It is common to hear people say that films are simply a form of escapist entertainment, a harmless product designed to make money. As a Hollywood studio-era executive might have said to an aspiring politico screenwriter, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
Yet, the dark sealed off world of the cinema and the world outside – a cut and thrust political world – have always bled into one another. In 1915 US President Woodrow Wilson described DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a Civil War epic lamenting the passing of the ante-bellum South, as ‘like writing history with lightning.’ Wilson sought to capture the film’s ability to turn dry historical facts into a gripping story, the way it was able to ignite the passions, to shock and inspire. Birth of a Nation’s reactionary nostalgia for slavery certainly thrilled well-to-do white audiences – stabilizing their sense of superiority and privilege at a time of rapid social change – but it also outraged African-Americans. In protest, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized demonstrations outside cinemas and commissioned their own film, Birth of a Race (1916). As the furor over Griffith’s film clearly signals, cinema has long been a site of political struggle.
In 1917, at the invitation of the British high command, Griffith traveled to Europe to make a film about World War I. Released in 1918, Hearts of the World has the Allies displaying moral rectitude and bravery in the face of German atrocity. This is typical of propaganda films of the time, which, by demonizing the enemy as evil and subhuman, maintained support for a costly imperial war. During World War II, film continued to shape political reality, with powerful military and bureaucratic structures established to handle censorship and propaganda. Research showed that audiences were more easily influenced if pro-war messages were integrated into feature films viewed in the unguarded realm of the picture palace. To have asked policymakers during World War I or II if the cinema was political would surely have resulted in a bewildered look: the film camera was as essential to the war effort as an entrenching tool or machine-gun; how could anyone think otherwise?
Fifty years on, we like to think that things are very different. While it is true that propaganda is no longer a straightforwardly top-down process, the root of the word – to propagate, or to grow – still usefully describes how cinema plays a central role in the reiteration and reinforcement of particular ways of seeing and thinking, and how this, in turn, has strong political consequences.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, invited almost four-dozen of the Hollywood power elite to the Beverly Peninsula Hotel and asked for help garnering support for the neocon policy agenda, including wide-ranging homeland security measures and the waging of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following the meeting jingoistic war films such as Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers and Behind Enemy Lines were rushed into cinemas, while war films with a critical perspective such as The Quiet American and Buffalo Soldiers were quietly held back. This careful management of release schedules aligned cultural production with Rove’s directives: as the politicians sought consent for war in Iraq, cinemagoers watched films barely distinguishable in their pro-war message from Griffith’s Hearts of the World.
With the multiplex thus politicized, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 directly attacked the neocons during Bush’s campaign for reelection in 2004; like Birth of a Race , Moore’s film sought to redress the prevailing political direction of US cinema and politics. The highest grossing documentary of all time was joined by a raft of films that critiqued and questioned, among other things, the state-sanctioned use of torture (Standard Operating Procedure, Rendition ), the war on terror (In the Valley of Elah, Stop Loss ), CIA subterfuge (Syriana, The Bourne Supremacy ), and even offered a dark, introspective view of US history (Good Night and Good Luck, There Will Be Blood ).
Taken together, these films marked and reinforced an emerging liberal consensus that came to fruition with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In less than ten years, cinema had played a significant role in consolidating the neocon’s preferred worldview, and then, through myriad acts of resistance and critique, enabling an alternate ideology to germinate and take root.
This is not a hypodermic model: no single film will provide a hit of ideology that determines behavior; nor should we overestimate the affect of avowedly political films such as Lincoln. Instead, those interested in the cinema’s political affect should consider how the cinema shapes political reality through the seeding of ideas, and the propagation of belief in those ideas. Surrounded by fellow citizens in a dark, safe space a society acts out political scenarios, pulling them in and out of focus. Whether this manifests as naked racism in the early twentieth century, the demonization of entire populations during World War I and World War II, or the condoning of torture after 9/11, the cinema quietly and purposefully manufactures consent. Yet, this process is neither static nor straightforward; as in my examples here: cinema can challenge racism, question prejudice, and resist inhumane and illegal acts of war; for good and ill, cinema is the extension of politics by visual means.