This post is also available in: French
Nobody can deny the fantastic work Daniel Day Lewis (Oscar for Best Actor) does in Lincoln. Released so close to Django Unchained they both make a strong case for “anything goes” in the fight against slavery. Argo comes closer in history; it is also a film about bravery. We sit down and relax, these much praised films, so well done…we let their message penetrate our consciousness uncritically, it’s all about heroism, justice, happy endings… But…
What is the message?
In Lincoln we see the man who ended slavery in the US and the first (in a strangely long line, for a “civilised” country) assassinated President. In order to get his way, according to the film, he justifies the use of bribery, extortion, blackmail and threats to bend the will of some members of Congress to pass his amendment. Not to mention justifying the Civil War and its 620.000 dead (the most conservative estimate). Lincoln is the closest the US has to a political saint, an idealised figure presented as an example for all to follow. The question is whether we are watching a biopic about a time when the dehumanisation of an ethnic group demanded extreme measures or an allegory of the present, illustrating the case for “the ends justify the means” in American Foreign Policy, such as torture, drones and wars against equally dehumanised ethnic and/or religious groups who happen to be unfortunate enough to sit on oil reserves.
Thaddeus Stevens, played in the film by Tommy Lee Jones (Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role), “devoted most of his enormous energies to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power—the conspiracy he saw of slave owners to seize control of the federal government and block the progress of liberty… He defended and supported Native Americans, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Jews, Chinese, and women. However, the defense of runaway or fugitive slaves gradually began to consume the greatest amount of his time, until the abolition of slavery became his primary political and personal focus… Stevens led the Radical Republican faction in their battle against the bankers over the issuance of money during the Civil War…. Stevens warned that a debt-based monetary system controlled by for-profit banks would lead to the eventual bankruptcy of the people, saying “the Government and not the banks should have the benefit from creating the medium of exchange,” yet after Lincoln’s assassination the Radical Republicans lost this battle, and a National banking monopoly emerged in the years after”. (Wikipedia).
There is no mention of this prophetic and interesting piece of information in the film and much is made of Stevens’ apparent turn to pragmatism when he accepts to water down a notch his fiery defence of blacks as deserving the same rights as whites for the sole purpose of helping to pass Lincoln’s amendment. Pragmatism was cooking already in the US and only 5 years later it became formally presented by Dewey, Pierce and James, becoming later the favourite mode of thinking and justification for the economic neoliberal agenda. Again, we might ask whether giving Stevens’ event such weight in the film is about history or ideological penetration.
No mention is made also of the nonviolent abolitionist efforts by Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass and many others attempting to end slavery without such bloodshed and twisted politics. It is very difficult to assess whether there were other alternatives at that time, many countries managed to end slavery through more political means.
The Lone Hero who takes on the System and wins. Now in Black
Django Unchained is a kind of follow up to the 1966 Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero (who appears in this new Tarantino movie too) about the horrors to which slaves were subjected and the struggle of two people, one black, and one white (Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) to make a living (as completely heartless bounty hunters who invariably kill their prized victims) and right a few racist wrongs on the way. It’s Tarantino, so no surprises there with gratuitous, cartoonish, absolutely dehumanised violence. It is the perfect companion to be released with Lincoln as it makes the case for justifying the aforementioned extreme measures to end slavery. This is an odd film about equality. It tries to prove the point that any black person can do the same as a white person, but it chooses the highest pitch of violence as an example. Sad.
More US Foreign Policy propaganda masquerading as historical fact
The Oscar for Best film went to Ben Affleck’s Argo, the true(ish) story of how six employees of the American Embassy in Iran managed to leave the building as it was taken by the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and escape Iran by posing as members of a Canadian film production team.
The film begins with a comment about how Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had been the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953 was overthrown in a coup d’état orchestrated by the British and the Americans. His administration had introduced a wide range of progressive social and political reforms but had also nationalised the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913. The coup established Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but his government became marred by oppression, persecution and torture leading to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the return of previously exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. Not bad for a context that goes some way to explain Iran’s “unreasonable” attitude towards the West. But it ends there. The rest is a film of suspense built on largely fictitious situations of danger that represent the Iranians as crazed and useless fanatics. No mention is made, at all, of how the 52 people retained in the Embassy as hostages were release 444 days later after much wheeling and dealing (and ransom in gold payment), a couple of failed rescue attempts and a little war (between half and a million casualties) started by Iraq’s invasion of Iran with the US supporting Saddam Husain’s troops.
Reading between the lines/frames
How to Read Donald Duck (Para leer al Pato Donald in Spanish) is a political analysis by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, published in Chile in 1972. It analyses Disney comics published for the Latin American market. It is one of the first social studies of entertainment and the leisure industry from a political-ideological angle, and the book deals extensively with the political role of children’s literature. The cinema and TV industries have grown since then in their capacity to influence the subjectivity of the world population. The release of Hollywood films is a global phenomenon and the Oscars a guarantee that such films will be distributed throughout the planet. “Artistic Licence” is used without shame or limits to provide a view that is particularly beneficial to a power base, and this is called Propaganda. We must train ourselves and our children on How to see films, and How to watch TV rather than letting the message enter uncritically through the corner of the eye.