For stats wonks like so many of us here at TSP, even the tiniest trend can be exciting when it’s spotted somewhere in the HabiTrail of Google Analytics. And guess what we found? You social science-lovers—particularly those of you who are most likely to be gearing up to mold some young minds next week—are searching, every week, for good lists of movies to show in your classes. For the past four years, a consistent way you’re finding yourselves at The Society Pages is an old, short post pointing you to a concise but fantastically useful list CUNY sociologist Jessie Daniels put together for just such a syllabus-writing moment. So now, to really make your weekend-before-spring-semester, we’ve gotten a hold of Jessie to talk with her about how she uses films in her courses, the online repository she’s created so that others can suggest their favorite social science documentaries, and her top new picks for today. Enjoy!

Warner Grand Theater by Graham via flickr
Warner Grand Theater by Graham via flickr

The Society Pages: A 2008 post titled “Great Films for Sociology Classes” remains one our most-read. While we don’t have date-specific data, we imagine Google searches for “sociology documentary” tend to spike a bit around the ends and beginnings of semesters. Can you tell us a bit about how it is you find most professors are actually using films in their classes?

Jessie Daniels: I think there is a perception that showing a film in class is a “day off” from teaching, but that’s certainly not true in my classes, nor is it true for most of the other professors I know. Sometimes students, too, have that notion—it’s probably a hold-over from some bad teaching practices (like hitting play and leaving the room!), but in my classes, films are as important as written texts. I even refer to them as “visual texts” in my syllabi and encourage students to take them seriously from the start.

In terms of assignments, I put a lot of work into finding documentaries that relate to written texts, whether books or peer-reviewed articles. Then I create “video worksheets” to help students make connections between the assigned readings and the films. This is, I think, really useful for students today, who’ve grown up in a visual culture and expect to learn through images, but don’t have the critical media literacy they need to de-code these images.

The combination of films and more difficult readings is also a great tool for my classes here at CUNY, where students come into their classes with a very wide range of skills and hugely diverse cultural backgrounds. Screening films in class provides a shared experience, language, and context that can provide entry into the written texts.

TSP: Since the original post appeared here on our site, you’ve expanded your list of recommended documentaries into a wiki so that others can add their favorites to your curated list. Are there any newer documentaries that haven’t yet made the list, but should?

JD: Yes, there are a bunch that I need to add. A couple that deal with globalization and neoliberalism that I used this last semester, “The End of Poverty?” and “Garbage Dreams,” come to mind. I like these films for different reasons, and I like teaching them “against” each other because they offer contrasting representations of people living in poverty. In “The End of Poverty?” the “poor” are a collective without back stories, while in “Garbage Dreams,” we get to know individuals as three-dimensional human beings.

TSP: What about a couple of Top Five lists for specific courses?

49 Up Film Image
“49 Up”






JD: For an Intro to Soc class, some of my Top Five include:

  1. “49 Up” (2005) Directed by Michael Apted.
  2. “The Split Horn: Life of a Hmong Shaman in America” (2001) Directed by Taggart Siegel.
  3. “Quiet Rage” (about Zimbardo experiments).
  4. “The Devil’s Playground” (2002) Directed by Lucy Walker.
  5. We Live in Public” (2009) Directed by Ondi Timoner.

And for an undergrad Gender Course, I’d recommend:

  1. “HIP-HOP:Beyond Beats & Rhymes” (2006) Directed by Byron Hurt.
  2. “Southern Comfort” (2001) Directed by Kate Davis.
  3. “The Pill” (1999) Directed by Erna Buffie and Elise Swerhone.
  4. “Chisolm ‘72: Unbought & Unbossed” (2004) Directed by Shola Lynch.
  5. “Heart of the Game” (2005) Directed by Ward Serrill.

TSP: Fantastic! And do you want to name names on any documentaries that should have been great—the topic was great, the timing was good—but were ultimately disappointing? Could any be redeemed by pairing them with other materials that’d help them work in class after all?

JD: Well, I guess this is a good place to mention “Waiting for Superman.” It got a lot of media attention (including an entire Oprah episode!), in part because it had huge funding from backers like Bill Gates (who spent $2 million on the distribution of that film.) Anyway, It should have been a good film—the filmmaker David Guggenheim had won a Best Documentary Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth”—but it wasn’t. Basically, it ended up being a feature-length infomercial promoting charter schools and bashing teachers’ unions.

Instead, I recommend Madeleine Sackler’s 2010 film “The Lottery.” It’s also about inequality and the failures of our school system, but it didn’t get much press. It’s a terrific film, and I highly recommend people use this one instead.

Another education film that deserves attention is 2007’s “Resolved” (directed by Greg Whiteley). It looks at the intense world of high school debate and follows several debaters, including two young African American teens who take on this predominantly white world. I’ve always thought this would be an excellent documentary to use with either (or both!) Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought or Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame. You see all these ideas about race, whiteness, knowledge, and framing played out in the world of high school debate, and it’s a terrific, inspiring story.

TSP: Finally, we’d like to know a little bit about your forthcoming research on the subject of using film as a teaching tool. Can you give us some updates?

JD: I’ve always been interested in “visual sociology” and how people make meaning with and learn through imagery. Early on in my teaching career, I used a short clip from a news magazine show that used a hidden camera to catch people in the act of racial discrimination (“True Colors,” ABC PrimeTime Live). It was the most effective teaching tool I’d ever seen—much more so than assigning a peer-reviewed article that said the same thing or having people come present on a panel. With that one short film clip, I felt my students understood more deeply how racial discrimination operates on a daily basis, and we could jump right into a different discussion level in the classroom.

Over time, documentary films became more widely and readily available, so I began to incorporate them into my classes. I had the sense they’d be effective, too, but I wanted to test it a bit and followed up with students after they took an Intro Soc class. Most of them said things like, “It helped me grasp more of the material,” which was what I predicted. I’d like to do more with this—say, by comparing sections of the same class, one which uses films while the other doesn’t—to get a better idea, but that will have to wait, since I’m not teaching Intro now (someone else should do it, though!).

I’m also writing a piece describing the method I use to pair films with readings, video worksheets, and the development of critical media literacy. This article also relates the story of how one of my classes used what they’d learned to organize their own community event. They used a documentary film to raise awareness about police brutality in the wake of the killing of Sean Bell, a young African American man, here in New York City. Part of what made their event so cool was that they included a YouTube clip to start, then did interpretive readings of some of the comments that had been left on YouTube.

To learn more about Jessie Daniels and her teaching philosophy, research, and life of curiosity, please visit her personal website or follow her on Twitter @jessienyc. You can also check out her social science documentary wiki—and add your own favorite choices—here. And if that’s not enough, we’ve even got an Office Hours episode featuring Dr. Daniels at the ready!

Jessie Daniels is a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center-CUNY in New York City. She is the author of Cyber Racism and co-founder of Racism Review.