- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

Periodically, filmmakers tutor us, the unwashed, with social dramas — or “message movies” — that are supposed to make our skin crawl with indignation or guilt and, it’s hoped, change our ways. “Hotel Rwanda” is the latest in an important, if sometimes preachy, tradition.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang — One of the earliest of the type, this 1932 consciousness-raiser from Warner Bros. spotlighted the brutal conditions of a chain gang in the World War I-era South. The great Paul Muni starred as the wrongfully convicted man in the striped pajamas.

The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck’s Joads as limned by director John Ford (1940). The era: the Great Depression. The messages: Share the land. Solidarity forever. California, here we come.

Gentleman’s AgreementThe year was 1947, and director (and House Un-American Activities Committee informer) Elia Kazan’s name wasn’t yet mud in Hollywood. So this controversial, Gregory Peck-starring examination of anti-Semitism in 1940s New York became the toast of the Oscars.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner— That was the million-dollar question in Stanley Kramer’s nervy 1967 film. Parents Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were shocked at the answer: Their daughter was engaged to marry — shudder — a black man (Sidney Poitier).

PhiladelphiaThe first installment of Tom Hanks’ back-to-back Oscar run took on AIDS and homophobia in 1993. If Jonathan Demme’s movie seems dated today, it’s probably because it did what it set out to do: demystify the disease and destigmatize homosexuality.

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