I ended up in a “spirited online debate” with Twitter user DevSar19 over my essay about Star Wars: A Force Awakens and contemporary Democratic Party politics.
I think people are used to the idea that, say, Selma has a political meaning, or even Wall-e or Finding Nemo. We’re used to the idea that The Martian has a political meaning simply by being about a white guy that everyone in the world is working together to keep alive, that Rocky is political by virtue of being about a white underdog going against a black champion. Chris Rock certainly thinks Creed is political.
Obviously, Star Wars has a singular status in contemporary culture- it is a thing in itself, loved in part because the myth that the original trilogy presents feels so universal. (That didn’t stop groups such as the NAACP, the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation formally protesting The Phantom Menace in 1999– and reasonably enough, I would say.)
When my son, closer in appearance to Finn than to Luke, first saw A New Hope when he was three, he stood up at the end and yelled out “Luke is the hero! Luke is the Hero!” For many fans of the new film (Episode VII) pointing out its political content might feel unfair: how can Mark Hamill blowing up the Death Star be a victory for all, but Finn and Rey defeating Kylo Ren be merely about identity politics, let alone be about Hillary’s 2016 Democratic Party?
Film works on us because we can suspend our sense of self for long enough to go on the journey with the hero– and part of that suspension– particularly when the hero is different from us in various ways– is letting go of our tribal and political identities long enough to grasp onto the film’s internal world. At the same time, the expression of a culture will share that culture’s preoccupations. As I read in the liner notes to a Jimi Hendrix live album once, “the artist is never ahead of his time; the artist is his time.”
America may always have been obsessed with race, and films from Birth of the Nation to Gone with the Wind to The Searchers to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Shaft to Karate Kid to Colors and Do the Right Thing and Boyz in the Hood and The Phantom Menace and Crash and Django Unchained and Creed all bear witness to that obsession. But that doesn’t mean that every single film is organized around the same moral compass or same set of oppositions.
Take the original Star Wars for example. Part of 1977 America- still barely past the moon landings- is a real fascination with science, and the design of the droids and the interior of the Falcon express that. At the same time, there’s a sort of Whole Earth Catalog-style distrust evident in the film, not of science per se but science as an expression of military, industrial, and social control rather than of distributed, local power and knowledge. Thus, the Death Star is huge, inscrutably complex, and an instrument of Armageddon (a much more immediate possibility in 1977 than today) while the Millenium Falcon is an instrument of good precisely because there are wires hanging out all over the place and Chewie has to fix everything himself. It is true that the fantasy aspects of Star Wars are explicitly anti-rational (“trust your instincts, Luke,”) but the conflict is not just between science and belief: Darth Vader certainly believes, too.
It obviously matters (as Melissa Harris-Perry argued) that the voice of Darth Vader is that of a black man, while the heroes and all of the other Imperial leaders are white (and the storm troopers wear white uniforms), but his difference more signals his moral complexity and individual power than merely that “black is bad.” The 70s were a complex time, when urban America seemed to be falling apart at the same time as many black households were making great gains, when the American imperium faltered abroad and the huge postwar rise in individual prosperity across the Western world was beginning to show signs of wear.
All film will be political, and understanding the messages of popular entertainment– at a time when popular entertainment is powerful and influential in ways it has never been before– seems to me still important, still valuable. I joked once that teaching middle school meant convincing girls they really wanted to be doctors instead of singers and convincing boys they really lived on Earth instead of Tatooine. It’s easy to misunderstand these messages, or push them into a worldview that validates our simple preoccupations instead of complicating them, but it seems important to think through them nonetheless.