The Common Good
March 2010

Culture War Cease-Fire

by Gareth Higgins | March 2010

There's evidence that popular cinema is taking real life seriously.

One day last fall, I was half to blame for a raging argument between two neo-pacifists about nonviolence in cinema, focused on whether or not Quantum of Solace qualifies as a proper James Bond film, because it features an actual, real-world political controversy (the selling by a shadowy multinational corporation of water rights back to the people of Bolivia). I said that the Bond film stood out from typical multiplex fare because it presented values that transcend might vs. right, violence conquers all, and “there are no consequences to your actions if you’re a superhero.”

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Not having seven years to spare for a graduate film sociology program, to solve the debate I checked my local movie theater listings.

 

I was wrong. The listings included:

  • A Disney film with an African-American heroine, set in New Orleans partly to draw attention to the post-Katrina legacy (The Princess and the Frog).
  • The Messenger, a story about the war in Iraq that evokes memories of trenchant anti-Vietnam War films such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter.
  • A wealthy family encountering urban deprivation, which was far more respectful of its subject matter than the cheesy trailer led me to expect (The Blind Side).
  • Clint Eastwood’s version of how Nelson Mandela turned rugby into a sacred temple of reconciliation (Invictus).
  • A catastrophe movie in which the earth is almost destroyed by climate change, Mayan prophecy, and Woody Harrelson; but also in which (spoiler alert) the human race is saved by a young black man working in the White House, Chinese boats, and the entire continent of Africa (2012).
  • A shocking, moving, and ultimately inspirational confrontation with awful childhood abuse, and the steps the survivor takes to escape (Precious).

Of course, not all of these films are good. The same listings included a teenage blockbuster with vampires as the new mascots for the abstinence movement; an unendurable comedy that indicates John Travolta’s and Robin Williams’ misplaced faith in their agents; and a horrific indulgence in gratuitous violence that manages to get the words “ninja” and “assassin” in the same title.

 

Still, there’s evidence that popular cinema is taking real life seriously: When your Friday night choices include Invictus, Precious, and The Blind Side, and even the disaster movie strives to make political points about xenophobia and the plight of the poor, perhaps we’re entering a period where a conversation about ethics, globalization, climate change, and the interdependency of all things is taken for granted. This convergence of progressive spirituality and politics in popular art may mean that our culture war (between puritanical naysaying on the one hand and hedonistic dehumanization on the other) has already ended; we just haven’t noticed yet.

Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster in Carrboro, North Carolina, is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.

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