Cinema and Media Studies Social Problem Films
Steven Doles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0161


Defined broadly, social problem films (sometimes called social-consciousness films, message movies, or other similar phrases) are films that dramatize some set of concerns, which they depict as broadly representative of the conditions of their historical moment. As a result of their intention to comment on the world outside the film, social problem films share something in common with other genres, such as science fiction, satirical comedy, revisionist westerns, historical pictures, and biopics; however, although social problem films can overlap with these genres (especially the historical and the biopic), social problem films are distinct from them in that they typically have settings roughly contemporaneous with their moment of release, and they usually employ a serious tone and realistic mode of representation in engaging with their subject matter. Social problem films have bolstered their credibility by drawing on other forms of media (the social novel, topical theater, documentary and the newsreel, Italian neorealism, among others) accorded prestige at the time of their production, a fact explored by a number of scholars of the genre. The designation “social problem” for the genre indicates the attitude that the films take toward their subject matter: According to Charles J. Maland (see Maland 1988, cited under Critical Overviews), to identify a state of affairs as a social problem indicates that it is contingent rather than natural, brought about by people’s attitudes, behaviors, and institutions, and can thus be ameliorated by deliberate effort. The Hollywood social problem film, the main concern of this article, typically presents such narratives of change through a liberal lens, inviting audiences to identify with the suffering of individual characters and to applaud the relief of that suffering at the resolution of the narrative. The social problem genre has had an important place throughout cinematic history, producing significant films from the early silent period to the studio era and on into the contemporary moment, and a number of films within the genre have received critical and popular acclaim. Within film studies, however, the genre has received comparatively little scholarly engagement. In part this is due to the status of the genre, which does not particularly feature an iconography or set of narrative patterns unique to the films. Many films that could be classified as social problem films have received attention in film studies not through their generic status but in studies of representations of race, class, disability, politics, or other subjects. Moreover, some of the earliest scholarship on the social problem genre offered a withering ideological critique of the genre’s focus on the individual. More recent scholarship on the genre tends to consider it through a diverse variety of approaches, often bringing in a greater concern with audience, rhetoric, and production contexts than is found in ideologically oriented scholarship, and some of this scholarship sets out deliberately to recuperate the genre for the discipline. Social problem films, because of their engagement with the extratextual world, tend to invite commentary on their meaning and significance in their initial moment of circulation. Essays on the genre by such figures as Siegfried Kracauer (see Kracauer 2012, cited under Primary Sources) and Ralph Ellison (see Ellison 1964, cited under Primary Sources) often prefigure positions taken up by later film scholars, and other such contemporary reception materials serve as important resources for investigating the complex ways audiences respond to films.

Critical Overviews

A number of essays provide different ways of conceptualizing the social problem film. The earliest here, MacCann 1964, does an especially good job of examining the relationship between the social problem genre and some related groupings of film, such as historical films and biopics, revisionist westerns, and Italian neorealist films. Casper 2007 and Casper 2011 together present a picture of the genre reaching a high point in the post–World War II years and suffering a decline thereafter, a not uncommon view that yet contrasts with Maland 1988 and Neale 2000 and their emphasis on the social problem film’s continued importance in the post-studio era. Maland 1988 is especially useful for its attention to the relationship of the name “social problem film” to the term and concept social problem as it exists within sociology; Maland 1988 rejects the notion that social problem films can be understood as constituting a genre but provides a highly coherent definition of the body of films anyways. Neale 2000 and its attention to some of the major works of scholarship on the social problem film is incisive, and the work should be read alongside Roffman and Purdy 1981 (cited under Classical Era).

  • Casper, Drew. “Social Problem Film and Courtroom Drama.” In Postwar Hollywood, 1946–1962. By Drew Casper, 287–293. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

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    NNNProvides a brief discussion of the social problem films of the post–World War II, giving the majority of its attention to returning soldier films and briefer attention to the other cycles of problem films that emerged in later years. Perhaps the most important claim here is that the courtroom drama should be seen as a relative of the social problem genre.

  • Casper, Drew. “Social Problem Film and Courtroom Drama.” In Hollywood Film, 1963–1976. By Drew Casper, 271–274. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444395242Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNCasts the New Hollywood era as a time of decline for the social problem genre, differentiating between the pessimistic satires for which the era is known and more earnest, social problem fare such as The Strawberry Statement.

  • MacCann, Richard Dyer. “The Problem Film in America.” In Film and Society. Edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, 51–59. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1964.

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    NNNDiscusses the difficulty of defining the social problem film and provides a brief history of the genre from the silent era to the time of writing. Adapted from articles by MacCann that were distributed through the United States Information Agency.

  • Maland, Charles J. “The Social Problem Film.” In Handbook of American Film Genres. Edited by Wes D. Gehring, 305–329. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

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    NNNProvides a useful “working definition” of the social problem film that begins with the function of the term social problem within sociology and moves on to discuss ten films across the genre’s history in their relation to classical Hollywood narrative conventions. Includes a useful survey of some of the major early scholarship on the social problem genre.

  • Neale, Steve. “Social Problem Films.” In Genre and Hollywood. By Steve Neale, 112–118. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    NNNAn extremely useful discussion of some of the main statements on the social problem film. Provides a lengthy critical engagement with Roffman and Purdy 1981 (cited under Classical Era) and Maltby 1983 (cited under Ideological Critique of the Social Problem Film), exploring some of the difficulties of definition and selection that confront scholarship on the social problem genre.

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