Where's the Fiction Featuring Activists?

Six reasons social movements rarely appear in novels and movies
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 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, and publishers 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. Many wait-listed and back-ordered, these works 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—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 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 me, 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, standing one 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 want to see ourselves represented—and of course, every activist’s story has both similarities and differences from others—or whether we aren’t but want the chance to see what that’s like.

Why aren’t the library and bookstore lists full of novels, movies and TV shows set within the Black Power, labor, American Indian Movement, Chicano, Occupy , and so many other social movements? As an activist who loves fiction and who has always been struck by the great story material in the tensions and complexities of activists’ lives, this is a question I’ve been asking for some time.

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 is a movement that has ebbed and flowed for years. For that matter, can we find 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?

Six Possible Reasons

Given the radical and revolutionary authors appearing on the nonfiction lists these days, the absence of fiction set in social movements does not appear to indicate active suppression of such works. It seems, rather, 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 six 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:

  • Within the constraints of the fictional world they are creating, the storyteller has absolute power to make life hard for the characters, and to fix their problems (or not). They can resolve the story satisfactorily without resorting to activism, which is considerably more difficult.

  • Fiction focuses on individuals. Showing individual characters grappling with large ideas and 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 socio-political contexts prompting most activism. This may also be why even when a character is depicted engaging in activism this is often shown individualistically, as in, for example, a character doing their own letter-writing campaign or staging a lonely protest against some authority.

  • Most fiction authors are not activists. Of course, most authors aren’t detectives, spies, or space travelers, either.

  • 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 little 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 regular people to understand how social movements work on the ground, 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 the world’s wealth and power, which could be considered a major conspiracy. Mightn’t one thing keeping it in place be the lack of opportunities to see stories of inspiring social movements and identify with the folks making them happen?

Be that as it may, we at Protect Our Activists 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. ….