August is supposed to offer the average moviegoer their last chance to bask in big-budget spectacle and easy escapism, the time when studios unload the remainder of their summer tent-poles as they gear up for the heady days of Oscar season. However, a cursory glance at the slate of films currently on US release – including Spike Lee’s civil rights-era police procedural, BlacKkKlansman, Boots Riley’s surrealist satire of late capitalism, Sorry to Bother You, the kinetic social drama Blindspotting, and, at other end of the ideological spectrum, the latest piece of revisionist history from rightwing polemicist Dinesh D’Souza, Death of a Nation – reveals a lineup that has more in common with the politically charged fare typically associated with awards season.
BlacKkKlansman: the grim topicality of Spike Lee’s 70s-set KKK film
This is not a sudden development. From last year’s Oscar darlings – Get Out, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Post – to this year’s biggest blockbuster, Black Panther, American movies are more unapologetically political than they have been in over a decade.
The same can be said of the people behind the movies. Incited by the daily outrages and embarrassments of the Trump administration and forced to reckon with their own industry’s history of malfeasance brought to light by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as well as widespread calls for greater diversity in front of and behind the camera, American film-makers are no longer content to let their work speak for them. In interviews and across social media, they are expected to take strong political stances, even at the risk of alienating audiences or worse.
Recognition of this new paradigm still leaves one question unanswered: do film-makers really believe that their work can move audiences to take substantive political action?
Spike Lee certainly thinks so. While speaking to CNN about BlacKkKlansman – a film developed in response to the resurgence of white nationalism under Trump, and opened in wide release during the first anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right demonstrations that tore through Charlottesville last year – Lee said he hopes the film will convince viewers to show up for November’s midterm elections and vote against Republicans.
Lee’s hopes are shared by fellow liberal muckraker and Gen X icon Michael Moore, whose new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, is due out at the end of September. During a recent appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Moore said, “I’m finishing my movie and getting it out before the midterms because I want millions of people to get to the polls!”
Dinesh D’Souza produced his pro-Trump documentary, Death of a Nation, with the same goal in mind (though in the name of achieving the opposite electoral outcome), but the film’s dismal opening would seem to put the kibosh on any hopes he had of taking credit should the Republicans hold on to the majority in Congress. D’Souza blamed “leftist” critics for his film’s brutal reception, but a peek at the box office history paints a more quotidian picture: like Moore, D’Souza’s films have seen an unbroken streak of diminishing returns since he scored his biggest hit with 2016: Obama’s America (2012), suggesting that the success of a partisan political documentary is dependent upon the opposing party being in power during the time of its release.
At any other moment, this equation would bode well for Moore’s forthcoming film. However, while Moore was once one of the few unapologetically liberal voices able to cut through the cacophony of conservative commentary holding the market share on cable news and talk radio, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to replicate his own career high. What realistic chance does a Moore documentary stand with audiences today, inundated as they are with political content across all available platforms – social media, TV, streaming services, YouTube, podcasts, internet message boards? The sheer fury Trump inspires in liberals and progressives may drive more people to see Fahrenheit 11/9 than his last several pictures, but anyone hoping it might replicate the success of Fahrenheit 9/11 (still the highest grossing documentary of all time) should probably temper their expectations.
They’d also do well to recall that while Fahrenheit 9/11 was undeniably influential, it didn’t actually achieve the intended result. Released less than five months before the 2004 presidential election, the film possibly inspired more people to vote against George W Bush than might have otherwise, but clearly didn’t inspire enough of them.
Surprisingly, given the massive amount of research that goes into political polling, there is a lack of hard data available about how truly effective movies are in leading to measurable civic action, although a 2015 article published by researchers from the University of Notre Dame found that films with political themes do indeed “possess the capability to change attitudes on political issues. In an age where the biases of network news and talk radio programs are accepted facts, the movie theater may prove to be one of the last sources of cross-cutting exposure to political messages.”
That is all well and good, especially for those who hold that art has an innate political responsibility, but changing people’s attitudes in the theater does not necessarily translate into action. Historically, film-makers have a record of committing themselves to advocating – both onscreen and off – for political causes: the icons of classic Hollywood forming the “Committee for the First Amendment” to protest against congressional investigations into their political activities; the radical iconoclasts of 70s New Hollywood blasting audiences with a hard dose of cynicism and violence to make them confront the myriad atrocities committed at home and abroad in their name; the steady stream of “prestige” political dramas – Syriana, Lions for Lambs, Rendition – released during the second half of the last Bush administration in an attempt to turn public support against military interventionism and towards the protection of civil liberties.
Looking back, it’s hard to consider any of these movements a success. No doubt they helped lead to shifts in the political makeup of the country long-term, but they failed in their immediate goals. The Hollywood blacklist still happened, the 70s ended in a miasma of despair, and America today remains embroiled in military conflicts throughout the world, even as civil liberties continue to erode.
Obviously, there are exceptions, films that have achieved direct and quantifiable change – The Thin Blue Line got an innocent man off death row, Blackfish forced Sea World to end the “Shamu Show” – but these examples are on the smaller end of the scale. Meanwhile, by the same standard, movies made with malicious political intent – such as DW Griffith’s pro-Klan epic The Birth of a Nation, which led to the resurgence of the KKK – can boast of similar successes.
It’s still important to herald this latest set of films for their noble intentions and deeper individual merits. BlacKkKlansman is an artistic triumph, Lee’s most vital and entertaining film in years. Regardless of how it compares with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s new movie is on track to be his most financially successful in almost 15 years, and stands a good shot at being the top-grossing documentary of the year. And both Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting have added their unique perspective to the new wave of socially conscious cinema. These films have made (or are likely to make) an impact, even if it’s not one that can necessarily be measured by votes.
Unless exit pollsters start asking voters if movies helped them determine how they cast their ballot, it’s unlikely that film-makers will ever see their belief in the transformative political powers of their creation truly vindicated or disabused. It’s unlikely this hypothetical data would sway their belief anyway: the artistic impulse to write “history with lightning” – as President Woodrow Wilson once said of Griffith’s sinister magnum opus – is an impulse too strong for many a film-maker to deny, hubris be damned.