Can Hollywood Make Movies about the 99%?

After watching Les Miserables, I reflected on how some of 2012’s biggest films have been about the disparity between the rich and the poor. The Dark Knight Rises pits Gotham’s reckoning as an attempt to gain some sort of equilibrium between the corrupt rich and the oppressed poor. Albeit, Bane’s tyrannical reign is overthrown Gotham’s richest man via his high-tech, personal military arsenal.

The Hunger Games made poor people the spectacle of rich people. Kids from all the suffering, pre-industrial revolution towns met up to entertain the rich, indulgent masses. They rich wear flamboyant clothes and feast at flowing tables of food, an exercise in the excess, while poor Katniss has to scrounge for a loaf of bread or hunt down a deer for her family. Les Miserables is set across the backdrop of a revolution to overthrown the King and his whole establishment in order to get better treatment for all the poor, downtrodden souls of France. Granted, I’m simplifying the nuances these stories to make a general point.

And while I won’t deny any legitimacy to what these films might have to say about the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else (particularly in America), what I will say is that making a blockbuster movie selling stories about the poor being downtrodden by the rich is, well, problematic. Some of the artists involved might truly believe something should be done about this, but selling this message in a multimillion dollar Hollywood film is a bit hypocritical.

The Hollywood industry is perpetuated by the 1%. It’s founded on building as many gates as possible to keep the 1% in control. Rich actors get the choice roles for many of these films (granted, The Hunger Games is a bit unique by having a lot of newer talent). Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe are part of this rich elite. And, of course, the many studio bigwigs behind it all are getting richer by the day when these movies are making profits. Sure, plenty of the cast and crew working on these films are not rich, but the film themselves continue the perpetuate the trend of the rich getting richer.

I’m not saying making a lot of money in a business is particularly bad, or that being rich somehow equates to being evil. What I am saying is that Hollywood has historically been known to make a lot of money through some rather shady practices of working the books to not pay royalties certain people, which clearly is about making more money out of pure greed. See the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix debacle.

So making stories that promote such messages about balancing out the disparity between the rich and the poor is just another way for Hollywood to prey on the zeitgeist of the time and make more money. None of these executives who green light these films want a revolution, they want to get richer by making more money. And they do that by selling as many tickets as possible.

And now to dip into a bit of film criticism, this argument is nothing new, it’s something French critics in the ‘60s were arguing as one of the reason why film is inherently political. Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni argued in Cinema/Ideology/Criticism that the very means of production and distribution of film promoted a capitalist system of commerce. In this view, the base line is that films are, in part, a commodity, which is something I think a lot of film enthusiasts have a tendency to forget.

When I initially read this, while I saw the merits of their argument, I blew it off as mostly those French critics being a staunch socialists. They went on to make categories that factored how a film’s ideology and depiction of reality related to the base relationship of films being commodities. For instance, some films simply assimilated the ideology of their mode of production while other films would depict reality in a ironic way in order to subvert the ideology of capitalism. I found the categories a bit silly at the time. But now I get it. I’m not saying that the system is inherently evil, but that when we think about these films—particularly the big Hollywood blockbusters—we need to remember that the films are commodities being sold on the marketplace to entice buyers. And that the people selling them often use shady techniques to extort as much money as possible out of these films.

Sure, there’s an art to it, one of my favorite movies of the year is one of the biggest box-office sellers of the year, but I think that especially when films try to deliver these messages that appear to be more socialist in there leanings, we need to recognize that they are products of a capitalist system that continue to perpetuate that system. I think all of these films function in very conventional ways to craft traditionally marketable films. In this regard, Comolli and Narboni would say while these films present an ideological difference to their means of production, the film reality they produce continues to help promote and perpetuate capitalism. None of them are trying to subvert or undermine the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. They are films made to sell as many tickets as possible.

Once again, I feel the need to stress that I’m not saying that this is all negative. That it’s bad for a film to be a product or to make a conventionally appeasing Hollywood story. I’m not saying that capitalism or socialism is bad. What I am saying is that it’s problematic to sell these kinds of stories, stories that extoll the evils of capitalist corruption, by heavily relying on tropes of a corrupt capitalist Hollywood system. It’s not enough to consider a film’s message, we must consider how that film is presented and we must also consider its means and goals. If a film is sold to make millions of dollars, can it truly be called anything other than a capitalist endeavor?

© 2013 James Blake Ewing