Radical Chic: Changemakers, Political Upstarts and Whistleblowers Who Belong on the Big Screen

Author Rachel Carson/Photo via <a href=Wikipedia" />
Author Rachel Carson/Photo via Wikipedia

Gandhi famously advised his followers to “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” But a more self-glorifying media-age corollary to that sage advice might sound something like this: Be the changemaker that you wish to see on the screen. It’s no secret that Hollywood has long been infatuated with history’s change agents. From non-violent revolutionaries (“Gandhi”) to corporate whistleblowers (“The Insider,” "Silkwood") to social justice martyrs (“Biko,” "Malcolm X"), these iconoclasts’ bold and decisive actions have proven to be just as effective on screen as they were in real life.

Rachel Carson, long heralded as “the mother of the age of ecology,” is the latest trailblazing muckraker to join this illustrious group of rebels with a cause to have her life's work translated into a feature film. Robert Chartoff, an icon in his own right, who produced  “Rocky” and “The Right Stuff,” has picked up the film rights to Silent Spring, Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 bestseller about the toxic effects of chemical pesticides, which catalyzed the modern environmental movement and led to widespread policy change, including banning DDT, one of the most common and toxic chemicals on the market at the time.

Though Chartoff has yet to reveal his creative approach to turning Carson’s journalistic study of how agribusiness has endangered the environment into a dramatic feature film narrative, we expect that the adaptation will likely pivot around Carson herself – a dogged and prescient reporter whose work helped put the environment on the political agenda and turn it into a cause célèbre.

Though there are certainly other history-making social reformers who have escaped filmmakers’ notice over the years, Hollywood seems to be in the midst of its radical renaissance. Over the past year, increasing numbers of filmmakers have set out to tackle politically charged narratives, including Diego Luna's  Caesar Chavez biopic and an eco-terrorism thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg.

With the Nobel Peace Prizes due to be distributed in a few weeks, we’ve compiled the following list of fierce and fearless figures leading lives on the front lines of social change that would make for fascinating feature filmmaking. By no means comprehensive, this group encompasses just a few of the pivotal forces for positive change we most admire. We hope you’ll feel compelled to take action and join the movement with a few of your own suggestions for camera-ready do-gooders and forward thinkers.

Vaclav Havel
The Czech playwright, political dissident, and human rights advocate came back to his native country after three decades in exile to become the first elected president of the Czech Republic and ushered his native country through the velvet revolution with grace and dignity.

Paul Farmer
A highly decorated professor of medical anthropology at Harvard, Farmer has led the charge for a more humane global public health policy. Farmer, who now lives in Rwanda, has spent much of his life traveling the third world chronicling the most pressing health crises and advocating for expanded access to first-world healthcare.

Thich Nhat Hanh
This Buddhist monk studied at Princeton before returning to his native Vietnam in the 1960s, where he formed a nonviolent peace movement aimed at uniting warring factions in the north and south. His thoughtful approach to peaceful protest inspired Dr. Martin Luther King to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 and compelled Oprah to become a devotee of his zen teachings.

Howard Zinn
The radical left’s unofficial historian, Zinn devoted his academic career to celebrating and chronicling American activism, most famously in his populist bestseller, A People's History of the United States.

Nicholas Kristof
On the surface, there is nothing particularly radical about this Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times op-ed columnist. But Kristof used his platform at the newspaper of record to expose some of the world’s most grievous human rights abuses, including the ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur. Since 2006, Kristof has held contests via the Times offering high school students the opportunity to accompany him into conflict zones and blog about the experience. Oh, and he also wrote a book with his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, contending that the solution to many of the developing world’s problems is to stop oppressing women.

Barbara Ehrenreich
The self-described “myth buster” has pioneered her own brand of muckraking participant-observational journalism that has yielded a series of riveting firsthand accounts of the systemic inequity built into American capitalism. She vividly rendered the struggles of the working poor in Nickel and Dimed by embedding herself among them for three months struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs. Ehrenreich’s courageous full-immersion approach to chronicling the plight of the ninety-nine percent acts as a built-in reality check, delivering the straight dope about what it’s like to make ends meet in today’s economy, counteracting the myth-making media and political machinery that would have us believe that the middle class is alive and well.