On Criticism: Films as Political Documents

I wasn’t necessarily planning on writing this piece, but this topic has been consistently resurfacing in my surroundings, be it on social media, conversations I was having with my friends, and even in my own thoughts about specific films. And here I am.

Now, the topic of viewing movies as political texts is as old as cinema itself, I believe and it is not my intention to prepare a thorough survey of the numerous ways this topic can be approached, nor would I ever kid myself that I have the necessary optics to do it justice. Therefore, I will limit myself to one little avenue instead, which has to do with the fact that I (and at least a few others) have noticed that a film’s overall quality is tethered to whether it can be read as a commentary on some aspect of our current predicament as a widely-defined society and whether it takes a side in any current political debate. This often leads to (a) some truly formidable features being overlooked or denigrated on the basis of ‘not having anything to say’ or ‘assuming an unpopular perspective’, (b) otherwise mediocre movies being championed as important because of their political reading fitting the current narrative within the zeitgeist, (c) or the discourse surrounding certain movies being completely dominated by their political interpretation, thus side-lining any other reading.

Granted, some movies are overtly political. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that All the President’s Men, JFK, or to find a more recent example, The Post are made specifically to evoke, sustain and add to a political discourse. It would be foolish to assume that BlacKkKlansman, Moonlight, or Parasite do not openly invite a conversation involving the social commentary embedded within their stories. Hell, Spike Lee’s film ends with an express political statement damning the Trump presidency! At no point would I even want to hint that spotting social or political commentary in films is a bad idea. Cinema is a mirror reflecting life and commenting on society or making political gestures or statements are big parts of its place in culture. However, we do need to remember that even the most politically-slanted movies are still movies and it’s a bit foolish to diminish their stature just because we might disagree with the way they may be interpreted, or that people on the other side of the political spectrum might identify with some values these movies either overtly espouse or make room for the viewer to project. Dunkirk is still a great movie despite the fact flag-waving Brexit supporters might like it. Rambo: Last Blood is still a solid B-movie and you don’t have to be an immigrant-hating redneck to have fun watching it.

Conversely, there are films – and there always is one or two hovering in the zeitgeist – that seem critically untouchable because of the way they fit within the current narrative. Earlier this year it seemed almost unfathomable to even think of criticizing Promising Young Woman because of the way it captured the spirit of third-wave feminism. It didn’t matter that the movie was over-written, dangerously self-indulgent and artistically infantile because it was sending the ‘right message’ to willing viewers whose own militant outlook ended up vindicated and, dare I say, weaponized. Ammonite is another example with which I had a particular problem as it manufactured fiction surrounding the life of a prominent historical figure without even considering the far-reaching ramifications. All that mattered for the filmmakers was riding the critical wave and – vindictively to a point – sticking it to ‘the man’.

Do you want another example? Luce – an overwritten, schmaltzy afterschool special. But it fits the zeitgeist. Summerland. I don’t even want to go there any more. But I am not here to rant about movies I don’t like, even if it feels as though they deserve to be knocked down a peg. What I am trying to articulate is the simple idea of not seeing films exclusively as political texts. There’s always much more to be found in films, even if it means taking a critical look at movies that seem culturally significant at the time. It’s OK. Even the most socially significant movies are allowed to have flaws. Have you seen Easy Rider? Hand on heart, tell me this movie is flawless and I will sit down.

I suppose I should come clean here and admit that I am here – seven paragraphs deep into a rant that I am not sure I know where it leads to – prompted by how different my own perspectives on Luca and Nomadland were from the accepted consensus. Now, I have absolutely no problems with anyone seeing Luca as a queer allegory even though it’s not completely sustainable. If a movie speaks to you – godspeed. But it’s not the only reading this film can sustain. In fact, as I argued in my own review, I think it is more at home as something completely different and comparisons to Call Me By Your Name – superficial as they are – do not do the film any service. It just so happens that folks were so desperate to finally be able to say that Disney/Pixar have come out of the closet for real that they would will it into existence even if it might not be the right thing to do at the time and at the cost of potentially sacrificing/hijacking a great film that immigrant kids could claim as their own as well.

Remember, films are much more than their political or social reading. The Matrix was still a revolutionary piece of filmmaking before its transgender interpretation rose to prominence. And it still works as an Orwellian dystopia or any other commentary appended to the film. In the same vein, Nomadland has way more to say about the human condition than it says on the tin. It’s not all anti-capitalist fearmongering; there’s more to find in there. There’s more we can mine or project onto movies (I should know; I do it all the time), because that’s the beauty of cinema. The variety of interpretation films invite is why I love thinking about and discussing them so much. But we have to always remain vigilant and never let the film’s social commentary or a political stance become a sole factor determining its value.

There’s time and place for everything and there’s surely time to discuss movies as political texts. But it’s not always. And if we end up disagreeing with the film’s alleged political interpretation, it shouldn’t really have any bearing on whether the film is objectively good or not. After all, if you ever asked George Romero if Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead were injected with powerful social commentary with express intent, you might find out he’d have no clue what you are talking about.

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