The legacy of the first ever blockbuster can’t be disentangled from its politics. DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) pioneered many filmmaking techniques and established the foundations of screen storytelling as we know it. But more than a century on, it’s considered the most racist film ever made.
With its mangling of history to favour the Confederate cause, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and horrifying racial stereotypes, Birth of a Nation marked an inauspicious beginning for cinema’s place in the political conversation.
Thankfully a lot has changed since then. Today Hollywood attracts more flak for being a liberal bubble than for being regressive. A-List stars march against Donald Trump, who tweets about the ‘Lowest-rated Oscars in HISTORY’ and the ‘over-rated’ Meryl Streep. His rhetoric implies that popular cinema is propaganda for the other side – but of course, it isn’t quite so simple.
‘The fate of human decency is in our hands.’ – Lincoln
‘Hollywood’s real bias is Conservative,’ claimed a 2013 article in the Hollywood Reporter, examining the political criticisms of then-recent releases Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. ‘Its business model - which is entirely dependent upon big money and even bigger audiences - determines the risks it will and won't take, the questions it will and won't ask, and the answers it will and won't provide.’
In other words: most films (Hollywood or otherwise) can only afford to be as politically radical as their audiences are willing to be. This explains why political biopics, even those about groundbreaking or controversial figures, tend to make for oddly unchallenging viewing. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s heavyweight film about the president who abolished slavery, was critiqued by some for its middle-of-the-road outlook. ‘It’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people,’ wrote critic Aaron Brady. Should a film which shares subject matter with A Birth of a Nation have gone further in showing a fresh perspective on history?
‘Over-rated’ Meryl Streep herself starred in The Iron Lady (2012), a biopic which was dismissed by Margaret Thatcher’s own children as ‘left-wing fantasy’. The critical consensus, however, declared the opposite: in its unwillingness to pick sides, the film failed to say anything meaningful about Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.
‘We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’ – The Last Jedi
While political biopics shy from controversy, other seemingly innocuous films appear to court it. ‘When did entertainment get so political?’ has become a rallying cry for certain factions in recent years, as the politics of diversity increasingly make their way into the mainstream.
Film industry moves perceived by some audiences as politically threatening have included the all-female remake of Ghostbusters (2016) and the diverse cast of Star Wars sequel The Last Jedi (2017). Both of these films became unwitting flashpoints in a wider culture war, resulting in major online hate campaigns conducted by the Alt-right. The sexist and racist backlash was so poisonous that it threatened to overshadow all other conversations around these films, and forced actresses Leslie Jones and Kellie Marie Tran to leave social media.
It might seem bizarre that fun adventures about specters and space battles could provoke so much anger. But the internet trolls were right about one thing: these films are political, in the way that all stories are. Film, like politics, offers a narrative about what and who really matters in the world - who gets to be the hero and who’s cast as the villain; who gets included and who gets shut out.
Perhaps we can only get comfortable with so-called ‘apolitical’ entertainment - or with classing ourselves as apolitical people - if the status quo already represents our interests all too well.
‘You’re bending and cracking the truth like a human body.’ – The Death of Stalin
In the bizarre and often frightening political landscape of the last few years, we’ve needed escapism – but we’ve also need films which offer more than that. Artists have the potential to hold a prophetic place in society, speaking truth to power in a way that few others can. Is it possible for filmmakers to navigate the obstacles and reach audiences with an undiluted, meaningful message?
Director Ken Loach has been known for political frankness over the course of his long career. I, Daniel Blake (2016) pulls no punches as we follow its titular character, a widower who falls foul of the UK welfare system and ends up losing everything. The film lays its ideological cards on the table, and some protested its polemical tone. To others, it became a rallying cry – a call for compassion and solidarity with society’s most vulnerable.
Social realism is one way to look hard truths in the eye: satire is another. In black comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), power-hungry idiots vie for power in a moral vacuum, with historical events offering a warped reflection of the political present. Not unlike many of today’s headlines, the film (which was banned in Russia) is at once farcical and chillingly serious. ‘I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this,’ complains one character, as the incompetence escalates along with the cruelty and objective truth vanishes in the rear-view mirror.
It all feels a little too close to home. But in a society suffering a drought of truth, even the difficult ones are worth hearing. Film can confront us with our collective reflection – our best intentions, our apathy, our corruption, our triumphs and failures - and challenge us to build a better world.
Film club: Questions to ask
1. Do you think it’s possible for an industry like Hollywood to be a political force for good? Why, or why not?
2. Do Christians have a responsibility to engage with the politics of the entertainment we consume? What might this mean for you?
Sophie Lister has worked on many projects helping community groups connect with popular culture. She writes about faith, film and more.