Many film connoisseurs these days can unanimously agree that the essence of all good drama is conflict. Every form of conflict, whether it is physical or verbal, originates from an argument between two or more sides. We can’t say that either side is totally right, but two people in conflict, who see life differently, should do. Now, isn’t argument the essence of every political debate that aims to interpret events, or social phenomena, from a specific point of view?
As such, films do not necessarily have to be pure propaganda to be considered ‘political.’ That’s why some critics argue that all films are political to a certain extent. For them, even films that are apparently escapist can fulfill a political function. This inherent aspect makes them a powerful means to shape the public opinion, without necessarily declaring their purpose. For instance, western films in the past rarely portrayed black cowboys, although there were many of them along the American frontier. Hollywood was often accused of misrepresenting black, female, gay, and working-class people in the past, and that was clearly a political stance.
Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to propose five great political satires that weren’t afraid to admit their political intentions from their conception. In fact, they did it with such a flair for good storytelling and excellent witticism that didn’t even need to present a partisan perspective on the events, but they rather offered a sardonic photograph of our society and politics through their controversial arguments.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) by Stanley Kubrick
Dr. Strangelove was originally conceived as a piece of a serious cinema in the head of its creator Stanley Kubrick. The story has it that Kubrick was fascinated by the idea of writing a thriller about nuclear war. So, he had read as many books as possible in order to come up with a plausible plot. Soon after, he realized how much energy – and blind patriotism – it took for people not to see the absurdity of it all. That’s how Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb came to life.
he realized how much energy – and blind patriotism – it took for people not to see the absurdity of it all
The film is a political satire black comedy starring Peter Sellers in three major roles. The opposing forces debating on the aforementioned central argument are the US and the Soviet Union, and the argument is supremacy, of course. The narrative is so absurd yet plausible and hilarious that it successfully captured the attention of the critics for being one of the most brilliant satires ever conceived to this day. The United States Library of Congress inserted it among the first 25 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Being There (1979) by Hal Ashby
The story follows an illiterate gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers), who has spent all his life in the house of a rich, old man. When the old man dies, Chance is put out on the street with no knowledge except what he has learned from television. Now we might ask ourselves, “what’s political about this picture?” Yet, as we said earlier, even films that are apparently apolitical and escapist can fulfill a political function. Well, this is one of those films. And it is one of the most delightful political and social satires ever created.
even films that are apparently apolitical and escapist can fulfill a political function
The film hilariously pierces through the American high society, exposing the ruling class running the country. The subtle parody focuses on a single character, the gardener, a person of small significance, who’s mistaken for a man of power and influence. It’s no surprise that Mr. Seller is still in the equation, in the robes of the gardener. This is a timely political satire on high society and its interests, an ode to candor as a superpower, and the nihilism generated by media consumption.
Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee
This iconic Spike Lee film captures an anxiety-inducing feeling within a Black and Latino community. A colorful cast of characters is employed to piece together a narrative of African-American life that plays out as the antithesis of what mainstream media told us about these communities. The film, in this regard, is full of energy, and shows the dynamic nature of African-American and Latino life in this country. People have hopes and dreams, they aren’t afraid of showing feelings of love and fear, and most of all they fight every single day to live their lives regardless of the ever-present threat of danger, or death.
one of the most discomforting aspects of the film is the impending presence of law enforcement
In this respect, one of the most discomforting aspects of the film is the impending presence of law enforcement, always monitoring and ill-treating the community members, as if they were prisoners. And it is exactly the enforcers of the law that give the coup de grace to this dead tired community, leaving its members shouting in heartbreak, “he was only a boy.” No solutions are offered to the audience, just the facts. The argument at the center of the story is our responsibility now.
Election (1999) by Alexander Payne
In this lively allegory of politics and morals set in a high school, the tone is markedly lighter than the previous titles. We are talking about high school kids, after all. Yet, the size of their high school problems cannot be minimized here, as the central themes they are dealing with are crucial for everybody – ethics and morals. Witherspoon’s character is presented as that overachieving student who has all the makings of a great politician, she knows the definition of ethics and morals, and knows that her sheer ambition will lead her to become the new school president.
central themes they are dealing with are crucial for everybody – ethics and morals
Getting back to the subject of this piece, the political value of its argument is made evident by an unusual antagonist – a high-school teacher. Professor McAllister’s counter-argument is inherent in his lifestyle. He tries to live by those good principles but, as any ordinary man, he finds the task quite difficult. He’s too weak and prone to any kind of temptations to be the best version of himself. In fact, he fails when he is tempted to bend the rules trying to stop the overachieving candidate. This film is a great example of character development, as every detail makes up a flawed persona dealing with his or her own misery. Witherspoon character’s misery is exactly that blind ambition that could turn her into a monster (or a politician) one day.
Don’t Look Up (2021) by Adam McKay
Fast forward to today and the present crisis. The picture looks quite different, definitely more urgent than the others. Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up shows us what happens if we take too long to question ourselves on urgent subject matters such the current climate crisis, and fail to take action. We are in front of another allegorical story about a comet heading for Earth, which is used to make a satire on our current political nihilism as a society and how we respond to media alerts.
explains the social, psychological, political and media mechanisms that comes into play
This is not just a light-hearted watch. It is fun and provocative, yes, but it also explains the social, psychological, political and media mechanisms that comes into play when man is faced with an emergency. Thanks to an exceptional cast led by Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, great writing, and Netflix’s marketing campaigns, the film set a new record for the most viewing hours in a single week on Netflix, and is still the second-most-watched movie on Netflix to this day.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.