Movies, like all stories, have engaged moral and cultural questions since they began. Even the notional very first movie — the Lumière Brothers' silent short Workers Leaving the Factory (in which, surprise surprise, workers leave a factory) — invites such questions. Who are these people? What is the factory? What are the conditions in which the workers find themselves? Who are we to be recording them?
Early movies were marketed as window box entertainments, like circus acts or rollercoasters, but the potential of the medium to explore and help make sense of real life soon revealed itself. The best-known early examples are probably Charlie Chaplin's silent comedies of the underclass, which unfolded tales of poverty, opening up the audience either to compassion for the oppressed, or self-recognition as a target of economic injustice. The movies have been sources of solace and provocation across genres:
The battlefield epics All Quiet on the West Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), Come and See (1985), and The Thin Red Line (1998) confront audiences with the futility of war.
Imaginative explorations of family and community life like Fanny and Alexander (1983), Paris, Texas (1984), and Smoke (1995) invite us to take love more seriously than we take ourselves.
Evocations of the inner life and outer expression like Andrei Rublev (1966), the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), and Yi-Yi (2000) wonder aloud about ambition, power, and the undeniability of spiritual transcendence.
We dance (because dancing is great and heals the world!) with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1954), we laugh and learn about managing our various personas with Bing-Bong in Inside Out (2015), and we see the journey toward spiritual maturity in Groundhog Day (1993).
And films like Munich (2005), The Village (2004), Of Gods and Men (2011), Lone Star (1996), Do the Right Thing (1989), and The Great Beauty (2013) investigate the relationship between individuals and history, and nudge us toward the hope that we might learn something from the past.
There are thousands more where those came from — a place where the mind of an artist organized other artists in community to enter into the highest standards of craft and the most humane vision of the world to produce a work of surpassing beauty. My friend the architect Colin Wishart says that a great building is one that helps us live better. It's the same for the movies. A great film helps us live better. This doesn't mean a film needs to be happy or "safe" to be great. That would deny greatness to Greek tragedy, King Lear, and Schindler's List alike.
To ask whether or not cinema can be dangerous is to state the obvious. Stories shape our lives, and the limits of what we believe to be possible or preferable in life. Given that, movies are among the most powerful story delivery mechanisms the world has ever seen, and with power comes not only the potential to heal, but the risk of danger. And while they may be overtaken by social media, video games, and news-infotainment, there's something unique about how we receive and process movie images and stories.
To take just one aspect that seems ubiquitous in movies, I think that the way movies deal with violence is enormously important. I think we are posed a simple question: do movies tell the truth about violence? Do we see the impact of a killing, not just in gore but the ripple effect of trauma and loss (not to mention a plausible portrayal of what leads people to kill in the first place)? Is movie violence portrayed proportionately? The world appears to be getting less violent, but are our movies tuned into the reality that one of the factors why violence reduces is when people are encouraged to empathize with "enemies," and to see lethal force as a last resort? Is the movie challenging, transcending, or simply reinforcing or even worshipping the belief that violence brings order out of chaos?
Can the art of movie-making be an act of social justice? Of course it can; the Polish film A Short Film About Killing (1988) was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty there; Thelma & Louise (1991) upended the portrayal of women as second-class citizens; Michael Moore's films have been a mirror to injustice (and his new one Where to Invade Next proposes solutions); the astonishing The Act of Killing (2012) both memorializes genocide victims and has some of those responsible take on the burden of their own violence.
But also of course, most movies are not very good; and many of the best movies are hard to find at theaters, because of the assumption that they won't make money. Yet today we also have the opportunity to see more movies at home than ever. Experiencing the best of cinema requires us to become conscious participants rather than passive consumers. We're in this welcome cultural moment where the underrepresentation of women and people of color in cinema is being challenged. Choosing to diversify what we watch (especially movies told from the perspective of someone other than white men) would be a step toward embracing the best of this extraordinary, exquisite medium of storytelling and image revelation.