hold fast to their belief in humanity and the rights of their fellow mankind. Nominated for an incredible 12 Academy Awards and receiving 7 including Best Picture and Best Director, director Steven Spielberg’s 1992 film brings the heroism of real life Oscar Schindler to the big screen and to the world. Set during the autraucities of Hitler’s holocaust, Spielberg brilliantly recounts Schindler’s courageous work to save more than 1,200 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. An unlikely hero, Schindler discovers the truth within him — humanity is more valuable than money — and proceeds to defy all odds in saving as many Jews as he can. Once a war profiteer, Schindler eventually died penniless having spent all his money to save and protect his list of Jews. To learn more about Oscar Schindler and his wife, Emilie, who served along side him, visit The Oscar Schindler Story.

8. Iron Jawed Angels

Some may claim this to be more of a civil liberties film, but I see it as both a civil liberties film AND a human rights film. When an entire population of human beings is shut out of having a voice in how their government is to be run because of their gender, race, or religion, then I see it as a human rights issue. Knowing how government affects our daily lives, real life suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns fought with all of their might to win women the right to vote in the United States of America. Director Katja von Garnier’s incredible 2004 HBO film sets a new standard for period pieces. Incorporating contemporary music, camera and editing techniques, Katja tells the story of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, played by Hillary Swank and Francis O’Connor respectively, as they take on not only Washington D. C. politicians and President Woodrow Wilson, but the National American Woman Suffrage Association founded in 1890 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Successfully leading the campaign that brought the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 giving women the right to vote, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns discovered just how determined many men — and women — were to prevent this from happening. At times fighting with their very lives, these courageous women and their team soldiered on. Two women that should be in every American history school book, OH GOSH, surprisingly are not. If you have a daughter, BUY this dynamic DVD! Have it on hand. Teach your daughter(s) about the women who fought with their lives to make this world a better place for all women who would come after them — a place where your daughter(s) have an equal voice to your son(s). To learn more about Alice Paul and her legacy, visit the Alice Paul Institute. To learn more about Lucy Burns, visit the National Women’s History Museum.

9. The Great Raid

What’s a war movie doing in a top 10 human rights hero movie list? Exactly what it should be…telling the real life story of a small group of Army Rangers and Filipino soldiers who risked their lives to liberate more than 500 American Prisoners of War in the Philippines during World War II AND telling the story the real life woman, Margaret Utinsky, a Medal of Freedom recipient, who risked her own life to smuggle life saving medication, food, shoes, and money into the Japanese POW Camps during this same war. Director John Dahl’s 2005 film relives the Army Ranger raid on Cabanatuan, a real life Japanese POW Camp in the Philippines, with amazing historical accuracy. Understanding that this is a major motion picture and not a documentary and certain film license is needed, the director’s cut of this movie is truly a credit to John Dahl’s dedication to honoring the heroes of this war in the Pacific. The culture of the Japanese military at the time of World War II viewed prisoners of war as almost non-human. Their treatment of POW’s was barbaric to say the least. Under the command of real life heroes Captain Bob Prince and Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci, a small band of 120 Army Rangers and a group of Filipino soldiers travel 30 miles behind enemy lines and up against thousands of Japanese to successfully achieve the greatest military rescue in the history of war. The director’s cut of this film is the version to see and the additional material included in this set is powerful beyond description. To learn more about Margaret Utinsky, visit WW II Remembered. To learn more about the raid on Cabanatuan, visit Army Public Affairs.

10. Norma Rae

Based upon real life hero Crystal Lee Jordan, director Martin Ritt’s 1979 film, which won Sally Field her first Oscar, focuses the world’s attention on the rights of workers. Fighting for the rights of decent pay for decent wages and decent working conditions – the right to unionize, Norma Rae stands up to not only corporate pressure and threats, but to those in her own circle of relations who want her to just shut up. With dialogue like this, it’s a no wonder that this film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing:

Agreeing to organize a campaign, Norma asks her minister to use the church for a union meeting. “That’s black and whites sitting together,” Norma tells him. Horrified, the minister responds, “We’re going to miss your voice in the choir, Norma. To which she says, “You’re going to hear it raised up somewhere else.”

What Crystal Lee Jordan was able to accomplish for workers in America, through great threat, pressure and the loss of her job, was no small miracle. And Sally Field’s performance stand today as one of the great performances in the history of the cinema. To learn more about how labor unions fought to honor the American workforce, visit

When you think of movies that tell the story of real life human rights heroes, which ones come to your mind?


8 thoughts on “Top 10 Movies About Real Life Heroes

  1. I can’t believe I haven’t seen Gandhi, but I LOVED Hotel Rwanda. I actually included it on my Bloggers Unite post, too.

    This post would be great for the Movie Madness Carnival that I am hosting at my blog. Click the link for more details and leave me a comment to let me know if you will be participating:

  2. I tend not to leave many comments, however after looking at through a few of the comments on this page Top 10 Movies About Real Life Heroes
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