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When Politics Happens to Apolitical Films

Art is almost inherently political – that point would be hard to argue against. Paintings such as Guernica and Shootings on the 3rd of May depict the horrors of war and tyranny. Novels like Anna Karenina and The Scarlet Letter brought issues of moral inequality in society at large to a wide audience. Art is designed to be an emotionally moving and persuasive medium through with the thoughts and ambitions of the artist expressed therein can affected those who experience it.

Movies, likewise, would be a far sight less interesting and meaningful if they ever failed to deal with political issues of the day. The Wind That Shakes the Barley tackled an old issue that still had relevance in a world were foreign occupations still exist. District 9 likewise took the idea of apartheid and racism and made the realities of these egregious ideologies more digestible through the lens of science fiction. Without these kinds of films, our cultural discussions of important issues would be more mundane, less dynamic, and probably much more stunted due to lack of exposure to opposing ideas.

But what about when a star or writer or director of a movie is promoting a film that is essentially apolitical?
This question comes as the beginnings of political backlash form around Joe Wright, the director of the superlative action flick Hanna. While the movie lacks any overt political elements (outside of making the CIA the bad guy, but with no real political message as its reason) Mr. Wright said the following during an interview with MovieLine:

… I was interested in making such a film, because most action films that I see are misogynistic and misanthropic, and kind of gun-loving, Republican bullsh*t. And that concerns me because those are the films young people are going to see.

Now, while it is certainly within Mr. Wright’s rights to say and believe this, does it make logical sense for him come out with this message as a means of promoting his film? While he has a right to say it, was he right to say it? Likewise, is it fair to malign a film that doesn’t hold a political message at its heart based on the political feelings of its creators?

If you set out to make a film that changes a medium, as Mr. Wright seems to be trying to do, then you would hope that your film would be financially successful to encourage others to make similar artistic risks and choices. Let’s not lie to ourselves; cinema is a profit driven industry. For a director to continue to do the kinds of films he wants, he needs to be a profitable asset to a studio. Of course politically motivated directors still get work – Spike Lee springs almost immediately to mind – but is it a necessity for a person associated with a film to voice their political beliefs if the film is apolitical in its message?

The relevance of this question is tied to the idea of audience-alienation. Hanna is a film that I firmly believe should be seen by anyone who is aching for a stylish, edge-of-your-seat movie experience. But with his remarks, Mr. Wright has alienated a massive cross-section of the movie-going public, and possibly done his own film a disservice.

BigHollywood, a conservative movie blog, ran a piece related to Mr. Wright’s statement that has racked up more than 100 comments less than 24 hours after its writing, many of which state their intention to avoid Hanna as a result of Mr. Wright’s words.

So the question, then, is how to balance this equation of artistic integrity, political ideology and financial success. After all, the point of a movie is to be seen, its success is measured through the box office, and if you create something with mass appeal does it make sense to limit it with external comments unrelated to the film itself? Self-censorship is an ugly and dangerous thing, but wouldn’t a concern for your movie’s stature and its impact dictate that comments like this are unnecessary and damaging? Also, wouldn’t it be possible to make the same statement without resorting to name-calling and politics-based slander?

If Hanna’s purpose was to be an answer to the more mainstream trend of action films seen recently, why not just say that, so an artistic discourse could be drawn from the words. This way, people would see the movie as a means of having merit in their arguments, and to see what else can be done with the medium. Now, though, the spotlight has shifted from the movie as a piece of art, to the director as a political entity. While not a problem with films like Do the Right Thing or Milk – which have a political element built in and an artistic purpose inextricable from the political message – for Hanna this is potentially crippling.

The union of art and commerce that is almost exclusively the domain of wide-release films is a tricky one to negotiate. Artistic expression and political expression go hand in hand, but it seems to me that sometimes politics can be left at the door in favor of simply allowing your artistic merits to live or die on their own. Mr. Wright has chosen to forfeit artistic examination among a great deal of moviegoers in favor of political rabble-rousing.

Will people respond favorably to the controlled, stylish thrills of Hanna, or will they be put off by the remarks made by its director? Should the personal feelings of an artist even factor in to our enjoyment of a film, or should we allow ourselves to separate the two?

The fact is, most people do not separate the two. I have a friend who dislikes Chic-fil-A because of the owner’s religious faith. So the burden of choice lays in the hands of the artist, who must decide if artistic merit valued in a vacuum is more important than making his personal beliefs heard. Mr. Wright has made his choice, and that is this prerogative. I just hope that Hanna isn’t unjustly punished for the perceived sins of it’s father.

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