With the success of films like Selma, Sorry to Bother You, and Get Out we are seeing the return of the subversive to cinema. Political significance is making its return to film but the capitalist nature of the film industry keeps its growth in a stranglehold. Socialism would de-commodify cinema and take the power of content creation away from industrial venture capitalists and put it back into the hands of creators and artists.
First let us look at how film has thrived in a socialist state. The Bolshevik Revolution that created the Soviet Union also spurred the growth of cinema, because as the Bolsheviks bottom-lined industrialization industrialization also spearheaded the expansion of cinema in Russia. The state had an obligation to fund and foster the growth of the film industry as it was apart of it’s obligation to expand industrialization. It was in this environment that Sergei Eisenstein thrived.
Eisenstein is easily one of the most important directors in film history and his early films were made as testaments to the power of the Bolshevik revolution. In a country where the state funded cinematic development, Eisenstein was able to develop techniques in film making and editing that are now standard practices for filmmakers today. The most famous contribution to filmmaking by Eisenstein was the montage, and while Eisenstein did not invent montage he was the first director to theorize that editing could be a tool used to help story telling. Instead of editing merely being a part of the filmmaking procedure for Eisenstein it became a part of the film itself.
When one watches Battleship Potemkin or October one sees how true this is because while both films have no central main character the story in both films still progresses thanks to the way the films are cut. The power that montage can have on story telling is best exemplified in the Odessa steps scene from Battleship Potemkin. While Eisenstein would eventually flee the Soviet Union because of his criticisms of Stalin in his magnum opus films Ivan the Terrible I & II, he leaves a legacy behind that shows the power of cinema when there is public investment in the project. Whether or not you feel that Eisenstein’s movies are propaganda, it cannot be denied that the success of his films demonstrates that film can exist for the sake of creating a pro-working class message. Eisenstein’s success and legacy is demonstrative of the fact that film does not have to be about profit or commercialism.
Eisenstein was not the only early director who had anticapitalist tendencies, many American and British filmmakers from the silent era also had roots in radicalism. The works of Charlie Chaplin have a central theme of sympathy for the working class. His character, the Little Tramp, is a working class archetype. The Tramp is a lovable human being who is just trying to get ahead in a world that seems to hate him for not being rich. The Kid, Modern Times, The Gold Rush all have this connecting theme and all three of them paint a less than forgiving portrait of either law enforcement, the rich, or both.
In The Kid the police are constantly trying to take the Tramp’s newly adopted child away believing someone so poor could never be a good parent. In The Gold Rush the rich friends of Chaplin’s love interest are bullies to Chaplin because he simply has yet to strike it rich in the gold mines. One of the best case examples of Chaplin’s working class sympathies is the scene from Modern Times when unionists and communists march on the streets peacefully only to be mercilessly beaten by the police. In the scene Chaplin can also be seen waving the red flag. Another classic subversive moment of Chaplin’s would be his closing speech from The Great Dictator, now one of the most popular speeches in film history and a viral piece of inspiration porn, one that is desperately needed in this era of revitalized nationalism.
Let us not also forget that the films deemed the greatest in American film history have been ones rooted in radicalism in some form or another. In addition to the works of Charlie Chaplin, we can see radicalism or at least elements of radicalism in many of the classics. Citizen Kane, which is considered by many to be the pinnacle of perfect filmmaking and storytelling, was a subversive biography about industrialist William Randolph Hearst. The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppella, originally a pulp novel about the mafia, was converted by Coppella into “a commentary on the effects of American capitalism on the family,” according to the film’s producer Robert Evans.
Radicalism in the film industry is nothing new, however as time went on commodification of film became harder to fight and exploitative labor practices had been running rampant since the dawn of Hollywood. During the golden era of cinema, the late 1920s to the mid 1950s, it got to the point where labor in film was so exploited that even the actors were literally at the mercy of studios. The relationship between actors and studios in old Hollywood can be considered an example of the importance of workplace organizing. For example, live ammunition would be used in war and gangster scenes up until the late 1930s. D.W. Griffith and Cecil B Demille were notorious for using live ammunition, with one actor actually dying of gunshot wounds on the set of Demille’s The Captive in 1915. In 1930’s gangster films, rather than use blanks and squibs as we do now film directors would hire marksmen to shoot at and around their actors but not hit them in order to get the most realistic reaction and sound for the film.
This practice did not stop until Jimmy Cagney, who was nearly shot in the head on multiple sets of his gangster films, helped start the Screen Actors Guild and demand work place safety regulations be put into place for actors, including the ban of live ammunition on film sets. The SAG would also go on to give actors more autonomy and make them less dependent on predatory studios. Before SAG actors were bound to the contracts that they signed to specific studios and had to do whatever films the studio ordered and to participate in whatever stunts the directors demanded. The success of SAG and other film industry unions and guilds is demonstrative of the power that actors now hold over studios where as in the golden age of cinema it was the other way around.
Years later the SAG would become a tool of the red scare when reactionary Ronald Reagan became it’s chairperson, using his power to purge radicals from Hollywood as they had been from other unions during this time, such as the AFL-CIO. However its origins and successes show the importance of workplace organizing and how such organizing is a possibility for the film industry of today. In fact bottom up organizing within the film industry is necessary as it is with other industries in order to make the unions democratic again.
With the creation of groups such as SAG to protect the labor of creatives came the catch-22 of the film industry that is standard for all current film industry professions, be it set design, directing, or acting. It is virtually impossible to get work in the film industry if you are not a member of one of the unions or guilds, and the average dues are astronomical. The Screen Writers Guild charges dues averaging between $3,000 to $5,000 a year. Getting work in film is always a matter of connections, who you know, and the way to get to know people in the industry is through the guilds and unions. So in short, you can’t get work easily if you aren’t in the unions and you can’t afford to join the union if you aren’t getting work.
Incorporating democracy into the economy and taking the power of creation away from the power of capital could solve this issue. In a democratic economy, trade unions in film would put the power of decisions back into the hands of the masses, freeing them from the dangers of political purges. It would also allow the union members to create their own standards for membership instead of relying on the ones set by undemocratic union organizers who are intent on keeping new workers from entering the labor market of film production. Such issues with the unions would have been less likely to have arisen had radicals not been purged from the Hollywood guilds and allowed to pursue true rank and file organizing as was the case with Jimmy Cagney and the Screen Actor’s Guild.
The purging of radicals from the American film industry was also the purge of most radical films. There has been the occasional boon for radical content with the works of people like Francis Ford Coppella or Boots Riley yet the 40 year gap in between films such as The Godfather and Sorry to Bother You is important to note. When the endgame for all American cinema became profit so did our stories change to suit the desires of mass commercial appeal rather than subversive radicalism. Film has always been about story telling but now it is the question of what story will sell, not what story the filmmakers think needs to be told. This is why superhero and franchise films have dominated the market for nearly a decade, they are the blockbusters and therefore they are the only films worth investing in. It is another reason why diversity is such an issue in Hollywood. The investors who put their money into films don’t invest in stories directed by women or into stories starring non-white or LGBTQA characters unless they are convinced it will be a profitable venture. That is what needs to be removed from cinema, the need for investors.
“How would socialism solve this?” One may ask. Well for one it would make the film industry more democratic. Diversity is bound to increase if there is more collective input on what kind of story needs to be told and if the need for investors is removed so is the need to appease the bourgeoisie with your storytelling. We are also looking at the de-commodification of a creative outlet which would in turn lead to a renaissance of content. There would be a surge of new content creators and there would be no shortage of pertinent content because of that surge. Films such as Sorry to Bother you or the Young Karl Marx would become an industry standard. A de-commodified film industry would increase accessibility to resources for those without capital which in turn would increase original content, ending the rut of familiar franchises and constant reboots. The end of investors means the return of radical content and an increase in diversified content as well and would allow for subversive tales about power hungry industrialists such as Citizen Kane to return.
Union membership would also thrive under a socialist film industry because it would be the democratic participation of industry members that would keep this system alive. This would not only lead to a greater control of wealth in the hands of film industry workers but would also guarantee consistent protections for them, which we already know is a possibility because of the establishment of the Screen Actors Guild to improve workplace safety for actors.
A return to radical content, liberation from commodification, increased workplace democracy, are all arguable and demonstrable effects of what would happen to the film industry if democracy were introduced into the economics of filmmaking. Artists would once again be free to experiment and push boundaries while telling stories that are pertinent to the working class, just as Eisenstein was able to thrive in a de-commodified film industry so would people like Boots Riley, all while assuring fairer treatment of the people working to make the movies. If there is any industry that benefits from a socialist, democratized economy, it is the film industry.