by Jaye Austin Williams
In a 2007 interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner was asked, “Can theater or film make a difference? You wrote the script for Spielberg’s film “Munich,” which turned out to be quite controversial for ‘humanizing,’ as it were, Palestinians. Can film have an impact?” Kushner replied, “[I]t can. But the people who make it shouldn’t make it as if they believe that it can…. [I]t’s possible that film and even theater can have a genuine social impact on very different levels and in very different ways, but … their actual power in the world is indirect and weak at best. I feel very strongly that the only activism is activism …through political action.”
|The collective |
I agree with Kushner that political activism is the pocket toward which the proverbial billiard ball of progress should be aimed. But let’s face it: while many may write a check in support of the progressive cause, they might not be as willing to engage in rallies, sit-ins or other forms of civil disobedience in support of the cause.
What if we allow ourselves to reflect on how entertainments are acting upon us while we’re also enjoying them? What if we interrogate the messages and images that are put before us? That process, that rigor, can offer valuable learning outside the classroom.
How the world engages with what is happening in its various theatres — those of war, politics and mass entertainment — is of a piece with its willingness to critically and thoughtfully engage with itself. To understand this is to recognize that being entertained and being critically engaged with that entertainment are not mutually exclusive. The conditioning of audience response to cinema is influenced by how we are socialized in the U.S. as a nation of consumers and social performers. Cultivating the habit of rigorous questioning can reveal the underpinnings of information presented to us, even retrospectively.
A Reflective Eye
I experienced this with one of my old favorite Hollywood thrillers, the $148 million-grossing 1993 movie, The Firm. Near the end of the film, Ed Harris, as the frustrated federal agent, Wayne Tarrance, realizes he has been outmaneuvered by the young Harvard-schooled lawyer, Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise. McDeere has wheedled his way out of a murderous, smarmy Memphis law firm by weaving an escape plan that involves reporting the firm’s perpetration of mail fraud while also engaging in other more insidious business. Agent Tarrance, acquiescing to McDeere’s triumph, asks him, “How in the world did you come up with mail fraud?” McDeere replies, “It was on the bar exam. They made me study like hell for it.”
|Consciously used, |
film can function as
the connective tissue
to a critically engaged
The real source of the information is, in fact, from someone else. McDeere gets the idea from a client of the firm, Frank Mulholland, portrayed by the late Lou Walker, an African American actor. His screen time is brief, but in his one scene, Mulholland is critical to the solving of the movie’s plot. The other three Black figures that appear in the film are also marginalized.
I had seen the film numerous times over the years, enjoyed it immensely, as I do many Hollywood thrillers (my confessed guilty pleasures) yet had never noticed that the film had made one rather overt tradeoff: the truth about who actually gives Mitch McDeere the idea that ultimately solves the crime, in exchange for a satisfying one-liner with which Cruise effortlessly clinches the film’s denouement. Upon reflection, I now see that it is, in fact, a Black man, who has, unacknowledged, solved McDeere’s life-and-death conundrum.
It can certainly be argued that it is not the design of any cinematic story to elaborate every single character. The point, however, is not that Mulholland should have been the protagonist, but rather, to underscore the ramifications of the film’s underpinnings. In other words, an awareness of how Mulholland functions in the film (and that it is not insignificant that he is a Black character) demonstrates both how the collective unconscious is molded by the entertainment and how that entertainment, in turn, molds our interplay in the world; which is to say, what we do with the messages — latent and overt — that we take away from the entertainments we watch.
Such awareness can actually heighten the enjoyment of our entertainments and vivify our engagement with them. It is, after all, more than a matter of whether we like a movie, a play or a television program; but rather, why has it moved us as it has (or not). The latter tends to be lopped off in our social conversations. We seem to be a nation of opinions. “I like it.” “I hate it.” But “why” is too often followed by “Dunno; just do,” which is to say, the “why” is not engaged at all. Put bluntly, our vigor outmuscles our rigor. It is the semantic difference between these two notions that separates an “educated” public from an abrasively passive one. The words — “abrasive” and “passive” — sound contradictory at first blush, but they are of a piece with these abrasive times, in which we are assaulted with more information than we can either absorb or reflect upon, making many of us seek refuge in passive consumerism and abrasive response as a means of camouflaging our inability to engage at a deeper longitude.
Interrogating Our Entertainments Uncovers Social Conditioning
This absence of reflection — overlaid by abrasive passivity — is pernicious. As such, seemingly benign ideas slip through the sieve of our attention. Active engagement is different. My engagement with The Firm (a film I am by no means publicly declaring a hatred of as a result of my analysis; quite the contrary) is both reflective AND enjoyable because my reflective field now includes an awareness of how the Black subject position is often treated differently in well-made Hollywood films. All Hollywood films? I can’t prove that. But I can incite dynamic interchange with them, to which I arrive open and alert, and from which I emerge entertained, as well as armed with questions about and interrogations of what I’ve seen.
We can ask critical questions of more recent entertainments, as well. Two such examples are American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, and Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire. These films depict African American protagonists who are a drug trafficker, and a victim of parental abuse, respectively. Both characters are “released” in the end — the first, from prison, after having cooperated with the government in fighting the war on drugs; the second, out on her own with custody of her two children.
A resounding question one might ask of both films is — released into what? At the end of both films, each character is alone. Frank, the ex-prisoner,) is literally and utterly alone. Precious, the teenaged mother,has her two children in tow, but without any clear indication of solid, ongoing resources to aid a young mother with HIV in 1987, when her prognosis would have been less favorable than it might be now. The sentimental notions of hope or promise that might be tweaked in a traditionally conditioned audience will have an entirely different — and, I offer, a more challenging — resonance. But the viewer will be all the richer for understanding, among other things, that Black existence in America is complicated and not easily tied up in a big red, “happy ending” bow. Does this mean the experience is less entertaining? I believe that it is, in fact, a fuller experience for being more disturbing, prompting action in the forms of post-film discussion, examination and rumination.
The absence of power that Tony Kushner rightfully laments is borne of the one-sided exchange with entertainment. A dynamic, fully-engaged exchange, replete with reflection and critical analysis, paves the way for audiences primed for action, not by what they don’t think or know, but rather, by the depth and breadth with which they do engage and reflect.
Consciously used, film, theater and even television can function as the connective tissue to effective political action and to a critically engaged public, educated by the entertainments it consumes.
Jaye Austin Williams is a doctoral student in the Joint PhD Program in Drama and Theatre at the University of California Irvine/San Diego, where she is also an instructor of dramatic literature. She is pursuing an emphasis in Critical Theory as it applies to depictions of and articulations by and about African-descended Peoples in dramatic literature, performance and cinema. Jaye holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has spent the better part of the last 30 years as a stage director, playwright, actor, teacher, writer and consultant.
Also see Three Habits of the Heart and Mind To Spark Cultural Awakening by Arlene Goldbard in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Media Literacy: Piercing Content and Who Controls It by Jennifer L. Pozner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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