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February 20, 2013

Reel politics: How Hollywood exercises its freedom of speech – Lesson Plan

By Rachel Klein


Civics, Fine Arts, Visual Arts

Estimated Time

Approximately two 45-minute class sessions


Students will:

  1. List the five best films of the year, in their opinion; brainstorm a list of criteria for a “good” film.
  2. Compare their own lists with the nominees in this year’s Academy Awards; consider patterns in Academy Award winners of the past.
  3. Consider the reasons why “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” were not nominated for Best Picture.
  4. Consider the civic duty of filmmakers.
  5. Research critically acclaimed political films throughout history; create a two-page spread for a class book about political films.


The Academy Awards has long been known as an event where politically-minded actors, directors and others can voice their views, reaching millions of viewers with their message and sometimes even making Washington take notice. In this lesson students explore how film can be used as a political tool, informing the public and promoting political agendas.


(approx. 45 minutes)

  1. Have students write responses to the following prompt: “In your opinion, what were the five best films of 2004?” After students finish their lists, have them share their choices with the class, keeping a tally of each film on the board. Circle the five films that receive the most votes from students. Then have students look at the list on the board and consider the following question: What makes a film “good”? Have students brainstorm a five to ten item list of criteria for “good” films.
  2. Next, write the list of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Picture on the board. Compare it to the students’ list, noting any similarities or differences. Briefly discuss what might account for any differences between the classes’ list and the Academy’s. As background, have students read the Best Picture Genre Biases paragraph and chart.
  3. Read or distribute to students, the following quote from the LA Times: i>”The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 might have been the year’s most talked about movies, cultural watersheds that produced hefty lines at movie houses and a mother lode of pundits yapping about the inevitable divide between red America and blue America. Yet one group that seemed curiously uninterested in the religion, politics and controversy the two pictures embraced were the 5,808 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which opted to leave both off the short list for best picture.”
  4. Have students respond in their journals to the following question: Given what you now know about the Academy Awards, why do you think neither of these movies were nominated for Best Picture? Would you nominate them? Why or why not? Discuss answers as a class.
PART II: Film and Politics

(approx. 45 minutes)

  1. Have students respond to the following question in their journals: “Do you think that filmmakers have a responsibility to the public to create films that raise our consciousness about political and social issues? Why or why not?” After about five minutes, have students share their responses with the class.
  2. Divide class into groups of three, assigning each group (or letting them choose) a movie from Academy Awards history that has a clear political agenda (the list of winners of the Political Film Society awards, starting from 1987, is a good resource). Some other possible choices include: “The Longest Day”, “Gandhi”, or “The Shawshank Redemption”. Groups research the film looking for the answers to the following questions:
    • Did the director or writer of the film ever state his/her political agenda explicitly (in the film or to the public)? If so, what was this agenda? If not, why not?
    • What was the public reaction to the film? How did it do in the box office?
    • What critical recognition did the film receive? Include not only Oscars, but other awards, such as Sundance or Golden Globe, and reviews by respected critics.

Using this information, groups create a two page spread for a class book entitled “The Politics of the Oscars”. Spreads may include pictures from the film, excerpts from reviews, and other media, as well as the answers to the questions above. Finished pages should be bound together to create the book.

Extension Activities:

  1. Write a profile on a Hollywood star who is especially involved in politics. You might choose someone who uses his films to make his political statements (e.g. Tim Robbins or Spike Lee), or an actor who went into politics (Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger).
  2. Learn more about the issues raised in one of the films from the activity, e.g. the penal system (Shawshank Redemption), the politics of 9/11 and the war in Iraq (Fahrenheit 9/11), or the international drug trade (Traffic). Then watch the film and write a review of the political message of the film, explaining why you agree or disagree with it based on what you have learned. Note to teacher: you may need to get special permission from your school or your students parents in order to have students watch R-rated films.
  3. Learn about some of the most famous political speeches from Oscars history, such as Jane Fonda’s 1972 acceptance speech, Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar “rejection”, Vanessa Redgrave’s 1978 acceptance speech. More anecdotes on other political moments at the Oscars can be found here. Then write a journal about whether or not you think it is appropriate to promote a political agenda in a speech at the Academy Awards.
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  • The Materials You Need

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    • Access to Internet and library research materials.
    • Paper, glue, scissors, etc. for creating book spreads


    Tooltip of standarts

    Relevant National Standards:
    • Standard 1: Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government
    • Standard 9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy
    • Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society
    • Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
    • Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life
    • Standard 19: Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media
    • Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals
    • Standard 29: Understands the importance of political leadership, public service, and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy
    • Theatre
    • Standard 5: Understands how informal and formal theatre, film, television, and electronic media productions create and communicate meaning

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