Social Problem Films

Steven Doles

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online March 2015 | | DOI:
Social Problem Films

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Defined broadly, social problem films (sometimes called social-consciousness films, message movies, or other similar phrases) are films that dramatize some set of concerns, which they depict as broadly representative of the conditions of their historical moment. As a result of their intention to comment on the world outside the film, social problem films share something in common with other genres, such as science fiction, satirical comedy, revisionist westerns, historical pictures, and biopics; however, although social problem films can overlap with these genres (especially the historical and the biopic), social problem films are distinct from them in that they typically have settings roughly contemporaneous with their moment of release, and they usually employ a serious tone and realistic mode of representation in engaging with their subject matter. Social problem films have bolstered their credibility by drawing on other forms of media (the social novel, topical theater, documentary and the newsreel, Italian neorealism, among others) accorded prestige at the time of their production, a fact explored by a number of scholars of the genre. The designation “social problem” for the genre indicates the attitude that the films take toward their subject matter: According to Charles J. Maland (see Maland 1988, cited under Critical Overviews), to identify a state of affairs as a social problem indicates that it is contingent rather than natural, brought about by people’s attitudes, behaviors, and institutions, and can thus be ameliorated by deliberate effort. The Hollywood social problem film, the main concern of this article, typically presents such narratives of change through a liberal lens, inviting audiences to identify with the suffering of individual characters and to applaud the relief of that suffering at the resolution of the narrative. The social problem genre has had an important place throughout cinematic history, producing significant films from the early silent period to the studio era and on into the contemporary moment, and a number of films within the genre have received critical and popular acclaim. Within film studies, however, the genre has received comparatively little scholarly engagement. In part this is due to the status of the genre, which does not particularly feature an iconography or set of narrative patterns unique to the films. Many films that could be classified as social problem films have received attention in film studies not through their generic status but in studies of representations of race, class, disability, politics, or other subjects. Moreover, some of the earliest scholarship on the social problem genre offered a withering ideological critique of the genre’s focus on the individual. More recent scholarship on the genre tends to consider it through a diverse variety of approaches, often bringing in a greater concern with audience, rhetoric, and production contexts than is found in ideologically oriented scholarship, and some of this scholarship sets out deliberately to recuperate the genre for the discipline. Social problem films, because of their engagement with the extratextual world, tend to invite commentary on their meaning and significance in their initial moment of circulation. Essays on the genre by such figures as Siegfried Kracauer (see Kracauer 2012, cited under Primary Sources) and Ralph Ellison (see Ellison 1964, cited under Primary Sources) often prefigure positions taken up by later film scholars, and other such contemporary reception materials serve as important resources for investigating the complex ways audiences respond to films.

Article.  9908 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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