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Rebecca Sheehan, a visiting associate professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, spoke with the Harvard Crimson about how she sees politics and film interacting under the Trump administration. On leave as an associate professor of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Sheehan has also authored several works touching on the intersection of cinema with disciplines ranging from philosophy to sculpture.
The Harvard Crimson: You are currently creating a list of “100 Movies to Watch” during Trump’s presidency. Why do you feel like that’s an important list to make?
Rebecca Sheehan: I think many people who occupy all sorts of positions on the political spectrum are looking for answers and that film is one of those places that our culture goes to think about what it is to be American, what our society values, and why. So I think the sudden relevance of film classics—for example, “Citizen Kane”, apparently one of Trump’s favorite films, which is so fitting because he’s such a Citizen Kane character!—suddenly these films made 60 years ago have such resonance with topics that we’re seeing played out in our current political landscape, combined with the fact that we see history repeating itself in so many ways. People who are well-educated find frustration in that because they can see where things are going—or they think they can see where things are going—and they don’t know how to stop them.
The other aspect of this is that the media is playing such a tremendous role in the current political landscape, especially social media and television. We suddenly have a reality TV star in the White House who is running this administration and the politics coming out of this administration are very much like reality TV, and I think a lot of people don’t really understand how that media is functioning in relation to their political realities because it’s so new. So my friend and I thought that it would be fun to post on social media these films that people can watch to allow them to think critically about the present moment through films that talked about similar issues and circumstances in the past, if only to give people hope that there were moments of crisis in our democracy that occurred much earlier than now.
Some of the populist inclinations that are reflected in a film like “Citizen Kane,” we get a lot of the same frustrations that people are feeling now. It’s not like there’s anything new under the sun. The 30s and 40s were post-Depression films that were really speaking to Americans who were economically dispossessed... So I think the tendency of film to reflect social realities and political realities make it a good kind of medicine for people trying to find a place to critically reflect on their current moment while also perhaps escaping it for a bit. Because looking at a film from 60 years ago allows you to escape your present moment, but to also realize that this is not anything particularly new, that history repeats itself and recombines its repetitions.
THC: How did you go about choosing which films to go into that list? You mention older classics like “Citizen Kane.” Are there more modern, contemporary movies on that list?
RS: One film that I thought of for my VES70 class this semester is a Christopher Nolan film, “Inception.” But another one of his films, “The Dark Knight Rises,” was a film that a lot of people were talking about on social media after the inauguration because there were lines in Trump’s inauguration speech that were totally lifted from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and everyone’s going, “Did he plagiarize Bane in this?” It’s really interesting though because it’s not that he plagiarized Bane, it’s that no one had tapped into this dark populism that [Nolan] saw growing as a resentment to globalization, a resentment to the first black president... It has echoes for the reason that Nolan was really using this blockbuster action film, part of the Batman franchise, to critically reflect something that was happening in American culture, which is why I love Christopher Nolan.
We’re going to have to see how Hollywood responds to Trump. We’ve already seen a lot of it, but for the most part Hollywood is anti-Trump, so I think it’s going to be interesting to see what films come out of that. One film that I saw a trailer for recently called “Beatrice Goes to Dinner”: it stars Salma Hayek, who’s now in her 50s—how did that happen?—her and, I can’t remember who stars across from her, but she’s cast as this kind of New-Age-y masseuse hypnotherapist who is invited by one of her ritzy Beverly Hills clients to this dinner party and she kind of squares off with this really conservative white guy who, you know, is proud of going hunting in Africa and killing animals, you know, boasting about things like this, and at some point she says something like “When I came to this country…” and during the dinner he asks, “Did you come here illegally?” It’s a film, though, that seems to be coming out of the Trump era, and one of the taglines or one of the critics’ responses to it, I think from the New York Times, was “the first film of the Trump era,” which is really interesting because I think they’re right. Now we’re talking about these cultural differences, and we’re also now talking about racism and classism, and xenophobia, and all of these things that this terrible election have brought to the surface, that used to be repressed in polite company. What the films seems to be about is, you go to dinner and you don’t talk about these things, but the entire comedy of the films rests on the fact that they keep bubbling up nonetheless, which is kind of a metaphor for our entire last election. It’s like, no, no, no, these elements don’t exist, but yes they do, and they won, so now what do we do? So I think it will be interesting to see what Hollywood does.
I saw an interesting film recently called “Get Out,”—I love “Get Out”—but I think it is so interesting because I think it was made with the assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. So for that reason, it’s going to become such an interesting historical document, right, where it’s produced in this moment where there’s all this backlash and criticism against this hypocritical white liberalism, and then suddenly Trump wins, and the film is screened to audiences who are I don’t think are the intended audiences for this film to be screened to…. That’s another film I think you could call of this particular political moment because some of what it is criticizing is that which did not put Hillary Clinton in office, you know, because people were tired of this. We’re tired of this snotty, holier-than-thou liberalism and the entire point of that film is that her parents are so cool, they’re not racist, they’re liberal! And then it turns out that they have the darkest past ever.
THC: One common thread that I’ve noticed from those two films you mentioned are important non-white characters. How do you think that is going to play a role in coming films, after the “Oscars So White” criticisms and claims of whitewashing in Hollywood, and other similar controversies in the film industry?
RS: That landscape is changing rapidly, and it’s going to change even more rapidly now that Trump is in office, because Hollywood has set itself in opposition to Trump. that opposition will basically carry out to be more diversity in Hollywood. There’s already a huge impact on television. Look at Bill O’Reilly! I think a lot of the dismay over Bill O’Reilly’s behavior was a backlash against Trump being elected, even though he treated women the way he did, right?
Hollywood also has an economic motivation for becoming more diverse, which it just needs to realize. Hollywood has been stuck for a long time in not wanting to take a risk on veering away from the known audiences. In general, you see less diversity in terms of content being produced in Hollywood in that past five to ten years. You have way more sequels, franchises, big budget action movies, and it’s because those turn out a reliable audience, and they sell abroad. And a big action movie with not much plot, not much character development, is not alienating to non-English speaking audiences. So if the film is mostly visual, than it’s an interesting kind of return to the silent era of cinema, where film was totally international because there were no linguistic barriers. But the downside to that is that you don’t see as much space in Hollywood’s bandwidth for melodrama, or for films that have a lot of story and character and plot development. So for that economic reason, I think you’ve seen less diversity of content in Hollywood.
Now another reason you’ve seen less diversity overall—very few women, very few minority, non-white characters, producers, directors—a lot of that is also risk. Hollywood doesn’t want to take a risk on trying to appeal to a female audience. That’s a niche audience! And it’s like, yeah, but women are half of the country, you know? Once Hollywood ceases to see non-white audiences and non-male audiences as niche audiences, which they’re not, economically or just in term of demographics, they will diversify. And I think actually TV is forcing them to do that, because TV has moved into the markets that they’re not serving.
THC: Why do you think that is? What about TV has made that shift so prominent?
I think it’s simply that they can target-market better. They can reach the specific market that they want to reach, and the distribution costs are much less that way, they can cut costs elsewhere and not really waste marketing to people who are never going to watch a show like “Transparent,” “Master of None,” these shows that are really specifically targeted toward more diverse audiences, but also certain groups like millennials or groups that want to see trans actors on screen and are particularly intrigued by that story. You see more diverse content coming from these online platforms, and there’s an economic reason behind that, where they don’t have to take as much risk to produce that content, and to distribute it as a Hollywood studio would. But I think once the studios realize that there’s a market for this content that they’re missing, essentially, they’re going to move into that—hopefully, fingers crossed!
There are also ways in which, you know, I mean the ACLU is suing the Hollywood studios right now. They’re bringing a discrimination suit on behalf of female filmmakers. They have enough evidence of discrimination over the years to do that, which is really frustrating. Either market or the law will ultimately force the studios to become more diverse. You’re also seeing more consciousness about that. “Oscars So White” was the first big backlash against that, and that was last year? And the year before that was the terrible all-male year, where it was like “Birdman” versus “Boyhood”? And it’s like, all right, do we have any stories about women ever being told? There is more awareness of that in Hollywood, but it’s still a white man’s world. It’s hard to break out of that. But Trump’s election has raised awareness about the power of racism and misogyny in a way that has made people who think that these problems are solved, it’s convinced them that they’re not and that we still need to work really hard on them to make sure that we don’t slip backwards and that we in fact make more progress toward equality, because we have not achieved it. There are a lot of white liberal men in Hollywood who think, “Ah, my life is going fine.” They don’t realize the lack of equality because they don’t experience it firsthand, and I think it’s hard if you’re not in the body of the person experiencing it.
Unless you’re the one experiencing it, it’s very hard to understand that it’s happening. This cultural moment is encouraging people to pull their blinders down and really look at what’s going on. My hope is that it will change the diversity issues in Hollywood and that Hollywood will become a more diverse place, but I think it’s encouraging that we have alternative platforms of television—which is making a huge comeback because Hollywood is so boring and dull—online distribution which is even getting around cable networks and all of their balkanized interests. But we also have independent filmmaking, you know, and a film like “Moonlight” came out of independent financing, so that’s encouraging. It’s encouraging that it doesn’t take as much money and funding as it used to take to make a film, just because technology has gotten more accessible and easier to use and cheaper than it’s ever been. That will also allow access to groups that traditionally have not had as much access to filmmaking.
THC: On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have “Mulan,” which is getting a live-action remake. Only an Asian or Asian-American actress will be hired as the main character, but it’s gotten backlash because the director, who is a woman, is a white woman. What do you think of representation behind the camera?
RS: It’s incredibly important, and it’s often hard to make legible because people—unless you’re a film geek—don’t often think about the director. Everyday people who go to see a film like “Mulan” are not thinking about the producer or the casting agent or all of these people whose decision-making goes into what ends up on screen, and the identity of those people, and how their identity affects their ability to represent what’s on screen. If you have a non-Asian-American woman producing a film about Asians, there’s some pantomiming going on there. There’s some equivalence of Scarlett Johansson being cast as an Asian character… That’s why stars are the number one branding agents in the film, and only secondarily are directors branding agents. It takes a certain degree of film savvy to even care who directed a film. People go to franchise films, the next Batman film because that’s a brand. They go to the next Scarlett Johansson film because that’s a brand. But only in a tertiary role would the director’s name or gender or ethnic or racial identity factor into that.
It’s my sense that people go to films mostly on the basis of what’s in them rather than what’s produced them. It’s entirely problematic that we don’t see any diversity in those arenas either because studios don’t allow diversity in those arenas, they shut that diversity out.
THC: What do you think it will take for this momentum of awareness to keep going?
RS: I think we’ve passed a threshold where we’re not going back to complacency—I hope. There is such a thing as resistance or protest fatigue, and I think you’re seeing some of that right now, but I think that awareness is now so deep in us, the injury committed to all of us by the last election and how that corresponded with identity politics is… That cut so deep that I don’t think that injury is going to heal anytime soon. People are going to stay woke for a while. That was already in happening in Hollywood, though. I think it was what pushed Hollywood into realizing this more, and I think now you also see greater funding efforts for minorities in cinema. There’s movement for sure. The O’Reilly firing is a positive symptom of that, that people are not complacent… yet.
—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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