This week, like many people around the world, I watched intently in disenchantment as Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
The following day, coincidentally, I happened to read one of the Cahiers du Cinéma review of the late 60’s, in which the publication was radically changed and grew considerably in political awareness. The review concerned John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).
The review placed Ford’s film in the historical context of the Second World War, and argued, among other things, that the film had been made to serve the political agenda of the Republican Party at the time.
The Democrat President Roosevelt had introduced the New Deal during the second term, which among other things promoted labour unions. The Republican Party was, and is, the party of “Big Business,” and Cahiers du Cinema highlighted the fact that it followed the social and economic directives that were: “protectionism to assist industry, anti-unionist struggle, moral reaction and racism.”
The Hollywood Studios were owned by big companies and were republican. Studio films (therefore all American films) in American were used as a major tool for the establishment of a conservative and Republican ideology in the United States. Evidence of this is the fact that there were no films made about blacks in the U.S. for decades, and things have yet to significantly improve.
Young Mr. Lincoln, for instance, is a film about the man who ended slavery. But it makes no reference to slavery. Furthermore, the only black person in the entire film is a servant, who doesn’t speak and therefore does not find himself interacting with Lincoln in any way. Of course, Young Mr. Lincoln was not a film about slavery and indeed showed the future President as a young man like any other, focusing on his infatuation with the law.
But when we focus on the film’s capitalist agenda, the absence of his viewpoint on slavery is all the more evident. For instance, at the end of the film Lincoln, played by Henry Fonda, accepts payment of money from the family whom he represented in the pivotal trial. The scene is superfluous, and may even seem to cast a shadow on the figure of Lincoln by contemporary means. But it is there for a reason, ideologically: it shows that capitalism is good, and that receiving money for a job well done is just payment.
Considering the important role the media played in the Clinton/Trump election this year, we can see how ideology has always been indoctrinated by the media in every way.
I attended a talk yesterday by filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson in Galway, Ireland. He brought up the point that politics have become part of popular culture and integrated in the language of advertisement. At the time of writing, Ryanair has a photo of Trump on its homepage and there’s a big picture of Trump on the billboard advertising the Irish Times outside the Galway’s Eye Cinema.
But the scary part is not that these things, the explicit things we often blame for terrible decisions political or otherwise, are not the things we should be worried about. It is the things that shape our ideologies and our perception of reality without us knowing it that we should learn to understand. This is another reason why film literacy is vital: our ideologies can be changed by films and other forms of media without us ever really knowing about it.
This, of course, in turn, leads to certain presidents being elected…