Column: Beyond blockbusters

RP cover, winter 2018Issue 223 of Red Pepper, focuses on new union-led battles and strategies in and beyond the UK.

The culture section looks at political approaches to cinema, from the black liberation tradition of Sorry to Bother You to the rebel history of Peterloo, and a visit to Newcastle’s community-run cinema, The Star & Shadow.

This column introduced the section with a look at the rising popularity – and bankability – of overtly political films.

Beyond blockbusters

While summers are for blockbusters, winter is for the ostensible “best” films of the year. After creating ‘buzz’ through the slow drip of spring-autumn festival screenings, studios and distributors tend to release their potential prize winners en mass at the year’s end. Their aim is to ensure that, come January, select films are fresh in the minds of award voters. It’s a cynical ploy, and one that can frustrate cinemagoers with tastes that extend beyond ‘Prestige Hollywood’ fare. This year there are gems in the rough of worthy period dramas and staid biopics that suggest a more political edge may be returning to mainstream films—and that the thirst for independent productions is rising.

Peterloo and Sorry to Bother You, both reviewed in these pages, are serious yet engaging films that address head-on questions of class, exploitation, and popular revolution—albeit in very different contexts, and through very different aesthetic sensibilities. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which traces the life of domestic worker Cleo against a backdrop of political unrest in 1970s Mexico, has won equal plaudits for its aesthetic beauty and its handling of class dynamics—though some critics have identified paternalism where others laud a ‘personal touch’. Roma will be available on Netflix soon, its director seemingly as eager for a wide audience as he is for award recognition.

Two notable documentaries, both of which premiered at the recent London Film Festival, are similarly more likely to be found on a streaming platform than on the big screen. Bisbee ’17 mixes documentary, Western, musical and dramatic recreation to show how events in 1917 reverberate into the present in a southern Arizona town where an armed militia drove 2,000 striking immigrant miners into the desert and left them there to die. The Plan (That Came from the Bottom Up) takes a more traditional narrative route to tell how Lucas Aerospace workers facing redundancy in the 1970s devised plans to produce ecologically friendly machines—from wind turbines to electric cars—in place of military hardware.

Labour rights is just one timely current theme. Sorry… is one of a handful of films released this year—to both critical acclaim and box office success—that frankly address racism in the United States. While Blackkklansman (based on a true story) and If Beale Street Could Talk (adapted from James Baldwin’s novel) focus attention on the 1970s, The Hate U Give provides an urgent insight to present realities. Each film, not incidentally, addresses institutionalised racism and violence with the police—albeit with different levels of critique.

Far from a Black Panther-effect, the blockbuster released just ten months ago, these films are testament to the success of movements, from Black Lives Matter to #OscarsSoWhite, in challenging artists, scriptwriters and filmmakers to redress historical silences, omissions and racist casting choices. The #MeToo moment must also be credited with the palatable shift in attention and distribution of resources to tell politically relevant stories about people other than white men. Thankfully, such efforts need not be po-faced, as Steve McQueen’s Widows, a heist thriller with an intersectional lens released in November, testifies.

Challenges remain, however, in terms of the diversity of lives seen and heard at the movies. As Danny Leigh wrote in Sight & Sound in October, ‘Ken Loach is used as a fig leaf by the industry, as if one great director making films about working-class people means the box has been adequately ticked’. As much as we celebrate films like Peterloo, we must remain alive to the structures keeping film industries the world over predominantly closed to working class writers, directors and actors. While we watch revolution unfold on screen, we still need one behind it.

Citation: S. McGuirk (2019) “Unfolding revolution” Red Pepper Issue 223 (Spring 2019), p.65.

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