On a TV show on the Los Angeles riots last week, Gov. Pete Wilson prefaced his remarks by saying, "I think everybody in America should see the movie 'Boyz N the Hood.'"
It's not every day that a governor goes on national television to recommend that people see a movie to understand what's going on in their own cities and neighborhoods.
But Mr. Wilson's dramatic statement illustrated something that has become increasingly apparent: In many cases, the movies are giving us more vital information about our society than we're getting from politicians or mainstream news media.
Movies have been facing racial issues head-on, and for several years. Those who expressed surprise or bewilderment over the rioting that began in south-central Los Angeles last week and then spread in the wake of the Rodney King verdict simply were not paying attention to the warning messages some recent popular movies have been trying to get across.
John Singleton's Oscar-nominated 1991 "Boyz N the Hood" dramatically illuminated the conditions in south-central Los Angeles that led to the rioting: the breakdown of the family, the lack of moral leadership for young people, the ever-present reminders of violence from passing cars and circling helicopters, the brutality of some police.
Spike Lee's 1989 "Do the Right Thing" explored a similar, racially based riot in microcosm. The movie is a virtual catalog of the racial, economic and political tensions behind last week's violence and a dire prediction that an uprising was inevitable if people did not "Wake up!" (the movie's opening cry).
Lawrence Kasdan's 1991 "Grand Canyon" expressed the anxiety of urban middle-class whites who have long viewed largely black south-central Los Angeles as a terrifying yet remote urban battle zone.
As Mr. Lee told the Orange County Register in 1989, filmmakers have a responsibility to address social issues, to urge the public to wake up to what's going on:
"My goal, my agenda as a filmmaker, is to present this problem. Because for too long, I feel, the race issue has been on the back burner. People have been walking around like this problem doesn't even exist and that racism is a thing of the past and that we live in an equal and just land -- which is not the case at all."
Actor-director and community activist Edward James Olmos, whose most recent film, "American Me," dealt with Hispanic gangs, said in a TV interview, "I was surprised that the mayor of Los Angeles and the police chief of Los Angeles were surprised" at the rioting.
Mr. Wilson described to his TV audience what he saw as the lessons of "Boyz N the Hood": "In that movie, a strong father makes the difference for his teen-age son -- a 19-year-old boy about to rush back out and try to avenge his best friend, who's just been gunned down in a mindless, senseless gang war."
The governor used the movie to make his point that, in the aftermath, "There has to be some assistance by government to families. But essentially there has to be a level of personal responsibility, particularly on the part of parents" to care for and teach moral values to their kids.
Young African-American writer-director Singleton probably doesn't find himself agreeing with California's Republican governor often, but it was this issue in particular -- that black men have to start taking more responsibility for their children -- that Mr. Singleton said he wanted to address with "Boyz N the Hood" at the time of its release.
In "Do the Right Thing," Mr. Lee illustrated the same problem by negative example, showing a black father, a pizza deliveryman named Mookie (played by Mr. Lee), who was so busy "gettin' paid" that he neglected his Hispanic girlfriend and infant son.