“She gave him sex and he gave her class.” – Katharine Hepburn
Ironically, many of my favorite movies were produced during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s when moral restrictions were strongly regulated and enforced by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (“Hays Code”). Its guidelines addressed violence, nudity, profanity and sex. By the late 1950s, the Hays Code’s influence on the film industry was greatly reduced due to anti-trust rulings and competition from television and foreign films. The Hays Code was eventually replaced by the current MPAA film rating system in 1968.
Sometimes I miss the Hays Code and the inventiveness it inspired. Top Hat exemplifies the creative and subtle qualities that are often lacking in today’s more explicit films. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers effectively convey romance and passion in “Cheek to Cheek” – the film’s classic centerpiece – without removing any clothes or sharing a kiss. Watch Fred and Ginger elegantly dance through the stages of seduction from courtship to afterglow. Cigarette, anyone?
During these final days of the 2012 election campaign season, I am revisiting some of my favorite politically themed movies. They span over six decades and explore political issues that continue to resonate, such as moral character and special interests. These films offer both entertainment and food for thought regarding America’s governmental process.
1. All the King’s Men (1949)
The story of Willie Stark’s (Broderick Crawford) gubernatorial rise and fall raises the following questions: Can an honest, principled person succeed in politics? Or does the political system attract those who are corruptible?
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
During the Korean War, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and their captured platoon were brainwashed by Communists seeking to take over the United States. The tendencies to fear and demonize the other continue today. What distinguishes justified concerns from paranoia? The distinction becomes even blurrier when those making the most forceful accusations are the very ones to be wary of.
3. The Best Man (1964)
As William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) vie for their party’s presidential nomination, charges of infidelity, mental illness and homosexuality emerge. Though this film is outdated in its portrayal of how nominees are selected at conventions, the manipulation of public image and perception is still very relevant. Does the current electoral process make it more or less likely that the best man or woman is chosen?
4. Seven Days in May (1964)
Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) plots a coup d’état after U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Should there ever be an appropriate occasion to suspend constitutional rights for the good of the country, or does the desire to do so reveal a perverted sense of patriotism?
5. The Candidate (1972)
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) runs for what appears to be an unwinnable seat in the U.S. Senate. McKay’s ideals are manipulated as he adjusts his message to win more votes. How honest are candidates with the public and themselves when campaigning? How far should they be willing to go in order to win?
6. The Man (1972)
Through a series of unforeseen events, Douglass Dilman (James Earl Jones) becomes America’s first black president and encounters unprecedented resistance. Forty years later fantasy meets reality as President Obama faces similar challenges regarding his citizenship, qualifications and legitimacy.
7. Being There (1979)
Chance (Peter Sellers), a simple-minded gardener, rises to national prominence based on misperceptions. His good fortune is reminiscent of reality television “stars” who achieve undeserved celebrity status through the exploitation of their dysfunctional behavior.
8. The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone is the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and it may seem out of place on this list at first glance. Johnny (Christopher Walken) awakens from a coma with psychic powers. He meets Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a charismatic candidate for the U.S. Senate, and foresees an ominous future. How much do we really know regarding the true motives of political candidates?
9. JFK (1991)
Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) loses his political innocence while searching for the truth behind President Kennedy’s assassination. How many of us have similarly transitioned from blind trust to healthy skepticism regarding our government and other matters?
10. Primary Colors (1998)
Henry Burton’s (Adrian Lester) political idealism is thoroughly tested when he joins the presidential campaign of Jack Stanton (John Travolta). Should past and/or present indiscretions be held against political candidates? Can a morally flawed person be an effective office-bearer?
What are your favorite political films?
“Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” – Intertitle from The Birth of a Nation
During the recent Olympics, national pride was at an all-time high, especially when medals, preferably gold, were won by Team USA. Such patriotism was also evident at the conclusion of The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) when “order” was restored by the heroically portrayed Ku Klux Klan. What does BOAN share in common with Team USA? Both present the façade of an ideal America. Team USA earned bragging rights for winning the most medals, however, their accomplishments did not indicate America’s dominance in the world. If the Olympics were based on health care and education test scores, America would find itself ranked too low to get anywhere near the medal podium.
Being proud of one’s country is commendable, especially with objectivity. In BOAN, the aforementioned concept of “liberty and union” did not include the recently emancipated blacks who were characterized as irresponsible and dangerous. Their subjugation was deemed necessary for the nation’s well being. Unfortunately, that same mindset is reflected in current voter ID laws that are expected to disenfranchise many poor, minority and the elderly voters. The justification is voter fraud, however, the real reason is much more sinister. I believe these machinations, which include the birthers and the Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign finance, are in play to prevent the reelection of President Obama. Deeper still, the enmity towards the President stems from an unjustified sense of entitlement, fear of revenge, and suppressed feelings of guilt.
“I believe that the white man has done a great injustice to the black man in this country by having kidnapped our people and brought us here and down to the level we’re on today and today instead of approaching the factors that their original mistake has created, instead of approaching these factors objectively and realistically, their greatest sin that they’re doing now is trying to pretend that they never committed a crime, that they never did any wrong.” – Malcolm X
Racism continues to haunt America because this nation has yet to atone for the immoral and inhumane institution of slavery from which it greatly profited. There’s much to learn from other countries like Rwanda in this regard. In Kinyarwanda, a recent film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a truth and reconciliation commission was set up after the civil war. The commission provided a safe place for those who had been brutalized and lost loved ones to face their oppressors and detail how they had suffered. Their persecutors were then encouraged to empathize with their victims by facing the impact of their crimes. With forgiveness and unity as the main objective, Rwanda’s truth and reconciliation commission was designed to benefit both the tormented and tormentors.
I often wonder how America would have benefited from a truth and reconciliation commission immediately following the Civil War. Would this have resulted in greater compassion and more respect for the lives, properties and rights of others? Or would there still be need for euphemisms like manifest destiny, making the world safe for democracy and justifiable homicide? Would “liberty and union” include everyone equally? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. However, it is certain that America’s unwillingness to regard itself objectively prevents the nation from reaching its full potential.
“He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s words encourage and challenge us to seek the truth at all times. For without truth, there can be no reconciliation.
“The nation [the founders] envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites.” – Tim Wise
When The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) was released 97 years ago in 1915, it was heralded for its technical innovations and was the first film screened at the White House. However, many – including the NAACP – protested BOAN’s degrading black stereotypes, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and its racist propaganda dressed up as historical representation. Despite its controversies, BOAN is a valuable part of my film collection. It is a movie that I watch and refer to regularly. The hegemonic worldview expressed in BOAN is still very relevant, unfortunately, and offers great insights about the ongoing pervasiveness of American racism, even more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
BOAN dramatizes the Civil War and its consequences from the perspectives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. Life in the South before the war was depicted as idyllic. Whites reigned supreme while blacks were carefree and content in their subservient roles. After the war, however, the defeated Southerners fell under the rule of “carpetbaggers.” They also found themselves vulnerable to the newly freed slaves who outnumbered them, had voting rights, violent tendencies and the audacity to pursue white women. The Southerners responded to this threat to their existence by forming an underground vigilante group to restore “order” to the South, and hence the Ku Klux Klan was born.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
Jefferson’s quote reflects the inconsistencies on which this nation was founded – contradictions that have yet to be meaningfully recognized. On the one hand, this slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged the “injuries” inflicted on blacks due to racial discrimination. On the other hand, however, Jefferson rationalized that it was in America’s best interest to deny blacks equal rights and protections under the Constitution in order to avoid retaliation and anarchy.
“I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that [President Obama] had.” – Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
As if taking a cue from Jefferson, BOAN depicted the newly emancipated blacks as irresponsible, brutal and out of control. The abuse of their newly acquired political power left whites disenfranchised and helpless to do anything about it. Left to their own devices, blacks were well on their way to taking over the nation. That is until the Ku Klux Klan rode in and saved America. Using intimidation, coercion and violence to oppress blacks, the Klan’s methods were deemed necessary to preserve the nation. The end justified the means. Could this be why an unarmed man can be shot 41 times and his murderers set free? Perhaps this explains why a man who was outnumbered and beaten savagely on videotape was perceived as the aggressor. Is this why Trayvon Martin, armed only with a cell phone, Skittles and ice tea, was shot to death and his assailant, George Zimmerman, has so far avoided murder charges by claiming self-defense? Adding insult to injury, it has been reported Zimmerman “suffers” from PTSD – as if that’s any comparison to being DEAD.
“It’s time this generation learned the difference between a villain and a hero.” – J. Edgar Hoover
The irony of quoting Hoover on this topic aside, the concept of heroes and villains works well in fiction. In BOAN, the villainous blacks are returned to a submissive position by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s savior status is denoted by the superimposed images of Christ and a Klansman in the final minutes of the film. Therefore, it stands to reason, according to BOAN, that if the Klan is godly, then blacks are the direct opposite. However, in real life using the “good versus evil” rubric to assess others often leads to tragic consequences. Dehumanizing and demonizing one’s opponents and/or those with whom you are unfamiliar results in a delusional sense of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to consider different points of view. Peaceful resolutions are replaced by ongoing conflict and domination.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you.” – Chris Rock
America likes to see itself as the land of freedom, justice and opportunity – a harmonious, multi-cultural melting pot. That is not my reality though I yearn for that ideal. In my America, racial discrimination and stereotyping are constant companions. Racism does not always involve physical violence, although its emotional toll can be just as destructive over time. Its more subtle forms include low expectations, backhanded compliments and hasty assumptions.
History informs me that demanding Zimmerman’s arrest is not enough. Based on the way this case has been handled so far and the efforts to criminalize Martin, the state of Florida is incapable of conducting a fair trial. This case must be prosecuted on the federal level. There also needs to be a major shake-up in the Sanford Police Department. Resignations/terminations are not sufficient. The conduct of the police and state attorney’s office should be thoroughly investigated. Negligent law enforcement officers must be prosecuted and their pensions should be revoked. Maybe then they will value the rights of everyone they are supposed to “serve and protect.” Finally, looking to the future, now is the time to push for legislation about racial profiling with specific guidelines and consequences applicable to both law enforcement officials and civilians.
Frank Costello: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – The Departed
The Ku Klux Klan’s hoods versus Trayvon Martin’s hoodie – who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Whether it’s on the screen in BOAN or in real life, the designation of heroes and villains is not absolute. There are many shades of gray. The real dilemma is not in the “hero” and “villain” designations; it is in the desire to categorize them in the first place. After all, the concept of heroes and villains is relative. Much depends on which end of the proverbial loaded gun you find yourself on.
What will it take for this nation to be reborn?
TO BE CONCLUDED
“The Rebirth of a Nation – Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation”
Ten years ago, on the same evening that Sidney Poitier was presented with an award for lifetime achievement, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Academy Awards for their respective leading roles in Training Day and Monster’s Ball. Though I had mixed feelings about their stereotypical roles –Berry as a tragic, dependent sex object and Washington’s portrayal of a corrupt cop – I still enjoyed seeing them honored. In particular, despite the overly exuberant presence of Julia Roberts, Washington’s acceptance speech is what made the evening memorable for me. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Roberts. After all, given the same opportunity, I too would have draped myself all over Washington like a cheap suit.
“Two birds in one night, huh?” – Denzel Washington
Washington began his acceptance speech by referencing Berry who had just won. Unlike Berry who was tearfully grateful, Washington was cool, confident and in control. Washington’s manner indicated that he recognized his self worth and talent with or without the award. The only emotion Washington showed was his acknowledgement of Poitier who looked on proudly. Maybe Washington’s previous disappointments with Malcolm X and Hurricane tempered his enthusiasm and expectations. Perhaps he had come to realize that actors are not always recognized for their most outstanding roles. Or it’s possible that Washington chose to keep his real feelings private. Whatever the reason, Washington showed a healthy respect for the award without appearing to need its validation.
With the Academy Awards about to begin shortly, I find myself emotionally torn once again. I am rooting for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to be recognized for their fine work while hating The Help, a film that trivializes the pervasive evil of America’s racism. Will there be another memorable moment tonight? I’ll be watching and hoping…