Politics in modern cinema
We are surrounded by politics. A subject onced deemed too taboo to mention in casual conversation — much like religion or whether or not Ross and Rachel were on a break — has slowly become an all-encompassing filter through which every single part of our culture and society is evaluated. Far from escaping this conundrum, movies have quickly become inextricably linked to politics, for better and for worse.
Of course, movies have always been political. “Birth of a Nation,” which is widely regarded as one of the most racist and simultaneously influential pieces of propaganda in American history, was also an extremely popular film in its own time. For much of modern film history though, popular blockbusters at least appeared to operate somewhat outside of the traditional American political landscape. Movies like “Back to the Future,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or even more recently “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” don’t appear to obviously fall on one side or another of the American political spectrum. Of course, many big blockbusters have buzzwords like “freedom” and “rebellion” thrown around, but only recently have these terms taken on the side effects of being seen as overtly partisan.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Disney-Lucasfilm released “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” A few weeks before the film was released, one of the writers tweeted “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist organization” and another chimed in that the Empire was “Opposed by a multicultural group led by brave women.” This prompted Disney CEO Bob Iger to come out and declare that Star Wars “was not political.” This is of course a little bit ridiculous given that the parallels between the Star Wars universe and our own have never been particularly vague. George Lucas himself has openly said that he modeled the prequel trilogy off of the Vietnam War, and has not subtly drawn lines between those early 2000s films and the actions taken by George W. Bush and the United States in Iraq.
But other franchises that seemingly have even less significant a relationship with politics have also been drawn into the fray. Both “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” were seen by many on the right as “liberal propaganda” films designed to push a particular viewpoint, while basically any movie involving the military these days is seen as appealing to a right leaning demographic.
What’s interesting about this is that to an extent both sides are okay with this situation. Advertising “Wonder Woman” as a feminist film was both a way to make a statement as well as a savvy marketing move. People want to see movies that they feel are important for some reason or another. The number of people who claim they will boycott the newest “Star Wars” for starring women and people of color are dwarfed by the number of people who will go to see the film over and over again because it stars women and people of color. Increasingly, studios are leaning into the perception that their big budget films are part of the culture wars and are reaping the rewards.
The release of the Damien Chazelle film “First Man,” which tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was roundly met with criticism by both the left and the right for trying to push an agenda, with liberals claiming the film obscures the class stratification implications of the moon landing and conservatives up in arms over the fact that the planting of the American flag on the rock is not depicted in the feature. A movie that might have been seen as a universal celebration of American exceptionalism in the ’80s or ’90s cannot survive in the current climate without being caught in the crossfire of partisan dog fighting.
It’s not just the films themselves that are learning how to grapple with this, but the creators as well. Roseanne Barr of “Roseanne” was fired last spring and had her show cancelled because she tweeted racist jokes. In July, James Gunn, director of the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, was fired from the third film by Disney after far right internet trolls uncovered off color jokes he had tweeted more than a decade ago. These two incidents are not one and the same. The left insists that there is a serious difference between edgy humor and racism, while the right accuses the left of hypocrisy, claiming they only want to hold people up to a standard when that person has views they disagree with. It’s impossible not to see that what Roseanne tweeted was far worse than anything Gunn has ever said, but regardless, the fact remains that in an increasingly hostile and divided cultural environment it is becoming harder and harder to find sources of entertainment that can be seen as independent of one side or another. As media continues to become more and more personalized, it’s a serious question if we will ever return to the days when individual films can capture the entirety of our cultural attention and bridge the ever growing divide in American society.