Cinema As Weapon: 5 Films That Mirrored Our Rage

By  · Published on December 1st, 2016

A group of politically angry films for a politically angry time.

Election Day +22 Days. As President-Elect Trump selects his Legion Of Doom, are you feeling better or worse? It’s probably become a little easier to distract yourself with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, Untappd…mostly Untappd…actually, my Untappd account is practically ablaze post-election with new badges and distinct beers. These sorrows just won’t get drowned. Personally, I say I get a month of misery. One month to wallow and smash my fists against the desktop. But come December 8th, I need to delete that Untappd app, and get busy living, or get busy dying.

Or maybe I just need a good flick to stoke the fires of rage. Movies have always been my wakeup call. I grew up in the suburbs around Washington D.C., surrounded by similar faces supported by similar incomes. Ignorance truly is bliss, and it’s always been too damn easy to overlook the festering wounds of this country. Who cares what’s happening across the river, when The Empire Strikes Back in a galaxy far, far away.

I’ve always detested the idea that film is an escape, an arena where you can simply turn your brain off and have a good time. Even our dumbest of blockbusters should offer some actual morsels to chew on. I’ll take a Jaws over a Ninja Turtles sequel any day of the week, and I’m betting most of you feel the same way.

Cultural epiphany can and should occur on the big screen. In the hundred plus years of the art form, cinema has risen to some spectacular heights of fury. Roger Ebert called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and sometimes the quickest way to connect with another person is through their rage. Below are some of my favorite films that screamed from the projection booth.

5. The Great Dictator (1940)

The day after the election, my social media feeds were full of friends posting Charlie Chaplin’s climactic speech from The Great Dictator. It truly is an inspirational punch in which Chaplin’s Jewish Barber takes the stage as the tyrannical Herr Hynnkel and proclaims unity over hate. It’s a scene that’s impossible not to love. However, The Great Dictator is about as angry and frustrated as a film can get. Chaplin saw the world cracking around him, and responded to Leni Riefenstah’s Triumph of the Will with the only means at his disposal. Behind every act of physical comedy burns an accusation. As Chaplin’s barber dodges storm troopers and stumbles behind enemy lines, the jokes come quick and violent. Each laugh uttered is barbed with Chaplin’s disgust. The film is a warning that came too late.

4. High Noon (1952)

With no more Nazis to shoot, we turned to communists. It’s certainly hard to step away from fear after reaching such apocalyptic heights of a world war. A question mark hung over every house in America. “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Trust no one. Refusing to name name’s to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman fled to England before the release of the film. The Western itself seethes with contempt for the Red Scare sweeping the nation. As a vicious killer threatens to descend upon his town, Gary Cooper’s Sheriff Kane faces rejection from everyone around him. No one is willing to put his or her neck out for justice. His wife (Grace Kelly) begs him to leave town, but his response is simple, “They’re making me run. I’ve never run from anybody before.” Even when your country is against you, Carl Foreman tells us to stick to our guns.

3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Drawing inspiration from the rage witnessed during the Watts Riots of 1965, and the assassination of Martin Luthor King Jr in 1968, screenwriter Paul Dehn took to the Planet of the Apes franchise for some classic Twilight Zone moralizing. The fourth film of the series cannot simply be dismissed as a cash cow, and has more on its mind than most socially minded science-fiction films. The child of escapees Zira and Cornelius, Roddy McDowell’s Caesar goes from slave to revolutionary, leading the apes to their rightful place at the top of the food chain. If we’re not going to take care of this planet, why shouldn’t we allow the chimps to rule. Ceasar’s final outburst at the end of J. Lee Thompson’s director’s cut is the exact opposite of Charlie Chaplin’s unity speech in The Great Dictator. Man does not deserve this rock.

2. Do The Right Thing (1989)

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” Never has this quote been more succinctly demonstrated than in Spike Lee’s masterpiece. As temperatures rise, and an old white generation bristles against the young black generation, an audience is propped directly into the center of our nation’s racial powder keg. As we struggle against change, refusing to adapt our Wall of Fame, and stick to pigheaded ideology of yesteryear, we invite hatred into both our hearts and our neighbors. We cannot be shocked when the trashcan is tossed through the shop window, we made it happen.

1. Felt (2014)

A woman escapes into her felt creations in an effort to overcome an unnamed trauma. Felt is a profoundly uncomfortable watch in which screenwriter and star, Amy Everson takes on rape culture without succumbing to exploitation. Her manufactured costumes allow her just enough strength to continue living, but the walls created after such an event make it impossible to connect with humanity. The void forever remains.

We need our rage. More now than ever. When our country is at it’s darkest, art has the most to offer. If I had anything positive to say 22 days after the election it’s that I’m looking forward to our filmmakers’ response. Art is the first weapon of change. We need its inspiration to get us off our duff. Cinema can shock the ignorant into action.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)