Where's the Fiction Featuring Activists?

Seven reasons social movements rarely appear in novels and movies
FFA logo

 Juliana Barnet

When big events hit, people seek perspective in books and movies. Now, for instance, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter uprising, libraries, bookstores, publishers and online streaming services are featuring lists of works headlined “Guides to Antiracism” and “Black Lives Matter,” showcasing an array of memoirs and histories of racial injustice in the US. The recommended works, many wait-listed and back-ordered, include radical perspectives on slavery, contemporary Black authors’ personal experiences with racism, and searing social analyses from activist critics like Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, and others.

The lists also include novels and feature films—as well they should. Fiction is a key part of this teachable moment, with its superpower of pulling us inside the characters so we feel what they’re going through and perceive their world as they do, whether it’s a past historical era, a planet out in space, or a Black working class neighborhood across town.

I’m grateful for these lists, and like others I’m reading and viewing (or on wait-lists for) many of the recommendations.

But I find something is missing. Where is the fiction—movies, novels, TV programs—about social movements like Black Lives Matter?

I’m talking about stories that would draw us into the heads and hearts of activist characters, enabling us, vicariously, to experience marching, chanting, kneeling, and watching the police close in. We see those things fleetingly on the news, which may or may not bring us closer to the activists’ experience, but I want fiction that will enable me to get to know and understand the people we see confronting the cops or running from the tear gas, or standing on street corners with signs day after day in big cities and small towns.

What brought them there? What does it feel like to do that? What kinds of things prompts somebody to join in or organize such events, and what are their ordinary days like? That’s the special way fiction connects us to people, whether we are activists ourselves and hope to see ourselves fairly represented, or aren’t but want to see what activism is like.

Why aren’t the lists full of novels, movies and TV shows set within the Black Power, labor, American Indian, Chicano, Occupy and so many other social justice movements? Isn’t this time of movement upsurge the perfect time to bring such works forward?

I am an activist who loves fiction. I have long been struck by the potential for creating fascinating stories out of the complexities of activists’ lives, struggles for justice in activist campaigns, and surging social movements. However, I find surprisingly few of them.

Among the thousands of books, movies and shows featuring cops, where are the ones focused on people collectively taking on police violence? After all, this movement that has ebbed and flowed for years. Are there Westerns about Native activists combating land takeovers by the mining or fossil fuel industries? Soap operas set in neighborhoods where folks come together to fight a developer? Rom-coms starring young people who meet in a struggle for environmental justice, or dramas about peace activists trying to stop the Iraq wars or pouring their blood on Trident missiles?

If so, they’re not showing up on the lists.

Seven Possible Reasons

Since quite a few radical and revolutionary nonfiction authors appear on lists these days, the absence of fiction set in social movements does not appear to indicate active suppression of such works. Rather, it suggests that there simply aren’t very many of them, and what’s there is not given much notice.

Which begs the next question: why is that? It can’t be because social movements are insignificant or rare. Or because they only involve people we don’t know and who aren’t like us. Even if the latter were true (which it’s not), fiction in general is chock full of stories of people, places and events we’ll never experience directly. That’s what we love about it.

Here are seven reasons I’ve come up with so far to explain why fiction featuring activism, activists, and especially activist movements, is so thin on the ground:

  1. Within the constraints of the fictional world they are creating, storytellers have absolute power to make life hard for the characters. They can then resolve these problems (or not) without resorting to activism, which is considerably more trouble.
  2. Showing individual characters tackling universal dilemmas with authentic detail and emotional truth is all that is generally required for fiction to be considered good. There’s no requirement to include the sociopolitical contexts prompting most activism. Even a character who is depicted engaging in activism is often shown individualistically, as in, for example, doing their own letter-writing campaign or staging a lonely protest against some authority.
  3. Most fiction authors are not activists. Of course, most authors aren’t detectives, spies, or space travelers, either.
  4. Activists write huge amounts, but mostly nonfiction. Much fiction that activists do write focuses on social problems and how they affect their characters, rather than follow their characters into social movements confronting the problems.
  • Mainstream histories suggest that change comes about through the actions and decisions of great men”—generals, kings, the wealthy and powerful–rather than collective grassroots movements, even though these are what actually produce social transformation. Since this mindset had been inculcated for centuries, it’s no wonder mainstream fiction exhibits a similar pattern.
  • Corporate culture has little incentive to encourage readers and viewers to sympathize or identify with the kind of people who challenge its authority. For this same reason, when activists do make appearances in fiction, they are often stereotyped as angry, extremist, silly and other unattractive traits.
  • The ruling class is even less interested in making it easy for people to understand how social movements work in real life, how people organize, reach out, and all the rest of what’s involved in propelling social transformation. Why would they? It might give folks ideas about how doable and satisfying this is.

Conspiracy theories? Well, we do have a world where a few people control society’s wealth and power–which could be considered a major conspiracy. Could lack of opportunities to see stories of inspiring social movements and identify with the folks making them happen be helping keep this status quo in place?

I’m working on a project called Protect Our Activists, which aspires to create a better, safer climate for activists through better understanding of the activist experience, in reality and in fiction, that is depiction in literature.

We’re just launching our website, and the first thing we’re doing is compiling a list of Fiction Featuring Activists. When you need something to read or watch in these terrible times that’s entertaining while still remembering that people make change together, consult the list. If you don’t see your faves there, please submit them!

We are going to be going deeper into what constitutes full and fair representation of activists in fiction, but for starters we’re just trying to get the fiction together.

reminds you that

are issuing an invitation to help us create a new list: Fiction Featuring Activists and Social Justice Movements. When our website launches we will be delving into different aspects of activist representation in fiction; but for now, let’s start by compiling a list of works where activists do appear. Just as it is doing with racial justice, we need to allow this moment to raise our awareness of the importance of imaginative story-telling—movies, novels, TV shows, musicals, narrative games and more—that bring us closer to the experience of participating in social movements essential for making change, including the Black Lives Matter Movement we’re witnessing today.

Here’s how to access the list. ….

Here’s how to contribute to the list. ….

Libraries, booksellers and TV/movie sites often list novels, television shows and feature films that reference current events.  In 2020, understandably, many lists focus on epidemics and on racial justice.

But where is the fiction—movies, novels, TV programs and other forms—illuminating not only the social problems we’re facing but the social movements confronting them? 

Where is the fiction going beyond individual struggles with injustice to portray collective uprisings like the Black Lives Matter Movement? 

Detective Drunella

Good question. Where is it?

Detective Drunella

Even though activists are the first responders to injustice, and everyone likes stories of people fighting injustice?

sour puss protect our activists

Yeah, and even though movies, TV, and books are chock full of stories about other kinds of fights and fighters–wars and soldiers, crime and police, detectives, superheroes…

Juliana Barnet

That’s why we’re starting our own list of Fiction Featuring Activists and Activist Movements!

granny gus protect our activists

In these tough times we need the inspiration and knowledge we get from stories of everyday activists challenging the Beast. 

Beast

don’t read it or you’ll get on my list !!

You can’t stop us!!

activists
Juliana Barnet

Stay tuned for our upcoming  10 Best and 10 MINOI Fiction Featuring Activist Awards!

Detective Drunella

MINOI??

granny gus protect our activists

Most In Need Of Improvement!

sour puss protect our activists

And now…