Whatever statement it makes about me, I like Quentin Tarantino’s movies. The banter is cleverly profane. The ironically humorous outbursts of violence play well with the amoral world view we expect from this director. Just like our movie industry has a First Amendment right to crank out Tarantino’s films, we have a right to view this sort of thing if we want to. That is how the film industry dynamic works. Hollywood makes what it thinks we want to see and we pay to see it. Movies are big business. Money is what matters most.
Politicians also take our money and in return they construct elaborate fantasies for public consumption. A big difference between Hollywood and Washington is that we are stuck with Washington’s stories whether we like them or not. It’s not as simple as refusing to buy a ticket. What the two share is that both do whatever it takes to entice us to part with our money and can do a pretty good acting job convincing us that what they do is what we want.
Money matters most. Values don’t earn enough.
Hollywood and Washington make some of America’s most visible statements about how we view the world. Our movies earn lots of money around the globe because moviegoers in other countries know our film industry’s reputation for quality. Our politics might not always be so popular, but on a good day both the movie industry and our government can do a better than average job of selling their wares irrespective of the content.
This sales job is a challenge Washington shares with Hollywood, but in this instance one hand sometimes steps in to wash the other. Our president has enjoyed the backing of some heavy hitters in the business,1 people he relied on to help him push social change:
And we’ve got brave folks coming out at the highest levels of business and government, and in sports and in Hollywood. We’re seeing television shows portray transgender characters and families. And the power of example is slowly but surely changing people’s hearts.2
In an earlier discussion on the film industry’s home turf, Obama engaged in a similar dialogue and gave Hollywood credit for changing how we think:
And the stories that we tell transmit values and ideals about tolerance and diversity and overcoming adversity, and creativity that are part of our DNA. And as a consequence of what you’ve done, you helped shape the world’s culture in a way that has made the world better.3
While giving a nod to the First Amendment, he cautioned his audience about glorifying violence:
Now, it’s also a big responsibility. When it comes to issues like gun violence, we’ve got to make sure that we’re not glorifying it, because the stories you tell shape our children’s outlook and their lives.4
There is a lot of money to be made from glorifying violence. Hollywood is in the business of profit making, not value selling. Many moviegoers pay to see mayhem, the bloodier the better. Obama’s remarks were made less than a year after Tarantino’s shoot-em-up slave plantation tour de force Django Unchained won two Oscars, including a nod for Tarantino’s screenplay. Now we have the astoundingly gory gunplay in The Hateful Eight, a movie stuffed to the gills with violence and racial invective.
That’s not to say I have a problem with either of these movies. I don’t and paid to see both. What I have a problem with is a Hollywood film industry with players who push an agenda with words and political contributions while they profit massively from entertainment glorifying what the politicians they support claim to oppose. Sometimes their words get them in trouble. We have seen more than one career in the industry destroyed by an ill-timed remark. Sometimes we take celebrities seriously, forgetting they are in the business of entertainment.
We laugh when we talk about government ethics. It probably wouldn’t be such an amusing topic if so many of our public servants weren’t ready and willing to beat their chests over the importance of honesty in public service. Most of us know it exists primarily as a concept, not an ideal to be taken seriously.
Hollywood plays a similar game, raking in big bucks with splatter films and movies replete with racism, sexism, torture, and other entertainments. Granted, Hollywood types are in it for the profit. They are not public servants and we shouldn’t expect them to act as if they are. Movies are a business, which is what makes it seem so egregious that those in the spotlight because of these entertainments try to influence public opinion when the art they choose to produce runs contrary to their words or deeds.
One Washington cause Hollywood shouldn’t touch
Many causes have been taken up by the film industry, from genocide in Africa to funding childhood cancer research, the latter sold to us alongside the endless trailers we are tortured with before the movie we paid to see starts. The current politically-motivated hysteria over police violence is also an issue for some, a cause Tarantino became embroiled in after remarks he made about the police before the release of his newest Western slaughter fest.5
One of the stars of the N-word laced Hateful Eight was also featured in Tarantino’s slavery epic. He engaged in a little political discourse of his own when he publicly decried “racist police” with a song.6 The First Amendment gives Mr. Jackson an absolute right to air his views and as Americans we are bound to support that right, but how do we explain the words and views of actors who come out publicly for causes while what they help put on film to make money sends a completely different message?
Is this entertainment or social policy making?
Lamenting the diversity reflected in the 2015 slate of Oscar nominees, California Congressman Tony Cardenas noted:
the deep diversity problem in the entertainment industry, calling for a meeting with the Academy to work towards a solution that will make Hollywood fully reflective of the diversity of our nation.7
We can’t really blame him for confusing making films for profit with influencing our views on ethnicity. Politicians, especially Democratic politicians, tend to make that type of ideological error. One mistake they rarely make is angering those they rely on for money. The president was careful to temper his message about selling violence when he spoke before members of the industry:
But I want to make clear, even as we think long and hard about the messages we send, we should never waver from our commitment to the freedom that allows us to tell those stories so well. Protecting our First Amendment rights are vital to who we are. 8
I couldn’t agree with Obama more about the First Amendment. I want to live in a country where we can watch movies no matter how violent, offensive, racially insensitive, or sexually explicit because we know evil things await us on the censorship trail. What I don’t agree with is those profiting from films publicly airing views completely at odds with what makes millions on the silver screen. If Washington and Hollywood really believe that film can mold public opinion, what does that say about the state of our movie industry?