An Epic Film on the Vietnam War Stops Short

Fog drifts up from the valleys below the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam as U.S. Marines untangle air-dropped supplies in 1968. (AP)

As the dust settles on the release of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick opus “The Vietnam War,” and as the cacophony of criticism quiets, a major issue remains largely unaddressed—U.S. culpability for war crimes in Vietnam.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Hanoi in 2016 seemed a turning point as he offered his hand in friendship to Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, but there were no apologies forthcoming, and no acknowledgement of culpability for a U.S. war of aggression. Nor was there an outcry in the press that something was missing.

There is no statute of limitations on war crimes, as trials of aging German war criminals and of Bosnians and Rwandans attest. But the trying of Americans, especially powerful Americans, is another story entirely. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who still enjoys high status as an adviser to the powerful (his crimes long ago normalized), comes to mind as a potential target of inquiry.

But perhaps more important than the actual indictment of American war criminals is the corrosive effect of old war crimes on the American conscience. Avoidance of the conversation muddles our ability to judge what military ventures are appropriate, and how to prosecute them. The fog of war has become a constant state.

Unfortunately, Burns and Novick’s epic recap of the war stops short of the treatment that might help us internalize the lessons we need. Because their film promises to define the conversation about Vietnam for decades to come, it is vital that critical analysis and debate continue.

By virtue of their power of presentation and the wide exposure their film will receive, Burns and Novick have established themselves as the framers of our collective memory on Vietnam. Power infers responsibility—theirs was to get the history clear and right.

They have gotten a lot right—the sense of Vietnamese and Americans’ shared humanity, of the tragedy and depraved brutality of the war and the persistent lying on the part of our leadership. And, while they have started a robust and vital dialogue about Vietnam that we wouldn’t be engaged in otherwise, crucial elements are either missing or misstated. These elements keep the Vietnam opus from being the masterpiece it could have been and confound our ability to draw the most useful lessons from the conflict.

A fundamental confusion undermines “The Vietnam War.” Was it a civil war or a U.S. war of aggression? Though everything they depict adds up to the latter, the filmmakers avoid that inevitable and damning conclusion. They present the Geneva Accords, which called for an election in 1956 to reunify the country under one government after its temporary division at the 17th parallel. But they fail to drive home that U.S. subversion of that international accord was just a beat in a long line of premeditated aggression. For the record, subversion of an international accord is itself deemed a war crime.

In fact, the U.S. undermined the 1956 election (which never occurred), supported Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of its first puppet regime, dispensed with Diem (and his assassination) when his usefulness ran out, and then installed and propped up a series of puppet “governments.” South Vietnam was a client state—not a legitimate and representative government. But the filmmakers persist in treating South Vietnam as a legitimate representative of the South Vietnamese. In their insistence on not taking sides, the filmmakers instead perpetuate the old—and fully debunked—“civil war” narrative that led us to war.

Their voice-over narration cites the enemy as “the North,” contributing to the “civil war” confusion. But Pentagon-sponsored research had established as early as December 1964 that the “enemy” had Southern origins.

Viewers might recall that in Episode 4, the film reveals the little known Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Study, a Rand Corp. investigation inspired by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s research question: What makes the Viet Cong tick? The first study group reported its results in December 1964 to Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and Gen. William Westmoreland and to the Department of Defense in January 1965. The striking substance of that report, not covered in the film, underscores a central contradiction in the framing of the Vietnam War.

The Rand analysts explained that the enemy in the South was not the jungle insurgency they had expected, but rather a popular government that carried out normal governmental tasks in wide swaths of the countryside. Most pertinent to this discussion, the Provisional Revolutionary Government and its army, the National Liberation Front (as the Viet Cong called themselves), was a movement “by and for southerners,” the analysts said.

Their description of the enemy’s resolute determination to fight to the finish for reunification of Vietnam and what they termed “peace with freedom,” prompted a Pentagon deputy to declare, “If what you say is true, we’re fighting on the wrong side—the side that’s going to lose this war.” That memorable quote appears in the film, but without the context that would clarify its meaning.

The Rand analysts’ emphasis on Southern origins of the resistance is well supported by subsequent research. New York University history professor Marilyn Young documented how Southern-bred resistance to Diem’s reign of terror in the countryside—suspected Communists were rounded up and executed en masse—precipitated the North’s entry into the war. Even Le Duan, secretary general of the Communist Party of Vietnam, had opposed armed insurrection in the South, arguing that “consolidation of the North was the pre-eminent revolutionary task” and sanctioning only political struggle.

Flaunting Le Duan’s directive, remnants of the Viet Minh formed self-defense units that eventually forced the Northern-based party to sanction official formation and arming of the National Liberation Front and to come to their direct aid.

Well known, as documented in the Pentagon Papers, was the expected outcome of the thwarted 1956 elections. Vietnam would have been reunited as one country under the Communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

The argument of North Vietnamese aggression evaporates once we’ve debunked the Tonkin Gulf Incident (see the Pentagon Papers), and dispensed with the myth of two Vietnams and the ensuing illusion of the U.S. as protector of a democratic South Vietnamese government. With those props gone, our war effort is thrown into stark relief. We were the aggressors.

The distinction of who was the aggressor in Vietnam couldn’t be more important. Under international law, a response to aggression is the only legitimate reason to wage war. The Nuremburg trials, which were led by U.S. efforts, established that aggression is the gravest war crime of all, because it is aggression that undermines the peace and serves as a precursor to other war crimes. That is why the U.S. was so intent on painting North Vietnam as the aggressor—only then would Congress and international opinion sanction the war.

The filmmakers’ failure to identify the aggressor and their clouding of the issue with the old “civil war” construct deprives the public of a framework for analysis.

Of course, U.S. aggression did, in fact, serve as a precursor to other crimes.

The filmmakers rightfully acknowledge My Lai as an atrocity. And the film depicts other atrocities, including Zippo raids on villages and the use of Agent Orange and napalm. It touches on pacification. But it doesn’t connect the dots for viewers who don’t know the history. We don’t learn that destruction of the very fabric of Vietnamese life was fully intentional, that full-out assault on civilians was central to U.S. war strategy. Most distressingly, for anyone interested in our nation’s compliance with international law, all of this adds up to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Take the strategy with the most benign name—pacification. What this meant in practice was the purposeful displacement of half the population of South Vietnam. Because it was recognized that the guerrillas were fish in the sea of the people, U.S. strategists aimed to drain the sea to deprive the guerillas of their support base. Zippo raids destroyed the villages while Agent Orange destroyed the crops, and villagers were forced into resettlement camps surrounded by barbed wire. The purposeful generation of refugees is a war crime, which the documentary fails to name.

The film’s treatment of the Phoenix Program bears particular mention. The voice-over describing the program states that former CIA Director William Colby testified to Congress that it couldn’t be determined how many of the more than 20,000 identified Communists killed under Phoenix had been innocent. Let’s unpack the implications of that statement. Under Phoenix, suspected Communists were detained, tortured and then killed. The suspects included civilians—men, women and children.

Guilty or innocent, Communist or not, we are proscribed by the rules of war from summarily executing those we capture, not to mention the proscription against torture. I learned that much as a kid watching World War II movies. But the implication, as it is presented, is that “innocents” might have been caught in too big a net, not that torture and murder of any and all captives is illegal.

Then there is the bombing. The most strident voice calling out the air war in the film is that of Jane Fonda. Fonda’s regrettable decision to condemn the air war while perched on an anti-aircraft gun undermined her message. But she spoke an essential truth. The carpet bombing with B-52s was a war crime.

The filmmakers’ decision to frame the “Hanoi Jane” episode with a clip from “Barbarella” and former Marine John Musgrave’s sexual fantasies neutralized the single voice calling out for the war crimes inquiry of the bombing. This is a glaring lapse of editorial judgment on the filmmakers’ part—the titillating “Barbarella” clip belongs on the cutting-room floor.

Lest it be misconstrued, discussion of war crimes was not confined to the left. Fonda’s call for a war crimes inquiry was echoed during the late 1960s and ’70s, especially after My Lai. To cite just a few examples, Nuremberg prosecutor and U.S. Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor took a leading role, alongside members of Congress and American scholars and jurists and GIs who launched their own investigation, in the discussion of potential war crimes charges that might be leveled at U.S. leaders.

Taylor wrote a treatise on the applicability of Nuremberg to Vietnam, titled “Nuremburg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy” (1970). And a small book titled “War Crimes and the American Conscience” chronicles the Congressional Conference on War and National Responsibility held in 1970, in response to My Lai. These were only two of a score of war-crimes offerings from the period, as Neil Sheehan of The New York Times documented. While a documentary can’t cover everything, the broad-based outcry against U.S. aggression and war crimes demands full treatment.

The subject was debated at the time. Witnesses at the Congressional Conference spoke to the fact that the war was being waged against the “entire Vietnamese people” with no regard for a “distinction between civilians and combatants.” Falk cited the most egregious examples of that practice: “the B-52 pattern raids against undefended villages and populated areas, free-fire zones, harassment and interdiction fire, Operation Phoenix, search and destroy missions, massive crop destruction and defoliation, and the forcible transfer of the civilian population.”

Conference participants did not reach consensus on the issue of genocide, with some arguing that the war was genocidal and others opining that U.S. crimes did not meet the criteria for genocide designation. That war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed was not debated.

My Lai was put into terrible relief when author Jonathan Schell described a two-week journalism stint flying over Quang Nai, the province where My Lai is located. From the air, he charted B-52 destruction of the province, shading the destroyed areas on military maps, and documented that 70 percent of the villages there had been destroyed from the air. He corroborated his findings with interviews of ground commanders. The My Lai massacre occurred three months later.

It was not isolated. An estimated 2 million civilians died in the war and half the population—approximately 8 million people—were driven from their homes. That is a holocaust.

But Burns and Novick don’t acknowledge the full implications of aggressive war and its progeny—the host of war crimes we inflicted on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Rather, the filmmakers couch their exposure of war crimes with misplaced journalistic “impartiality.” In Episode 9, John Kerry, representing the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, offers riveting congressional testimony that identifies specific war crimes and contextualizes them. But what could have been an opening to an analysis of systemic war crimes is checked by the insertion of an interview that denies systemic abuse.

There are other strong moments, such as when Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien questions how the My Lai perpetrators could escape unpunished and when a Vietnamese survivor recalls the devastation on the ground after a bombing. But even as they portray atrocities inflicted by U.S. forces, the atrocities are particularized. We see the devastation of napalm on Kim Phuc, but we don’t appreciate how many civilians that criminal enterprise killed or maimed as our armed forces targeted civilian centers.

Coverage of the Winter Soldier Investigation would have dispensed with the notion that war crimes were anything but systemic—but the GIs’ devastating 1971 inquiry isn’t covered.

Most importantly, the atrocities covered by the film might have had restorative impact if they had been framed with an analysis of aggressive war—in other words, an analysis that imparts lasting lessons.

As profound and simultaneously flawed as it is, “The Vietnam War” offers Americans a vital opportunity to re-examine Vietnam. Arguably, a film that addressed the war as a war of aggression with full disclosure of those terrible implications most likely never would have been made. Viewed from that perspective, Burns and Novick’s series is a considerable achievement. But it is one that requires us to continue its unfinished work.

To grapple with such damning conclusions as those proposed here, the public needs an 11th episode—our own multifaceted inquiry into what occurred in Vietnam.

One element that needs further exploration is the role of the anti-war movement: who fought, what we said and how we said it. And how GIs, resistors, deserters, conscientious objectors, concerned clergy, students, workers and academics, blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos—in short, the full spectrum of society—joined forces to stop U.S aggression. That chapter has not been fleshed out and bears telling.

A haunting song of the period that could serve as soundtrack to the 11th episode is Holly Near’s “No More Genocide in My Name.” I remember that being called as a chant at demonstrations against the war. I lived and demonstrated in Los Angeles, where Ron Kovic, the subject of the movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” and Daniel Ellsberg and Tony Russo, the Pentagon Papers co-defendants, regularly marched with us. To my recollection, Russo first raised the “no more genocide” chant (the most likely inspiration for the song). Those words were intensely personal to Russo, who was listed as an author of Rand Corp. reports that advocated the air war and other crimes against humanity.

A half-century later, it is time we face up to the true nature of the horror of Vietnam. Until we acknowledge the criminality of U.S. aggression in all its forms, until we call out loudly and clearly that there will be no more war crimes in our names, we will fail to safeguard our essential morality and be doomed to fateful repetition. Our calls for democracy will remain hollow, stripped of their core by our crimes against humanity. And our fatal flaw will not go unnoticed.

Barbara Myers is an independent journalist, with historically based film and print stories set in Vietnam, China and Rwanda, and the author of The Other Conspirator, The Secret Origins of the CIA’s Torture Program and the Forgotten Man Who Tried to Expose It. 

Barbara Myers

Ai Weiwei’s Harrowing Film on the Refugee Crisis Is a Must-See

A still from Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, “Human Flow.” (Screen shot via YouTube)

Once called the “contemporary art world’s most powerful player,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his focus onto the most urgent humanitarian issue of our time: the global refugee crisis. In a new documentary called “Human Flow,” the artist—who has made political statements the core of his art—explores how war, violence and climate change have made refugees of 65 million people.

Ai, who traveled with his camera crew to 23 countries over the course of a year, captured intimate moments of desperation that have driven refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere, risking their lives to escape violence. The film is sweeping and vast, with drone-camera shots utilizing aerial views to showcase the extent of the crisis, combined with intimate iPhone footage taken by Ai.

“Human Flow” is essential viewing for Americans, whose government has not only had a hand in creating many of the crises that drive migration, but is also actively closing the door to refugees. “The U.S. does have a responsibility,” Ai told me in an interview about his film. “Very often people in the United States think that something happening in different continents doesn’t really affect the U.S.” But, he says, “Look at U.S. policy and what’s happening today: the travel ban, or the building of this ‘beautiful’ fence or wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It all shows that the leadership has a very, very questionable position in dealing with migration and refugees.”

Indeed, President Donald Trump—with the help of the Supreme Court—has kept in place a de facto blanket ban on refugees entering the country. It is perhaps easy for most Americans, who live so far from where this misery is unfolding, to ignore the global refugee crisis, especially given the near-daily assaults on the Constitution and good sense emanating from the White House these days.

But by embedding himself for months in the flow of refugee life while making his film, Ai developed an understanding of what it is like to flee violence and danger. Through “Human Flow,” he takes viewers into intimate spaces: the heart-rending decisions as families weigh whether to stay or leave, the pain they feel from losing their loved ones in the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, and the frustration and rage that emerges from being blocked from reaching their destinations by barbed wire and armed police.

One moment in “Human Flow” is seared in my memory—a moment no Hollywood studio could reproduce. Two young brothers are sitting on the muddy ground outside their meager tent in the semi-darkness of a refugee camp. One is crying, promising to follow his brother anywhere, no matter what. Ai added context to that remarkable scene, which he and his crew witnessed. “They had no idea where they would be accepted,” he told me. “They had been refused. They had been stopped at the border and had spent all their money on the dangerous journey to come to a place which will block them and maybe send them back.”

In another harrowing scene, an Afghan woman agrees to speak with Ai, but only if her face is not on screen. She sits with her back to the camera and begins answering questions about her family’s torturous journey from Afghanistan. Minutes later, she loses control and throws up.

One middle-aged man takes the film crew to a makeshift graveyard, where multiple members of his family were buried after they drowned while trying to flee. He breaks down in tears as he sifts through the identity cards of the dead—all he has left of his kin.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are rewriting their rules for entry in direct response to the massive demand by people looking for safe haven, Ai’s film puts faces to the numbers. “You see people really feel betrayed,” Ai says. “They think [of] Europe as a land that protects basic humanity.” The cruelty of European anti-refugee policies emerges as a central theme, as Ai explores the abandonment of lofty ideals of humanity on a continent that promised never again to turn away refugees after World War II (ironically, tens of thousands of European refugees fled the violence of World War II and found refuge in camps in the Middle East, including in Syria). It was, perhaps, easy to make pronouncements like “Never Again” in hindsight, but when the opportunity arises to prevent another human disaster, all the familiar political reasons re-emerge, like zombies from the grave.

Not content to showcase the fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, the film also includes the stories of refugees who are less popular in mainstream media: Palestinians displaced from their homes and languishing under Israeli siege in Gaza, Rohingya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar’s persecution, climate refugees from various African countries, and even Latin American migrants desperate to enter the United States.

Bizarrely, it is the story of a wild animal that best expresses Europe and America’s abandonment of humans. A tiger, having entered Gaza through an underground tunnel, is housed and fed by a local organization. “Human Flow” shows the extraordinary lengths to which local, regional and state authorities cooperate with one another to ensure the safe passage and relocation of the tiger—a privilege not afforded to the refugees stranded on the same lands. Unlike the “flow” of humans seen throughout the film, Palestinians living in Gaza are “stuck,” according to Ai. “It’s like jail for millions of people living in such unbelievable conditions,” he says of the unending Israeli siege of Gaza.

The artist-turned-filmmaker has broken a number of barriers in his film by focusing on the humanity of tens of millions of people that the world would rather forget about. But he has also broken some rules of filmmaking. There are few talking heads in the film and little discussion of politics and policy. News headlines from media outlets scroll along the bottom of the screen, filling in the blanks in terse text. And really, do we need any more films about the well-documented causes of human suffering in the global refugee crisis?

What Ai’s film offers is what is missing most from our discussions of the refugee crisis: the fact that those who are fleeing are real people who bleed when they are injured, who cry when they are hurt, among whom are innocent children and tired elders, who are all being abandoned in a moment we will collectively look back on in shame.

“Human Flow” opens in theaters nationwide in October. Learn more online at

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…

The American nightmare: the career of moviemaker George Romero

Nicole Colson looks at the career of moviemaker George Romero, who died July 16.

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
— Karl Marx

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
— Johnny, Night of the Living Dead

Zombies on the hunt in Night of the Living Dead

Zombies on the hunt in Night of the Living Dead

THE “THEY” that were coming for poor Barbara–and for us in the audience–changed frequently from film to film over the course of horror-master George Romero’s career. Racism, consumer culture, Reagan-era militarism, the ruling class–all were fair game for the father of the modern zombie movie, who died on July 16 after a career in film spanning nearly 40 years.

Romero’s best and most-enduring film was his first–1968’s Night of the Living Dead. It was made by a group of friends and shot on a shoestring budget outside of Pittsburgh in just 30 days, with the cast and crew working in 24-hour shifts. Friends played the zombies, and the meat and entrails needed for the gore were helpfully provided by a friend who was a butcher.

Night of the Living Dead tells the story of a group of survivors of a zombie outbreak seeking shelter in a farmhouse–catatonic Barbara, whose brother Johnny is killed in the opening scene, squabbling parents Harry and Helen and their young daughter Karen, young couple Tom and Judy, and protagonist Ben. [Editor’s note: Spoilers abound throughout this article, but it’s your fault if you haven’t seen these movies already.]

The film masterfully ratchets up the tension as the survivors fall victim to the zombies, before ending on a note that is both shocking and beautifully bleak, and stands as not only a masterpiece of modern horror, but one of the starkest commentaries on racism in American film.

While zombies had been depicted in American film before Night of the Living Dead, they were, essentially, not monsters but slave labor. Romero’s genius was in taking zombies and turning them into a slow, inexorable, mindless force bent only on feeding–a force that he would use as an allegorical foil in multiple films.

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NIGHT OF the Living Dead was one of a number of horror movies from the late 1960s and ’70s that were shaped by the massive upheavals taking place in American society.

Romero and other horror icons, like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, who emerged at the time transmitted on screen what they saw in the world: the violence of police, dogs and fire hoses being used against civil rights marchers; city streets burning in the wake of urban rebellions; body bags and the escalating horrors of Vietnam.

The monstrous was already taking place in real America every day, and making its way into living rooms on the evening news. It was only natural that this should find its way onto the big screen as well.

As Romero commented in the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare, explaining the choice to shoot his first movie in black and white, “In those days, the news was in black and white, and black and white was the medium…I thought it was great, you know, this idea of a revolution…a new society devouring the old completely and just changing everything.”

“Obviously,” Romero added, “what’s happening in the world creeps into any work.”

In contrast to the multitude of zombies in horror today–from the Walking Dead to World War Z, the endless iterations of Romero’s own Living Dead series, and even a genre of “zombie romantic comedies”–Night of the Living Dead was the first time that an act of cannibalism had been portrayed on a U.S. movie screen.

The scene of a young child eating her parents was shocking for what it said about a society so at odds with itself, as evidenced by the racist violence used against civil rights activists and the increasing numbers of young men returning home from Vietnam in body bags or still alive, but profoundly changed by the horrors of war.

In fact, the look of Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead owes much to effects artist Tom Savini, who used his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam as inspiration.

While Romero didn’t originally intend for Night of the Living Dead to be a commentary on race and racism, the casting of Black actor Duane Jones as protagonist Ben makes it impossible to not see the film this way. Because of Jones, scenes in the film evoke lynchings, the terror of the Klan and the civil rights movement.

That Ben is authoritative and seemingly in control throughout–slapping Barbara out of hysterics at one point and telling Harry to “Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here”–only underscores the gut-punch of the casual brutality of his death. It is one of the most emotionally devastating endings in modern film, not just horror.

In a twist of fate, Romero and his collaborators finished the film and loaded it in a car trunk to take to New York to find a distributor on April 4, 1968–the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

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PART OF the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead is the way it builds tension through demolishing movie conventions–the ostensible heroine becomes catatonic for virtually the entire film, only to be eaten by her brother; the young couple in love are burned alive and eaten; the nuclear family is (literally) torn apart as a zombified child chomps on her dad and then hacks mom to death with a trowel.

Just when dawn is breaking and rescue seems imminent for Ben–who has, against all odds, survived the long night of the zombie hordes–he is nonchalantly gunned down. Shot between the eyes by a white sheriff’s posse, he is reduced to “another one for the fire,” his body dragged away with hooks.

As Renée Graham wrote recently in the Boston Globe about seeing the film in 1968:

Everyone in the posse is white. Ben is African American. I was a child, but the message I received was depressingly clear: They killed Ben because they believed a Black man had to be a threat. A Black hero equaled a dead hero…

Already, 1968 had been a beast of a year. On an April night, as my family prepared to celebrate my father’s birthday, a TV bulletin announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, still wearing a costume from my dance recital that evening, I stood in front of the television watching mourners wave, weep and salute as a train carried the body of Robert F. Kennedy, murdered days earlier. For months, every adult around me walked around in agony and silence.

Yet nothing that year affected me as profoundly as watching Ben die…

Night of the Living Dead made Romero a legend by expanding the audience’s concept of what a horror movie could be. Its resonance for me still cuts deeper. Whatever his original intentions, Romero’s classic taught me early and indelibly that the real monsters who threaten us aren’t undead ghouls stalking the night.

“We always had that ending,” Romero commented later. “It seemed like the only fitting end. And even though the posse goes rolling across the countryside, leaving our hero dead, we get the feeling that they are not going to win either. There’s this new society coming. In the end, none of this is going to work, guys.”

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LATER INSTALLMENTS of Romero’s Living Dead series would make the social commentary more explicit–though none to the same brilliant extent as Night.

Romero would state in one DVD commentary that while writing or making a movie, the points he would make about society were often more important to him than the characters–which led to politically interesting films, though the storytelling sometimes suffered.

Dawn of the Dead, perhaps Romero’s best film outside of Night, is a satire on consumer culture. In it, survivors take refuge from zombies inside Pittsburgh’s Monroeville Mall, leading to hilarious sequences of “mindless consumption”–both by human survivors and, of course, the zombies. “This was an important place in their lives,” one character says in explaining why the zombies would be drawn to a shopping mall after dead.

In 1985’s Day of the Dead, Reagan-era militarism comes under fire. A group of scientists and soldiers are stuck in an underground military base, coming into conflict over the macho militarism of the soldiers in charge, as well as the grisly experiments by one of the scientists, who believes that zombies can be made docile.

Of particular interest in today’s current political climate, however, is Romero’s 2005 Land of the Dead–an uneven, though often hilarious, entry in the Living Dead series.

A maniacal and entertainingly campy Dennis Hopper plays a character clearly modeled on our current president. In the face of societal collapse, he has convinced the super-rich to move into a self-enclosed, Trump-Tower-like, high-rise called “Fiddler’s Green.” The rest of the human population lives outside in squalor and fear, while Hopper’s character sponsors mercenaries to go out on runs and collect supplies for the rich.

At the core of the film is the question of the allegiances of the mercenaries and the potential of a growing zombie consciousness. Led by a Black zombie mechanic, the zombies begin to communicate and organize. The climax of the film hinges on a moment of zombie-human solidarity that is both funny and deeply satisfying for socialists to watch.

As Romero once said, “The zombie for me was always the blue-collar monster. He is us.”

Also well worth watching is Martin, Romero’s 1978 meditation on the vampire genre–which asks what makes a monster and what kind of psychological dysfunction lurks inside the house next door.

Though uneven, the film takes joy in exploding romanticized notions about vampires–there’s nary a sexy or sparkly vampire anywhere in it–to get down to brass tacks in examining what might be thought of as vampire working conditions.

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“I’VE BEEN able to use genre of fantasy/horror and express my opinion, talk a little about society, do a little bit of satire,” Romero once said, “and that’s been great, man.”

Marxist film scholar Robin Wood, a staunch defender of Romero’s work into the 1980s, would go farther, claiming:

It is perhaps the lingering intellectual distrust of the horror genre that has prevented George Romero’s Living Dead [series] from receiving full recognition for what it undoubtedly is: one of the most remarkable and audacious achievements of modern American cinema, and the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a “popular entertainment” medium.

So in tribute to George Romero, don’t wait until Halloween this year to watch his movies. With the monsters in Washington revealing their true natures every day, we should remember what Romero thought about the potential of horror:

Horror is radical. It can take you into a completely new world, new place, and just rattle your cage and say, wait a minute–look at things differently. That shock of horror is what horror’s all about. But in most cases, at the end of the story, people try to bring everything back–the girl gets the guy and everything’s fine and things go on just the way they were. Which is really why we are doing this in the first place. We don’t want things the way they are or we wouldn’t be trying to shock you into an alternative place.

So go ahead–when it comes to George Romero movies, consume away.

Three intriguing new films that should not disappear unnoticed: Sami Blood, Past Life and Radio Dreams

By David Walsh
10 June 2017

There are still compelling reasons to pay attention to interesting, artistic films, such as Sami Blood (Sweden) , Past Life (Israel) and Radio Dreams (Iran-US), all of which opened in the US in early June.

Most of the films in movie theaters in the US at the moment are poor, juvenile or worse. As a result, the public is increasingly turning away. From 2009 through 2012, North American box office grew by slightly less than two percent. 2016 was one of the worst years in the history of the American film industry in terms of ticket sales per person. The decline seems likely to continue this year. Revenues climb solely because of the rising cost of movie tickets.

The exhaustion of the large film studios’ (i.e., conglomerates’) collective imagination has reached a dangerous, nearly provocative level.

It is almost a commonplace by now that more intriguing work, in general, is being done in the US in television, by the cable channels and so forth. There is even an argument to be made that the 8- or 10-part series is more conducive to pursuing certain subjects, including complex historical and social questions.

Moreover, the eruption of virtually universal political crisis legitimately and imperatively pushes certain issues to the fore. The film world comes in for justifiable impatience and anger for its failure by and large to confront those great issues.

However, that is not an argument against the filmmaker undertaking more personal or at least specialized work. The reasoning, should it emerge, that the urgency of the conditions means that only large-scale, panoramic films are worthwhile, is not a good one. As Trotsky once suggested, “personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist.” Moreover, he added, the new human being could not “be formed without a new lyric poetry.”

None of the three films that opened in early June falls into the category of “lyric poetry,” and, in fact, each raises certain historical or social questions, broadly speaking, but they are undoubtedly concise, detailed pictures, more concerned with the manner in which social events find psychological expression, and determine the course of individuals’ lives. Their greatest value lies in encouraging more complex thinking and feeling.

One or more may already have vanished from theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for example, but they are now in circulation, and will reappear somewhere or other, or in some other format. These are edited versions of comments that have appeared previously on the WSWS.

Sami Blood

Sami Blood

There are films that are painful and pleasurable at the same time. Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood, from Sweden, is not an easy film to watch. It creates considerable unease and anxiety, reflecting the internally conflicted, nearly impossible situation of its central character.

The film, Kernell’s first feature-length work, is set in Sweden primarily in the 1930s. Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), 14, is a reindeer-herding Sami girl, who is sent to a state boarding school aimed at “civilizing” its students.

The Samis are an indigenous people inhabiting northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Like other indigenous peoples, they have long faced racism and oppression.

One of the early scenes is memorable. Elle Marja is rowing herself and her younger sister, Njenna (Mia Sparrok), across a beautiful, tranquil lake. They are on their way to the boarding school, leaving their mother and everyone they know behind. Njenna cries quietly. “I don’t want to go,” she says simply, while her sister pulls the oars.

Elle Marja is a bright, ambitious girl. She wants very much to assimilate into the Swedish population. She sharply tells her sister, “You must speak Swedish.” Meanwhile local farm boys call them “dirty Lapps,” although one seems to be Sami himself.

One day, officials come to the school in a car and the girls and boys line up in their native costumes. The event starts out like some sort of stuffy but harmless bureaucratic ceremony. Horrifyingly, the officials are there to measure and photograph the Sami children, as part of research into “racial characteristics.”

Elle Marja wants to continue her education, she starts dreaming of another life, but her teacher (Hanna Alström) somewhat regretfully lets her know that “You people don’t have what it takes” to get by in the wider world. Eventually, Elle Marja takes off, for Uppsala, a large city. She tries to impose herself on the family of a Swedish boy she has met. Every effort to fit in ends in awkwardness for her, if not humiliation. At one point, a young guest at the family’s house, an anthropology student, asks her patronizingly to perform a traditional Sami singing style.

In any case, she needs money to pay for her schooling. She goes back home and demands a sum of cash. In an outburst, she tells her mother: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be with you. I don’t want to be a f–––––– circus animal.”

Kernell’s film is made with great sensitivity and attention to detail. The director was born in 1986 in the far north of Sweden to a Swedish mother and Sami father. Sami Blood was reportedly inspired by the experiences of Kernell’s grandmother. The filmmaker told an interviewer that the treatment of the Samis was an “untold” story and a “dark chapter” in Swedish history. The film, she said, is about someone “leaving what you’re from, becoming another.” What are the consequences for Elle Marja when she “cuts all ties”?

The worst part of the story is that in order to make a life for herself, Elle Marja has to absorb into herself elements of racism and contempt for her own people. This is what Swedish society does to her. In one especially difficult scene, Elle Marja, who is trying to pass herself off as a “normal Swede,” is obliged to shoo away her own beloved sister, pretending not to understand what she is saying and blurting out, “Get away, you filthy Lapp.” Njenna may never forgive her for this.

The drama is remarkably intimate. We know at times almost more than we want to know about Elle Marja’s predicament. Kernell also provides hints of broader social processes–the concern with “race” and eugenics, for example. In the same interview, she said that she did not want to “explain” anything, but simply tell the story.

This is not the occasion to enter into a polemic on that score once again, especially in regard to a film that, for the most part, is moving and clear-sighted and a filmmaker who is obviously conscientious and humane.

However, it is one thing to recognize that artists for the most part are more expert at “showing” the world than explaining it, that they are seized by powerful impressions that have a strong element of intuition. It is another to make a positive program, as so many artists do today, out of “not explaining.” In our view, the filmmaker or novelist requires “high intellectual powers,” in Aleksandr Voronsky’s phrase, and cannot make progress without “immense, very persistent and complex rational activity.”

Sami Blood is an extraordinary, deeply felt film. But it is probably the sort of work that can only be done once. Even as it is, its strong emotional content should not blind us to certain tendencies that may endanger Kernell’s development: the relative narrowness, the intense immediacy. …

Past Life

Past Life

Avi Nesher’s Past Life, from Israel, is an intelligent, convincing film for the most part, inspired by a true story. It takes place in the late 1970s.

Aspiring composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is in Berlin to sing with her choral group when a woman approaches her after a concert, and upon hearing her name, calls her father a “murderer.” The woman seems to be Polish, and wears a crucifix around her neck.

Sephi and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), who has an axe to grind against her stern father, set out to look into the matter. Nana works for a leftist magazine of some kind and has arguments with her father about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. When we first see her, she is condemning Israelis for “robbing people of their land” and for justifying “our crimes by crimes committed against us.” Her father, a gynecologist, will hear none of it.

The sisters, with Nana (“I hate secrets”) in the lead, uncover painful facts about their father’s life in Poland during World War II, when he hid in a farmer’s basement from the Gestapo. Eventually, against his better judgment and against his wife’s wishes (“Why bring up the past?”), Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), reads to his daughters his wartime diary, a diary of “hell.”

The story is complicated by the woman Sephi met in Berlin, Agnieszka Zielinska (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), and her son, Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a composer with whom Sephi develops a friendship. Why is the Polish woman so convinced Dr. Milch is a murderer? Can a victim of the greatest crime in history have committed inexcusable acts?

There are many complications and intricacies in this story. There is even an element of “suspense.” Some of the situations seem unlikely, but they are apparently rooted in fact. Nesher, a veteran director, comments, “World War II ended in 1945 and it took the world seven decades but finally everyone seems to have moved on–everyone, that is, except for the sons and daughters of those Holocaust survivors, the very people who constitute the vast majority of the population of my homeland.”

He continues: “Slippery politicians know only too well how to press the Holocaust button and activate reactions that would do Pavlov proud. … [The Holocaust] is a deeply rooted trauma that is very difficult to overcome, but overcome it we must if our children are to have a future.”

Nesher, however, seems to have a limited notion of what “overcoming” the past would mean. It seems simply bound up with “forgiveness,” “reconciliation” and similar concepts. He has set the film when he did for a reason. Past Life’s production notes explain: “1977 is the same year Egyptian president Sadat decided to break the shackles of history and bravely embark on a peace process with Israel. In many ways this is exactly what the two sisters need to do as they travel throughout Europe, bent on uncovering the past and getting to the truth behind their parents’ darkest secret.” This is a poor comparison on every score.

The desire to promote reconciliation as such perhaps helps explain the somewhat unconvincing, pat final scenes, during which various attempts are made to bring Dr. Milch and his wife together with Agnieszka Zielinska.

For the most part though, the film is intensely and richly written and performed. The sense of historical nightmare hanging over the various characters is palpable. Tavory is particularly memorable.

Past Life is inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s autobiography Can Heaven Be Void? Milch’s diary was brought to Nesher’s attention by Milch’s daughter, Ella Sheriff. Sheriff explained to an interviewer: “It was terrifying to know that our parents had a secret, but never knowing what it might be. In fact, the atmosphere was consistently grim. There was never a feeling of a happy childhood. We could not share our own distressing experiencing with our parents, either, and yet on the other hand we girls were always overprotected, especially by our father, and we could not understand where this anxiety was coming from, the constant fear of loss.”

Shedding light on the mentality of many of those who emigrated to Israel after the war, Sheriff pointed to her father’s personal “Ten Commandments,” which include: “Thou shall have no other Gods before yourself,” “Do only that which benefits you, and do not sacrifice for others,” “Toughen your heart and do not heed it,” “Do not get too close to people, and do not bring them closer to you,” and “Do not be gullible, and trust no one.”

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams

Radio Dreams, directed by Iranian-born, London-based director Babak Jalali, is a pleasurable experience. The film takes place for the most part in a Farsi-language radio station in the Bay Area during the course of one day.

Numerous tensions exist, side by side. The programming director, Hamid Royami, is an Iranian émigré, a novelist, well-known in his own country (played by the Iranian singer-songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo). He has artistic ideals, and some sort of leftist past. He wants to present something about life, including the lives of Iranians in the US, in poetry, songs, stories.

Maral (Boshra Dastournezhad), the daughter of the station’s owner, worries only about the income coming in from advertisers. The station owner himself is mainly interested in wrestling. Maral’s noisy, crass commercials for pizza shops and dermatologists interrupt and cut into Hamid’s artistic programming, threatening to send him over the edge.

Bizarrely, everyone at the radio station is waiting for the appearance of Metallica, the rock ‘n’ roll band. The three members of the Afghan band, Kabul Dreams, in particular are sitting around in hopes of meeting their idols. One of the band, meanwhile, falls in love with Maral and reads her a poem, in which he explains that he will wait “120 years in the gutter” for her to whisper his name.

An English-language interviewer asks Hamid why he has invited Metallica to the station. The latter explains, with and without the aid of his inadequate translator, that he was thinking of the tragic history of the two countries, the US and Afghanistan, and wanting to bring the two bands together, “without war, without violence.”

Out of the blue, the station has the opportunity to broadcast an interview with Miss Iran USA. On the way to the station, an employee points out to the young woman, who is dressed in full beauty queen attire, that “No one can see you on radio.” This is the sort of programming that appalls Hamid, her eventual interviewer. The pageant winner has a history of modeling and aspires to be a pharmacist. She is also a poet of sorts. “Do you want me to read one of my poems?,” she asks on air. “No,” Hamid replies, leaving it at that.

In the end, one of Metallica’s members makes an unlikely appearance, but it may be too late for Hamid.

Radio Dreams is appealing. Namjoo, with his amazing shock of grey hair, is an intelligent and sensitive presence. “Poetry like bread is for everyone,” he explains early in the film. How can he reconcile his artistic feelings and his social views with life in America, where he can barely speak the language, and, specifically, with the philistine goings-on at the radio station?

Taking into account the situation in the Middle East and Central Asia, one might wish for a greater urgency. Nor is the social layer represented in Babak Jalali’s film the most oppressed or hard-pressed. But there is a painful element here too: the strangeness of emigration, the indifference of the new country and its population … This is a rather sad comedy. If it were an American film at present, unhappily, the various episodes would be vulgarly done, over the top and terribly unfunny. Jalali brings humanity and sophistication to the work.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Life and heroism in wartime Warsaw

By Joanne Laurier
5 April 2017

Directed by Niki Caro; screenplay by Angela Workman, based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman

New Zealand-born filmmaker Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper s Wife recounts the true story of the rescue of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland that began in 1939.

Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman, Caro’s movie dramatizes the heroic efforts by Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński, to turn their bombed out Warsaw zoo into a safe haven and route to freedom for some 300 Jewish men, women and children. Ackerman’s work relied on various sources, particularly Antonina’s memoirs and letters, along with diaries, memoirs, articles and other writings by Ghetto inhabitants.

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

It is an intriguing and little known episode of the Holocaust. Metaphorically, this “zoo” story underscores the vile character of the Nazis’ racist-chauvinist view that other peoples, especially the Jews, were subhuman species.

The Żabińskis put themselves and their children at grave risk at a time when even offering a Jewish person a cup of water in Warsaw was punishable by death.

Spanning seven years, starting in 1939, the movie opens with sequences revealing the intensely compassionate relationship that Antonina (Jessica Chastain) has with the zoo animals. On the eve of the German army’s assault, she awakens her young son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, and later by Val Maloku), who is peacefully sleeping alongside two lion cubs. Antonia makes her morning rounds, cycling through the zoo, followed by a galloping baby camel. It is feeding time when she greets her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and other staff members. The relationship between the Żabińskis and their exotic beasts seems idyllic.

But soon German bombs rain down on Warsaw, and whistling fire-balls destroy much of the city and devastate the zoo. Buildings and cages collapse, killing a good many of the animals. (Ackerman writes: “Miraculously, some animals survived at the zoo and many escaped across the bridge, entering Old Town while the capital burned. People brave enough to stand by their windows, or unlucky enough to be outside, watched a biblical hallucination unfolding as the zoo emptied into Warsaw’s streets. Seals waddled along the banks of the Vistula, camels and llamas wandered down alleyways, hooves skidding on cobblestone, ostriches and antelope trotted beside foxes and wolves, anteaters called out hatchee, hatchee as they scuttled over bricks.”)

German forces enter the zoo and shoot many of the remaining animals and confiscate others. After an unsuccessful attempt to flee Warsaw, the Żabińskis are forced to make a proposal to an acquaintance and fellow zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), head of Berlin’s zoo and now a committed Nazi. Antonina and Jan request permission from Heck to transform the shattered facility into a pig farm. They suggest that the garbage from the Jewish Ghetto be used to feed the swine that, in turn, will feed the German army.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Heck is thrilled with the prospect of using the zoo’s facility in his attempt to genetically resurrect the long-extinct bull, the aurochs, and promote it as a symbol of Aryan strength and purity. Under Heck’s nose, however, Jan begins smuggling out Ghetto residents hidden in large containers of garbage. The refugees are then concealed in the cages and tunnels of the zoo.

“I was raised with these people,” Jan tells Antonina. “Jews, Gentiles, it never mattered to me.” For Antonina, her “human zoo” will help mend the wounds of those like Urszule (Shira Haas), a traumatized teenage girl brutally raped by two German soldiers. The cunning and dangerous operation also involves fabricating identity papers. Of all the hundreds of Jews brought out by the Żabińskis, only two were murdered.

When the liquidation of the Ghetto begins in July 1942 and thousands of people are herded into trains bound for concentration camps, Jan joins the uprising (Ackerman: “Sixty-three days of ferocious street-to-street fighting”) and stockpiles weapons in the zoo. During the fighting, he is shot and wounded, and sent to a German internment camp. Antonina, who has given birth to their daughter, is kept in the dark about his fate, forcing her to once again tangle with the pernicious Heck.

A commercial production like The Zookeepers Wife—and, in fact, perhaps any artistic rendering—almost inevitably involves a smoothing and rounding off of complex history. But despite weaknesses on this score, the film makes a genuine effort to show that the Żabińskis compassion is extended to all living creatures. They are non-Jews (Jan was raised as an atheist), a cultured pair who felt compelled to make a supreme sacrifice to oppose the Nazi onslaught.

Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, McFarland, USA) has chosen a legitimate subject to recreate, treating it with a degree of skill and imagination. The scenes of the zoo’s demolishing are wrenching. As Ackerman puts it, the menagerie was “guillotined by the war.” While the movie is not the be-all-and-end-all in terms of psychological depth, it takes a stand for solidarity and unity.

This has elicited a negative reaction from a number of critics, who see the film as insufficiently dark, i.e., The Zookeeper’s Wife does not argue that human beings are essentially rotten and selfish.

There is much to be said for the performances. The English-language film requires the actors to speak with a Polish accent, not an easy task for Chastain. But regardless of the flaws in her delivery, she embodies sincere human emotion, an appropriate counterweight to the fascist inhumanity.

In an interview, Caro describes the remarkable scene in which Chastain’s Antonina saves a newborn elephant from suffocation: “We shot overnight for two nights in the freezing cold. Jessica was barefoot, on her knees, in a tiny cocktail dress, on concrete, underneath the feet of an elephant. And the rest of us were wearing four pairs of pants, millions of ski jackets. And Lily’s [the elephant who had just given birth] trunk was all over Jessica, searching for apples that Jessica had concealed under her skirt. All of the animal work was all completely natural. I never wanted an animal to have to do a particular trick or action.”

One of the most haunting sequences occurs when the Nazis are packing the Ghetto inmates into cattle cars. As scores of children are lifted onto the train, German soldiers are throwing suitcases into a big pile—the cold, impersonal discarding of possessions and identities of those headed for the gas chambers. Other notable moments include the evocative image of ashes falling like snow from the Ghetto’s incineration and the children’s colored drawings on the walls of the Żabińskis’ dank basement sanctuary.

Lacking in The Zookeeper’s Wife, as in almost every other recent film on the subject of the Holocaust and World War II, is a significant historical framework and context. How did fascism arise and conquer? What political forces were responsible?

The Zookeeper’s Wife

In her book, Ackerman observes that the “Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to ‘kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the Lebensraum we need.’” But this does not help explain how Hitler came to power in the first place.

Abram Leon (1918-1944), a Jewish Trotskyist born in Warsaw who fought against the Nazi occupation of Belgium, wrote, “The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth.” In the face of the ruinous crisis of German imperialism following World War I, the betrayals of the working class by social democracy and Stalinism opened the door to the fascist barbarism.

Caro told an interviewer: “We started out making a historical drama and world events have shown us that we’ve made a profoundly contemporary film. I hope people go and see it and revisit what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, and recognize that there are horrifying parallels to what is happening right now.” It seems fair to assume that she is referring to developments like the Donald Trump presidency and the general rise of right-wing, nationalist parties.

The Żabińskis’ daughter, Teresa, explained to People magazine, “My parents told me that they did only what should have been done—it was their obligation to do that. They were just decent people. They said decent people should do the same, nothing else. I’d like as many people as possible to understand what actually happened here in Warsaw during the war, and how much humanity and love can do.”

Also cited in People article was Stephania Kenigswain Stibon, three years old when she, her mother and brother escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and were saved by the Żabińskis in 1943: “I remember that we ran around the house when we could, because usually we were in the basement or in the cages. But what I remember most is that the Germans used to come from time to time, and when the people at the gate saw them coming, they gave a signal to the villa and Antonina used to sit by the piano and start to play and my brother and I knew we had to hide. My brother would always say, ‘Come, come, we have to hide so they don’t kill mom.’”

Stibon’s family hid in the zoo for over two months—the longest period anyone stayed there.


Get Out: The horror of racism, and racialist politics

By Hiram Lee
28 March 2017

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

The horror film Get Out has been popular with both audiences and critics. It is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known for his work as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. With Get Out, Peele has said he wanted to make a film to “combat the lie that America had become post-racial.” The monster at the heart of this horror film is racism itself.

Get Out

Get Out tells the story of African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The couple is planning to visit Rose’s parents for the first time. But when Chris discovers Rose hasn’t told her parents that he is black, he worries the visit won’t go well. Rose reassures him that her parents are anything but racist, and the trip goes ahead as planned.

Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) turns out to be a wealthy surgeon. Her mother (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis therapy. They go out of their way to make Chris feel at home. Rose’s father makes awkward gestures to Chris, at one point telling him that he would have voted for Obama a third time given the chance. What seem at first like well meaning but misguided attempts to relate to Chris and put him at ease soon turn into something else. There is something even darker than such “micro aggressions” lurking beneath this white liberal family.

Most troubling to Chris are the African-American servants the family employs. They appear brainwashed, too satisfied with the family and their duties. They don’t behave as real people would. When the family later throws a party and the white guests appear to be sizing him up for something, it puts him further on edge.

Despite all the warning signs, Chris hesitates, hoping for the best until it is almost too late. The family intends to capture him and force him into a kind of servitude, though not quite the kind he was expecting. His failure to act sooner nearly gets him killed. This complacency in the face of racism is one of the main themes of the film.

Get Out accepts a number of conventions about race relations and begins from there. Racism, for Peele, simply exists—in the same way that evil does, or original sin. Everyone is infected by it. Its historical origins and the social forces which nourish and promote it are beside the point. Accepting this, the film is left to offer pseudo-psychological explanations for the beliefs and activities of its antagonists. This leads it into rather disturbing territory. At one point the film seems to suggest that the white family terrorizing Chris is jealous of the genetically endowed superior physical abilities of its African-American victims. Given Rose’s involvement in the conspiracy, one could even be forgiven for interpreting the film as a warning against interracial relationships. Like all such works based on racialist conceptions, one doesn’t have to follow the logic very far before one arrives at positions virtually identical to those of the extreme right.

Get Out

Since its release, Peele’s film has generated a great deal of media attention, including its share of hype and controversy. In recent weeks, Peele has been celebrated in the media as the first African-American writer-director to have earned more than $100 million with his debut film. He has cracked a key financial threshold and his success as an artist is thus confirmed for certain layers. There is a lot of talk about what it means for black filmmakers in Hollywood. Opportunity is on the horizon.

But does Get Out tell the truth about the world? Several interviews make clear Peele’s own outlook.

In an interview with the New York Times, Peele affirmed his intention to target the “liberal elite” with the film. “The liberal elite,” said Peele, “who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgement that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”

In another interview with GQ magazine, Peele seeks to explain why there haven’t been more horror films dealing with race:

“Black creators have not been given a platform, and the African-American experience can only be dealt with by an African-American. That might be problematic to say. And now that I think about it, [The Stepford Wives author] Ira Levin is a man, and he and Roman Polanski wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Let’s say it would be scary for a white writer and director to do something that includes the victimization of black people in this way. Of course, we have this trope where the black guy is the first to die in every horror movie—that’s a way for [white filmmakers] to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The division of the world along such racial lines has the most reactionary implications. Indeed, we saw only last week how “scary” it could be when a white artist, Dana Schutz, dared to depict the victimization of a black person, Emmett Till, in her work.

Interestingly, the reactionary notion that only an African-American can deal with the so-called “African-American experience” (a racialist term that throws class and history out the window) has also been used to attack Peele’s film. In a recent radio interview, actor Samuel L. Jackson complained that the film’s star, Daniel Kaluuya, was British, saying that an African American actor would have been better suited to the role. He went on to lament the prevalence of black British actors currently employed in Hollywood. “They’re cheaper than us,” he said. In these bitter, career-motivated comments, Jackson united racialism with its perfect complement, nationalism.




Rogue One: Does it really “stand alone”?

By Matthew MacEgan
21 December 2016

Directed by Gareth Edwards; screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

December 16 saw the release of the first stand-alone film in the Star Wars series—Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. After George Lucas retired from filmmaking and sold his production company, Lucasfilm, to Disney, the latter announced that a new film in the franchise would be released each year, with the stand-alone “Star Wars stories” being released in alternate years to the main episodic offerings. Is this necessarily good news for the moviegoing public?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The plot of Rogue One is an exact prequel to the original 1977 film, now titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and bases itself on a few sentences that appear in that film’s opening crawl: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”

The new film’s protagonist is a young woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is an energy scientist who has been kidnapped and coerced into designing the weaponized portion of the Death Star. Galen is able secretly to build a weakness into his design that he wishes to transmit to the Rebel Alliance, so they have a chance to destroy the battle station.

To find her father and the Death Star plans, Erso and a Rebel Officer are sent to the moon Jedha to meet with Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who has received a message from Galen. They ultimately travel to the planet Scarif, where the Empire keeps its military schematics locked down in a heavily fortified and well-defended installation. The outcome is the costly victory mentioned in the original 1977 crawl, which includes both land and space battles. The film leaves the audience just minutes away from the beginning of A New Hope, with Darth Vader chasing down Princess Leia’s ship.

Unlike previous Star Wars offerings, Rogue One is much “grayer” (more jaded?) in its approach to moral questions. The Rebel Alliance is not depicted as a cohesive group of “good guys” out to do the right thing. In fact, the Rebel officer who accompanies Erso to find her father is seen murdering people who could damage the Rebellion’s reputation and has secretly been instructed to assassinate Galen. The Alliance also initially refuses to attack Scarif and considers surrendering to the Empire when they learn about the Death Star. It is left to Erso and a small group of “rogue” marines who hijack a ship and go to Scarif to create a diversion and steal the plans.

Ultimately, the rebel protagonists are depicted as a group of idealists without foresight who simply blunder from one decision to the next, only gaining the advantage that will allow the destruction of the Death Star in the subsequent film (which happened to come out almost 40 years ago) through happenstance.

The film’s creators have obviously been influenced by World War II movies and have incorporated elements in line with that into both the story and the costume and set design. Scarif is full of beaches and jungles that at once conjure up images of the Normandy landing and the Pacific theater.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Overall, the resulting product is a fairly typical action film designed to swell box office receipts, as well as the value of the Disney Empire.

A few of the characteristics of the episodic Star Wars films were changed to set this first “Star Wars story” apart. There is no opening crawl or fanfare, and this is also the first Star Wars film with music composed by someone other than John Williams. The film also makes heavy use for the first time of digital effects to recreate actors from previous films—the now long-deceased Peter Cushing, as well as a young Carrie Fisher—with some success.

Certain media commentators have paid attention to the fact that both of the more recent Star Wars films feature young women as their main protagonists and have inferred this somehow lends a “progressive” coloring to the franchise. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy rejected this notion, asserting the production simply hired the best actors for the roles. She also defended Rogue One director Gareth Edwards and scolded a journalist who accused him of being picked for the job over women who may have been similarly qualified.

While not offering significant insight into our modern condition, Rogue One does reflect the current state of things to a certain degree, particularly the militarization of American life. Populations are under constant surveillance and are policed at all times. The military does not hesitate to destroy “problem” cities with its new superweapon in order to tie up any loose ends that might embarrass the Empire, and some of the so-called rebels are strikingly similar to modern-day “terrorists” operating in fundamentalist militias.

In this case, the concerns do not come entirely out of the blue. Co-screenwriter Chris Weitz directed A Better Life (2011), about an undocumented immigrant gardener in Los Angeles, and has been involved in some interesting film and television projects—along with a good deal of trivia. (His brother, Paul Weitz, directed Being Flynn, 2012). The other screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (the son of playwright Frank Gilroy), wrote and directed Michael Clayton (2007), which dealt with a high-powered law firm’s “fixer” trying to save his firm’s defense of a pesticide conglomerate.

The appearance in recent years of socially critical elements in “blockbuster” action or superhero films is often a cynical business, a means of providing what are essentially empty, sophomoric works a bit of “cutting edge” credibility. Occasionally, it seems a more or less spontaneous reaction to existing realities. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009)—for the most part, a piece of high-tech bombast—did include scenes that strongly brought to mind the US invasion of Iraq. Imperialist violence, repression, endless surveillance—these are features, as noted above, of contemporary life.

One has to seriously question, however, even in the more sincere cases, whether or not such “radical” moments—surrounded by noise and violent, frenetic goings-on—make any sort of genuine or lasting impression on the viewer.