The world is in turmoil, and reading the news often seems like going in a dark tunnel with no hint of light at the end of it. For creatives and for audiences alike, art and entertainment have been a reliable source of escapism. It is also a way to make sense of the world we live in, by giving a synthetical representation of it. Cinema, as the prime form of popular escapism, stands first in line on the battlefront. And the entertainment industry’s current changes are reflecting the undergoing currents of the tricky business of making political film.
The premature victory of liberal values
The grim state of affairs in world politics is inescapable. While certain people in power, or certain crucial issues, have become symbolic of the shift in the values and standards of public affairs -and those should not be treated lightly-, we should remember that they are, unfortunately, merely symptoms of deeper undercurrents.
In 1989, as the Soviet Union was starting to disband, the “end of history” was announced by political scientist Francis Fukuyama. This meant that competing ideologies were no longer what put world affairs in motion. Fascism had died when World War II ended, communism was faltering thus losing Russia its superpower status, and even China was opening up economically. Liberalism had won. Now almost thirty years on, that same researcher has announced that he was “postponing” the end of history.
Indeed, Mr. Fukuyama argues that the need for recognition that minorities are expressing today contradicts the convergence that he saw happening at the end of the twentieth century. Going beyond purely economic and political validation has now delayed the victory of liberal values in the West, according to him.
Indeed, even if we believe that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, as Martin Luther King expressed it, said arc is moving in quite a rambunctious fashion at the moment.
To film politics, and to make political film
When it comes to observing that movement, the entertainment industry is currently flourishing. In the United States, comedians and journalists alike, late-night hosts and political commentators are thriving. When it comes to talk shows, the politically-inclined Stephen Colbert has now surpassed -and by far- the established entertainer that is Jimmy Fallon. The business of political comedy, satirising and deriding politicians for laughs is flourishing.
When it comes to the film business, observing the situation and making sense of it means that there is going to be a flurry of documentaries about our times coming out. A student in the Raindance MA in Film is actually working on a feature-length documentary, When We Rise, about the Women’s Marches across the world and the movement that they have since spawned. From my work in the Raindance MA, as well as doing additional programming for the Raindance Film Festival, I’ve observed a very clear trend of more people wanting to get into documentary filmmaking. A recurring sentence comes up. “I want to make a film to change the world.”
Fiction is also seizing the opportunities that our times present. Steven Spielberg fast-tracked a feature film, The Post, while he was in post production for the long-gestating Ready Player One, just so that the release of his film would send a message about our current climate. There certainly is a number of similar films in the pipeline from indie and mainstream filmmakers at the moment.
Political film is bigger than our current conjuncture
There has also been an interesting trend of movies that focus on “radical kindness”, as IndieWire puts it. Paddington is a prime example of this: as an antidote to our times and a form of escapism that doesn’t need to address the current situation directly, those films get political in a broader meaning.
This leads to wondering how artists can successfully be political. Addressing the current state of affairs is crucial, as is speaking about the cause of our current symptoms. Improved representation, tonal shifts in movies are paramount. But would that put careers in jeopardy? After all, very few backers are going to give a filmmaker money if they know that the movie they are financing is going to ruffle too many feathers.
Exceptionally, Black Panther was successful at stepping up the representation of a community. The current success of Crazy Rich Asians is an outstanding move forward as well for the industry. But just the fact that you can count those successes on the fingers of one hand is a sign that there we are still in the early stages of improving the situation. After all, politics move slowly.
Is the new, controversial Oscar category for “best popular film” a way of recognising the success of those films while letting the proverbial old guard carry on as they are? Only time will tell, but if this is the case, this could look worryingly like giving license to filmmakers who are reluctant to follow the changes to carry on unreformed.
The film business is political
Entertainers are political by definition. As they enjoy a privileged position, their voice carries more weight. After all, it was analysed that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008 (the first political endorsement of her career), helped swing up to one million votes his way.
So when the showrunner of Modern Family -a show that prides itself on illustrating progressive values- Steven Levitan issues a statement that he is ashamed to work for the same conglomerate that spawns lies to support the current US administration, the Murdoch-owned Fox, it carries weight.
When screen legend Robert De Niro drops an expletive addressed to the current president on national television during the Tony Awards, it carries weight. How is this going to affect box office results? In another time, this might have been a major worry, but not so much anymore.
The film business is only profitable if you operate on a blockbuster level, or if you operate at a low cost and find your underserved niche market. Putting aside the fact that Mr. De Niro’s last few films have royally bombed, his next film, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will be released on Netflix, a platform whose entire modus operandi is, at least publically, focused away from opening weekend results and box office returns.
Streaming platforms are an opportunity for all filmmakers, and especially so for the politically-minded ones.