Family Movies That Celebrate Diversity
Family movie night is great fun, and we all have our favorite films we go back to again and again. But it’s possible to enjoy bonding in front of the small screen and teach your kids some important lessons about diversity.
If we want our kids to grow up to treat all people with respect and compassion, to challenge stereotypes and to find ways to resolve conflict without resorting to aggression or violence, we have to raise them to celebrate diversity. Here are some of the best family movies about diversity to help you do just that at your next movie night — and there’s something for every age.
Finding Nemo (2003)
A Disney/Pixar classic, “Finding Nemo” has a charming protagonist with a physical disability — a stunted fin that affects his mobility. However, this is largely overshadowed by the mental health issues of various other characters, such as Marlin’s PTSD/anxiety disorder, Dory’s memory loss, the shark’s addiction and the aquarium grandma’s OCD.
Therein lies the ultimate, crucial message of “Finding Nemo” — that being different is normal. Suitable for all ages.
Disney has long been accused of portraying only one type of female character (a very white princess), but it made some attempts to redress the balance with 2016’s "Moana," who’s about as far-removed from the “princess waiting for a man to rescue her” scenario as you can get.
Moana is a strong female protagonist from the Pacific Islands — with a far more diverse set of people than anyone in “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast.” And she’s not looking for a husband; she’s looking for herself. Suitable for all ages.
Monsters University (2013)
Another animated movie that goes much deeper than the college adventures of colorful monsters is Disney/Pixar’s “Monsters University.” Fun and frolics aside, this is a film about the inherent differences between people and how individuals, places and situations can help cultivate connections and understanding between those people.
Of particular note is the scene in which Mike and Sulley go to spy on Monsters Inc. and realize that “great scarers” come in all shapes, sizes, colors and attributes. Suitable for all ages.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Another culturally diverse Disney movie is “Big Hero 6,” whose cast includes strong, gender stereotype–defying women (one of whom is Latina) and several African Americans and Asian Americans, including the protagonist.
At the same time, none of them are defined by their race — or their gender — meaning every child can see themselves reflected in one (or more) of the characters. Two of the film’s strongest characters, Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), are bright, courageous women of color. Suitable for all ages.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
“My Neighbor Totoro” is a beautifully animated fantasy movie that appeals to kids and adults alike. In 1958 Japan, sisters Satsuki and Mei move into a house in the country with their professor father while their mother is in the hospital. They quickly discover the nest of a giant forest spirit, King Toronto, at the foot of a huge camphor tree.
Totoro looks after the sisters when they wait for their father and takes them to visit their mother when they worry about her. The bright, brave, compassionate and curious sisters break the mold of cartoon kids and are the perfect examples kids need to learn cultural awareness and diversity. Suitable for age 5+.
Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story (2015)
Beautifully animated and easy for younger kids to understand, the short movie, “Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story,” tells the true story of Janet Collins, the first African-American ballerina in the United States to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
It tackles racism (such as Collins being asked to paint her face white to fit in) and emphasizes how momentous her success was, given the deep-rooted prejudices of 1930s America. Suitable for age 5+.
Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
“Akeelah and the Bee” stars Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer, who plays protagonist Akeelah Anderson, an African American girl from Los Angeles who competes in the National Spelling Bee.
After decades of seeing smart white boys in movies, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a smart black girl take their place. Overall, this is a great movie with an important message: Never be afraid of your own ability, even if it makes you different. Suitable for age 8+.
An inspirational sports drama based on real-life events, “Pride” is set in 1960s and 1970s North Carolina and presents racism in context from its opening scene, showing Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard) as the only African American at a swim meet. Following a scuffle, Ellis hits a white police officer.
He faces more bigotry years later during his time as coach of an all-African American swim team when white competitors sabotage and ridicule his team during meets. As well as highlighting racial tension, “Pride” shows conflict between the rich and the poor. Suitable for age 8+.
A Ballerina's Tale (2015)
“A Ballerina's Tale,” the story of the life and career of Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theater, is perfect for anyone interested in dance, but also addresses the themes of race and body image in ballet.
As an African American dancer who is more muscular and curvy than the traditional balletic ideal, Copeland has paved the way for greater diversity in the elite dance world. Suitable for age 9+.
On the Way to School (Sur le chemin de l’école) (2013)
A French documentary might not be your child’s first choice for family movie night, but if you can persuade them to give it a go, it can make a lasting impression. “On the Way to School” features four children on their way to school, each of them overcoming their own personal obstacles to get there.
Samuel is pushed 2.5 miles in a homemade wheelchair by his younger brothers; Jackson has to avoid wild animals on the African savannah; Zahira navigates the Atlas Mountains weekly to get to boarding school; and Carlito has a 90-minute horseback ride across the pampas. The imagery is beautiful, subtitles are minimal and there’s no voice-over narration. It will really encourage your kids to think about the challenges faced by other kids across the world. Suitable for age 10+.
Remember the Titans (2000)
This poignant true story about a newly integrated high school football team in 1971 Alexandria, Va., provides a valuable insight into the discordance of the times. The Titans have to learn to overcome their own personal differences and play together as a team despite their town’s racial tensions, which are highlighted by racial slurs, riots and public segregation.
“Remember the Titans” teaches kids about the power of an individual’s courage and how shared passions can help to overcome fundamental differences. Suitable for age 10+.
If you’re looking for a movie to teach your kids about empathy, look no further than the movie adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s award-winning novel “Wonder,” starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay in the starring role as Auggie, a fifth-grader with a genetic facial difference.
However, it’s not just Auggie who struggles in this movie, teaching kids that it’s important to show compassion to everyone, not only those with visible vulnerabilities. Suitable for age 10+.
Hidden Figures (2017)
Whether your kids love space or not, the true story of three brilliant African American women who worked at NASA during the early 1960s will inspire them. At this time, both women and people of color were widely and openly discriminated against, particularly in segregationist Virginia.
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) were pioneering women who overcame huge obstacles to make their mark at NASA. As such, they’re fantastic role models for all kids. Suitable for age 10+.
I Am Eleven (2014)
This compelling, moving film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States). The youngsters share their beliefs, challenges, passions and triumphs, showing that issues like bullying and discrimination are experienced by everyone, regardless of where you come from and what you look like.
“I Am Eleven” will encourage kids to identify connections between their own experiences and those of the kids in the movie, as well as pinpoint their differences. Suitable for age 10+.
“Loving” is a powerful drama inspired by the true story of an interracial couple’s historic fight. Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively) got married in Virginia in 1958, even though it was illegal at the time, and as a result, they are arrested and kicked out of their home.
At the heart of this movie is a message of hope: It’s possible for love and compassion to defeat hatred and prejudice, and real love survives even the harshest of social and cultural constraints. Suitable for age 12+.
Life, Animated (2016)
This gripping documentary tells the story of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who uses his passion for Disney movies to help him understand the world and communicate more effectively with the people in his life. By tackling the issues of disability, adult children with special needs, learning differences and what it means to be independent, it’s ideal for middle school tweens and teens.
Despite its serious themes, it’s still sweet, funny and engaging (with an impressive array of Disney movies and characters). Suitable for age 12+.
Right Footed (2016)
“Right Footed” is an uplifting look at the life of Jessica Cox, a young woman who was born without arms and has become an influential role model, activist and motivational speaker. Cox is a great example of someone who has overcome what most people would consider a limitation and used it to thrive, and the film also features other kids and young adults living with a range of physical challenges.
It introduces tweens and teens to people with particular challenges they might not encounter in everyday life, and encourages them to rethink what they may consider “strange” or “normal.” Suitable for age 12+.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The award-winning 1962 film adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel, a powerful evocation of racism and bigotry in the 1930s Deep South, is still relevant today.
The story of widower Atticus Finch, who makes the difficult decision to defend an African American man accused of raping a white woman, and his children teaches older kids important lessons about prejudice, and the themes of empathy, compassion and justice are universal and timeless. Suitable for age 12+.