Retrospective Roundtable

Social Justice in Film

This month, it is more relevant than ever for our Retrospective Roundtable to focus on the theme of social justice in film. The following titles relate to a number of causes; however, the common thread between the films is a piercing look into human behavior, society, and cultural dynamics that affect our experiences as individuals and as a collective.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

By Ian Floodgate

Battleship PotemkinSergei Eisenstein was one of the first film directors to challenge social inequality with his revolution trilogy. Battleship Potemkin is arguably the most notable of these three films and one of the most celebrated films in all cinematic history. The film tells the story of the mutiny onboard the Potemkin which happened in 1905. The sailors revolt against the senior officers for the treatment they receive and the supply of rotten meat.

Battleship Potemkin features some of the most striking imagery seen on film. One of the most memorable scenes takes place on the steps in the city of Odessa, where the Cossack army attacks the civilians that have assembled in support of the sailors. It demonstrates how oppressive a state can be as the Cossack soldiers open fire on innocent people, including women and children. The depiction of scenes like this, considering similar events that have occurred in the years since, show that Battleship Potemkin is just as relevant today as it was in 1925 and that the pursuit of equal rights should never be brought to a stop.

Nothing But a Man (1964)

By Timan Zheng

Nothing But a ManLauded for its documentary-realist depiction of, then, contemporary African American life — Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man is widely regarded as one of the most sensitive films about Black life in American history. Roemer himself was not African American, rather a Jewish man who suffered persecution under Nazi Germany — he and co-writer Robert M. Young drew from these experiences, alongside anecdotes from African American communities, to write the film. What makes Nothing But a Man a culturally pioneering force is its authenticity, the manner in which Roemer encapsulates life as a racially marginalized member of society. Set in the South during the early 60s, the film depicts the story of Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), an African-American rail worker with an unreconciled past, who lazily drifts through life. Duff is carefree, but his perspective on life shifts when he falls in love with Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), a schoolteacher and daughter of the town’s preacher.

The two marry, despite the disapproval of Josie’s father, and awaken to the reality of maintaining a family amidst rampant racism in 1960s America. Roemer’s approach is somber, but grounded, maintaining a stark level of realism, never veering into sensationalism for thinly-veiled depth. From neglected poverty, treatment as a second-rate citizen, to blunt racism, Roemer places the plight of the African American community on display, but refrains from injecting any moral lecturing. It is this quiet docu-realist style in which Roemer allows the viewer to experience the suffering first-hand and judge for themselves, a method that creates a powerful yet all-the-more shocking film (and statement). Nothing But a Man distinctly captured the trials and tribulations of African American life so much so that Malcolm X cited it as his favourite film of all time. Whilst it was released over half a century ago, the themes of prejudice presented in Nothing But a Man remain all too relevant in today’s era.

The Landlord (1970)

By Eugene Kang

The LandlordGentrification, the insidious upscaling of low-income neighborhoods that inevitably drives out the often racial and ethnic minorities that lived there, has been put under the spotlight in such notable recent films as Blindspotting and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Yet the topic has existed in film far before the current era.

The Landlord, director Hal Ashby’s first directed movie, focuses on Elgar Enders, a young, rich, White man (Beau Bridges) who buys an apartment building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with plans of renovating the building to make it into a more desirable property. He predictably faces severe pushback from the Black tenants in the building, and his obscenely wealthy WASP parents who would be described as liberal elites in today’s terms. The subject matter is serious, but the tone of the film is sharp and satirical, thanks largely to the excellent writing from famed Black director and screenwriter Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess), which he adopted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. The Enders family is absurdly oblivious to their wealth and privilege, freely using racial epithets while their Black staff serves them. The tenants know exactly who Elgar is and are wise to his maneuvering even though he seems to sincerely believe that he is improving their lives. While there is no organized movement against Elgar by the tenants, his interactions with the individual tenants played by Pearl Bailey and Louis Gossett, Jr. are funny yet harsh reminders that he is ultimately not on their side, no matter what he believes.

Punishment Park (1971)

By Ben McDonald

Punishment ParkFor all the abhorrent injustice it portrays, perhaps the most terrifying and infuriating conceit of Punishment Park is its almost psychic understanding that it will continue to be relevant for decades to come. Peter Watkins’ controversial 1971 film – so reviled by Hollywood on its debut almost 50 years ago that all studios simply refused to distribute it – is a pseudo-documentary about an alternate America where “insurgent” protesters are arrested without sufficient cause or evidence. Instead of a constitutionally guaranteed trial, these citizens are stripped of their constitutional rights and tried before a small tribunal of establishment figures and allowed to substitute their absurdly long prison sentences for a three-day shot at freedom in ‘Punishment Park’. In Punishment Park, convicts are instructed to walk over fifty miles, without any food or water, to an American flag in the middle of the Californian desert while police hunt them down as a “training exercise”. The police are allowed to use force against convicts who attempt to resist arrest.

While Punishment Park is a work of fiction, its premise is most alarmingly not. Watkins based the film around the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, a real federal law that allowed the president to detain individuals suspected of subversion or espionage. Presenting a fictional portrayal of what the invocation of this law would look like, Watkins extracts the tensions of Vietnam-era America and launches them back at his audience with a clear-eyed moral fury. Much of the film depicts the shockingly authoritarian tribunal hearings that result in twenty-year prison sentences for twenty-year-old college students protesting Vietnam and other injustices.

Watkins bluntly juxtaposes between the overly militarized police force demonstrating their impressive firepower and the unarmed civilians arguing their cause to unwilling ears. There’s a striking sense of mundanity to the dehumanization and evil on display in these scenes, with rhetoric thrown around like “they made their choice” and “these are dangerous criminals”. Even more striking are the scenes within Punishment Park, which apply an almost surreal, apocalyptic abstraction to their images of unarmed civilians running through the desert from a militarized police force equipped for war. By the time the film concludes, it is astonishingly difficult to discern how much of it is an exaggeration and how much is simply a reappropriation of images this country has seen in its newspapers and on its television sets for well over a century. What is certain is the film’s total condemnation of complacency regarding unjust force being used to suppress groups trying to reform the status quo, perhaps best expressed by its final lines (spoken by a police officer) before an abrupt cut to black: “It’ll happen again as long as we have this type of element to deal with”. It is happening again, and it’s been happening for a long time.

Matewan (1987)

By Kevin Jones

MatewanDirector John Sayles so often focused on the stories of average everyday people and, in this case, their struggle to survive. The dusty, grim streets of Matewan, West Virginia, will soon become a battlefield. After years of dealing with the Stone Mountain Coal Company ignoring safety precautions that caused deaths, evicting families for no reason, paying miners next to nothing, and owning the town (and creating fake currency that could only be spent there), the miners have had enough. Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) has been brought in to help them organize and fight against the company, as well as the heavies brought in to stem the unionist tide. It is a brutal and honest picture that never cuts corners when it comes to showing the struggle of forming a union and fighting for worker’s rights.

Challenges come in a variety of ways, whether company spies, preachers equating unionization with the devil’s work, and the growing panic over Communism – though set in 1920, the Bolshevik Revolution clearly has an impression on this West Virginia town. Matewan itself exists at an interesting intersection with Black men, Italian immigrants, and old-time white West Virginian families having to learn to live in harmony amidst the labor strife. Though the company prompts racism, bringing in the Black men and immigrants to break the strike, Joe urges the union to not fall for the distraction, as the enemy is not foreign or based on race. It is between “those who work and those who don’t.” Either all the working men and women in town get together to fight for something against the company or they will crumble. Matewan does not cut any corners in showing the violence, racial tensions, and cruelty that abounds in fighting for social justice in labor – and its brutal finale with the narration about the aftermath of the massacre showing little light at the end of the tunnel. It is through this that Matewan makes such an impact. They close ranks and fight together for a labor union. Yet, no matter how much progress they make, the system and company is always lurking, armed and ready to strike down anyone who dares to speak out or fight back.

BPM (2017)

By Alex Sitaras

BPMIn many films related to social change or politics, the cause takes the forefront over characters and story. BPM is an exception to the rule- its characters are just as important to the film as is the causes that they’re fighting for (gay rights & AIDS activism). We see Nathan (Arnaud Valois) fall in love with the more politically-engaged and impassioned Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). We come to learn that Sean is HIV-positive and see the toll that the virus takes on him. Sean’s activism is filled with urgency as he knows is it only a matter of time until he succumbs to his illness. 

Predominant in the film are several meetings of ACT UP Paris, the activist organization the film’s characters are a part of. These meetings allow any member of the organization to speak up, enabling every character to speak about issues that are deeply important to their lives and to hear the perspectives of others. We oversee debates about how protests should be organized, what they should consist of, learn about outreach efforts to scientists to learn the most about HIV as they can, and see the distribution of informational materials to educate the public about homosexuality, civil rights, sexual health, and HIV/AIDS.

From learning each character’s background and viewpoints, BPM immerses its audience into the excitement, compassion, perseverance, and hopefulness of the ACT UP Paris members. The film is able to act as an important resource to audiences by depicting acts of protest and the spreading of awareness. Additionally, BPM serves as a reminder of just how important it is to love one another and strive for a better future, even if it may appear distant or unable to provide remedy for the present generation.

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