Saturday, 17 December 2016

On Politics in Movies

All movies are political. Let's just start there. All movies reflect the culture in which they were made and the values of their creators.

Taking that as a given, there is still a class of movie which is much more intensely and obviously political than any other. That is the class of movies which depict titanic struggles between good and evil. The obvious politics of such a movie are in how good and evil are defined.

Today I saw Rogue One in the theater. For the benefit of anyone not in the know, Rogue One is the eighth movie released in the Star Wars series. It's a direct prequel to the first movie, which is known as Episode Four because they were made out of order. Now, it might seem like Star Wars has the most clearly-defined morality of any blockbuster movie of the last twenty years: the good guys are the plucky Rebel Alliance that represents a defunct Galactic Republic and, accompanied by divinely empowered Jedi Knights, stands up to the evil Galactic Empire, whose goal is to bring order to the universe by scaring everyone else into obeying them.

But that's not all there is to it. Every time someone gets it into their head to make a new set of Star Wars movies, the good guys and the bad guys stand for different things.

The original movies, Episodes Four, Five, and Six, were released between 1977 and 1983. In these movies, the Empire is Nazi Germany, and the rebels represent first the European anti-Nazi resistance movements and then a heroic depiction of American forces sweeping in to save the day and liberate occupied planets countries (represented none too positively by the Ewoks as ugga-bugga natives).

Episodes One, Two, and Three came out between 1999 and 2005. They show the rise of the Empire from a complacent and corrupt democracy--relevant then, as George Bush expanded executive power and restricted individual freedom to fight an enemy largely of our own creation; and relevant now, as Donald Trump promises to do the same, only more so and with no enemy but the ones he makes himself simply by opening his mouth. In this movie, there are few good guys: the chosen hero is easily corrupted by an ambitiously evil man with both Jedi power and political power, and the Jedi Order and the government of the Republic cannot see the threat within their ranks.

I'm going to skip Episode Seven for a moment, because the politics of good and evil in Rogue One provides an important historical bridge between Episodes Three and Seven, along with the movie itself being a wonderful narrative bridge between Episodes Three and Four. My aha moment came when I was introduced to the planet Jeddah, once home to a grand temple of an ancient religion based around the Force. Now its statues and temples are in ruins, and the streets of its capital city are patrolled by Imperial stormtroopers who beat up headscarf-wearing locals on the slightest suspicion of misbehavior and who occasionally engage in fights with local militias wielding improvised explosive devices. Sound familiar?

Yep, the Empire in Rogue One is the United States of America. Think about that for a moment, and then call your Congressperson. The metaphor gets a little muddied when we switch from Iraq on Jeddah to Vietnam on Scarif, but it doesn't go away. In the eyes of most of the world right now, the US are the bad guys. Let's do what we can to not make us actually the Galactic Empire.

That brings us to Episode Seven, released last year, which in many ways feels like Episode Four but on a larger scale. The Republic has been re-established, but finds itself beset by a wannabe continuation of the Empire called the First Order, which has a bigger Death Star, bigger holograms of the wannabe Emperor, and stormtroopers with mustaches on their helmets for some reason.

This is, I think, the most up-to-date depiction of Empire and Alliance yet. The Alliance is the US, which seemed to have its feet mostly* back under it from about 2008 to 2014. The First Order is neofacism: an army of anonymous Internet commenters and perpetrators of real-world race- and gender-based violence, headed by an enormous demagogue (Trump again), and the movement's iconic face is that of a whiny twentysomething neckbeard. Yes, Kylo Ren is clean-shaven, but he is still a neofacist neckbeard. The movement has even changed its name: the "First Order" has exactly as much to do with the Empire as the "alt-right" has to do with the German Nazi party. Which is to say, everything.

What really gets me, though, is that while Episode Seven acknowledges how dangerous this generation's crop of hate-motivated violent white guys is, Rogue One works hard to deflate them at a more subtle level of cinematic politics. The protagonist is a woman who does not give in to pressure to be in a romantic relationship with a man. Women lead the Alliance and fly some of the X-Wings. The cast includes African-American, Chinese, Pakistani, and Mexican actors and actresses. Two of the male main characters are probably in a relationship, and one of those two is blind. The Rebel Alliance is more diverse than it's ever been. And that will make it strong. That will make us strong. Respecting diverse experiences, making sure all viewpoints are valid except for the hateful ones: that's how to be an ally. That's how we win this.

May the Force be with you all. Except for the neofacists.

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