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The history of politics in film: from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Borat’

Content Warning: This article discusses racist themes, including anti-Semitism.

Films have always been political, and have always been a reflection of reality. The dawn of cinema saw a new avenue for filmmakers and artists to express their sentiments and disseminate their worldview, often to a timeless effect. Movies portray a number of political and social issues. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, renowned for being a pioneering work of art that greatly influenced filmmaking, was and remains notoriously controversial for showing the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a positive and heroic light, highlighting their supposed crusade against the apparently villainous African Americans.

In pre-Civil Rights-era US, such a film was hugely popular and remains so even today in certain areas. Griffith’s film could be considered, by all accounts, racist and prejudiced, but that was his vision; filmmaking gave him the power to express said vision. And released just a few decades after slavery was abolished, racism was as rife as it had always been and the political climate then allowed for it to achieve a significant level of popularity. But the film was excellently made and a fantastic work of art, speaking from a purely artistic basis, as detached from social and political life as possible, and had a massive impact on future filmmaking. That it also harboured a deeply disturbing message goes to show that art is not free from the prejudice of man, but rather a reflection of it.

Art is not free from the prejudice of man, but rather a reflection of it

Spike Lee touched upon this with 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, a sort of antithesis to both the racist films of the early 20th century and the present-day climate of deep racial divisions and hatred in modern day America. This film is the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated and brought down a local KKK chapter. Lee’s efforts to highlight the dangers of racism and white supremacy in both the America of the 1970s and Donald Trump’s America showed sharp and damning comparisons: it demonstrated how little has really changed for minorities and people of colour in the “greatest country in the world”. Lee made a bold political statement on police brutality and racial discrimination that held true 40 years ago, two years ago, and today. Nothing has changed. And Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists made things worse. The power of rhetoric is often underestimated.

And when it came to dangerous rhetoric, Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech in 1940’s The Great Dictator, a film far, far ahead of its time, was a reminder to the world to shield itself from destructive and hate-inspiring words. A satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism in the early days of World War Two, the film serves as a reminder that the great medium of film was always meant to be a means to get a message across. Chaplin’s influential speech was a plea to citizens and leaders around the world to live together in peace, dignity, and unity, a message which, at the time, served to do away with the dividing forces of the world and bring together its people in humanity, which was under a rising threat from Hitler’s Germany. 80 years later, it’s as relevant as ever.

The great medium of film was always meant to be a means to get a message across

Of the many films The Great Dictator inspired, one that particularly comes to mind is Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2012 comedy The Dictator. Serving as a crude and hilarious parody of dictators and despots, Cohen’s character, General Aladeen, makes a final speech that packs the ultimate punch, where he boasts of the benefits of dictatorships to the United Nations, making it appear as if they are the same as democracies. The speech goes: “You could let 1% of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family.”

This speech rips into Western hypocrisy and capitalist imperialism by comparing the identical abuses of power in dictatorships to supposedly democratic Western states. What is brilliant about this film is that its political undertones are subtle yet in-your-face. They’d make people like George Bush and Henry Kissinger laugh (do they laugh? Can they?) and also sweat nervously with how close to home they hit. The United States’ staunch support for “democracy and freedom”, while at the same time toppling democratically-elected governments in the Middle East and Latin America and installing pro-West autocrats, speaks volumes and gives Cohen’s speech power.

Comparing the identical abuses of power in dictatorships to supposedly democratic Western states

Cohen is known to be very political, and his films show this. Most famous of these is perhaps 2006’s Borat, full title Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The film is as outlandish as its name and is filmed in a fake documentary (mockumentary) style, aiming to expose people’s hidden racial biases and prejudices. A noteworthy scene in the film features the main character, Borat, an anti-Semitic and misogynistic reporter, sing to a jovial crowd a song with the lyrics: “In my country there is problem, and that problem is the Jew.”

The rest of the song follows this premise and has the crowd sing along passionately. What’s interesting about this scene is that it showcases how hidden racism and prejudice comes to the surface when given a platform through someone who embraces them proudly, loudly, and on a bigger stage. The disparaging and hate-fuelled words used by Donald Trump during his tenure, from his election campaign up until his final days in office, are reminiscent of Borat’s attempts to get his audience to lower their guard and speak their minds. Trump’s appeal for his key voter base was his xenophobia and failure to condemn racism and white supremacy, prompting people with such biases to become more vocal about their views after having a leader who embraces them and whom they consider “one of them”.

Politics has fuelled some truly great films.

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