Category Archives: Film

Stand Your Ground Laws in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

warning: some mild Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers follow.

Even before its release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the subject of both critical praise (and racist hate) for its multicultural cast. But while the seventh chapter of Star Wars has been lauded for appearing more inclusive, the film ultimately suffers from some of the deeply conservative, even subtly racist tropes inherent to most big budget action movies—the same kinds of flimsy hero logic that provide the moral justification for racist “Stand your Ground” laws across many US states.

Stormtrooper image

Do stormtroopers have humanity behind the mask, or can they be murdered without mercy?

To understand this connection, let’s start with a recent article about Star Wars written by Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry. Bady writes:

[Finn the Stormtrooper’s] psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit […] there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. […] Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder?

Bady doesn’t quite go so far as to touch on the allegory of Finn-as-slave, though it seems like the filmmakers are rubbing it in our face. Finn (John Boyega) is a “rebel” stormtrooper who describes having been stolen from his family as a child to serve in the despotic First Order—a series of events that, in our own galaxy, we’d be apt to call “slavery.” The Star Wars movies have touched on slavery before—recall Darth Vader (formerly Anakin Skywalker) was a child slave, although as a white character serving an alien master, his character lacked the symbolic thrust held by a black character like Finn. (“Do race and racism exist in the Star Wars universe as they do in ours?” is a wholly different question, and one that is never really examined with any satisfaction). Continue reading

Fictional Politics and Politicized Fictions: “House of Cards” and “Scandal”

Politicians debating

Photo courtesy Beto O’Rourke.

Since 2013, critics have been comparing and contrasting the hit shows House of Cards and Scandal. Both deal with the seedy, often immoral world of Washington politics, and the ambitions and passions of those playing the game. But aside from these surface similarities, critics have often dismissed them as radically different shows. House of Cards is a sleek, efficient portrayal of Democrat Frank Underwood’s rise to the presidency. Scandal tells the passionate, if trashy, tale of how Olivia Pope and a cabal of players made Republican Fitzgerald Grant president, and the fallout (both personal and political) of their machinations. With their differing tones, visual styles, and intended audiences, critics can often overlook what connects these two shows at their hearts: their fictional depictions of American liberalism in action.

Liberalism in the United States is difficult to define, but can be broadly summarized as service to the individual, encapsulated in America’s self-appointed nickname “Land of Opportunity.” Individuals in America have the opportunity to vote for their elected officials, to speak freely without fear of government censorship, to advance within the class system through education or hard work. The liberal narrative is Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches archetype retold: Frank Underwood can go from Gaffney, South Carolina to the White House, simply by being more clever and ruthless than those around him; Olivia Pope can become the most powerful woman in Washington by working twice as hard and being twice as good as her white contemporaries. The writers imply that America is a meritocracy, because if anyone else was as devious as Underwood, or worked as hard as Olivia, they would be in the same positions of power.

In both cases, the characters gain their social and political power through their actions, rather than the legacies left to them by their parents or the class boundaries inherent in capitalism. Frank Underwood’s father was an abusive alcoholic, but he overcame; Olivia’s mother died when she was young, and her father was manipulative and controlling, but she overcame. In overcoming, both characters choose success over morality. House of Card’s Frank Underwood knows that he can lead the United States better than Garrett Walker, the man he helped get elected, so he resorts to extreme measures and careful gambles throughout season two to ensure his place as Walker’s replacement. Scandal’s Olivia knows that Fitz is the man that America needs as president, so she rigs voting machines to ensure his place in the election. Continue reading

The Stars, Our Destination?

Is interstellar space travel a Western, colonialist fantasy?

considered:
Interstellar (2014)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, and Ellen Burstyn

space colony

Illustration by Naomi Cogan Rosenberg

The collective consciousness of Wikipedia, in their plot summary of Interstellar, wrote1 that the film’s version of the USA depicts an “agrarian, stateless society.” In Nolan’s not-so-distant-future, America is ravaged by Dust Bowl-size superstorms, crop failures are abundant, and Big Government is a thing of the past—indeed, there’s hardly any government at all, save an allusion to a “federal” textbook. In this world, where the conspiratorial, anti-government pundits seem to have won, the moon landings are widely regarded to have been faked. (Professional conspiracy-mongerers like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck have reason to smile at this.) Continue reading

Who Wants to be the Bad Guy?

Last month, news of a possible real-world purge in multiple American cities spread across the internet like wildfire. Inspired by Facebook posts from Louisville announcing that all laws and emergency services would be suspended for a twelve hour period, copycat hoaxes soon popped up Jacksonville, Detroit, the Bay Area, and other major US cities. The news went viral, Louisville police took the threat seriously, and, in the end, nothing happened. While the hoax sparked fear of looting and homicide through social media and news sites, it was fortunately anticlimactic. But it raises the opportunity to discuss current events and the ideology that drives them. In particular, why anybody would be attracted to enacting a purge-like scenario in the real world?

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“The East”: Hollywood’s take on “The Left”

Still from The East

Izzy (Ellen Page) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), members of the activist cell The East. courtesy Indiewire.

The East (2013)
Directed by Zal Batmangli
Scott Free Productions/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fictional depictions of radicalism usually take one of two tacks.  First, there’s the absurdist bent, as seen in The Monkey-Wrench Gang and Fight Club. In these tales, radicalism exists within a bubble, its practitioners iconoclastic and mad and their activities largely harmless.  Even acts of extreme violence—the bombings of financial skyscrapers in Fight Club, for instance—play out as thrilling, brilliant acts, rife with revolutionary symbolism.

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