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2019’s Films Want Us to Listen

By Daniel L. Aklog
Daniel L. Aklog ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

“Parasite.” “Hustlers.” “Us.” “Joker.” “Knives Out.” “Ready or Not.”

What do these 2019 films all have in common? At first glance the answer might be “nothing at all.” Strippers, clowns, and board game tycoons don’t really have a lot of overlap. Some of these films bring laughs. Some get your heart pumping. Many succeed with both. But, look past the vast array of stories and genres on display here, and you will find that these movies intersect at their most crucial point. Many of 2019’s movies revolve around the same core theme: Inequality.

These films have garnered much attention from students on campus. But at the same time, we have seen a stark declining interest in the humanities on campus. Students, perhaps facing economic pressures, have begun to shy away from art as a mode of learning. But art has academic value worth studying, and this year’s films demonstrate this fact exquisitely.

Films are always the product of the era they were made. And though no one film can fully represent an era, a collection can clarify the central anxieties permeating that period’s society. In the 1970s, the rise of political thrillers involving government conspiracies reflected the growing distrust of political institutions. And in 2019, films are making bold statements about the world.

This year, income inequality in America reached its highest level since the Census Bureau started measuring it in 1967. And in the past decade, economic inequality has developed into a major force in American politics, which might be partly thanks to Bernie Sanders’s tirades against the millionaires and billionaires. Now, many top presidential candidates have hopped on the bandwagon and expressed their own plans to address the country’s rising wealth gap.

Mirroring this concern, each of these 2019 films in its own way grapples with the massive disconnect between the rich and the rest. In each film, those on top are utterly oblivious to the plight of those below (quite literally in the case of “Us” and “Parasite”), and fail to recognize their humanity. In “Parasite” and “Us,” it’s not that the rich are actively malicious, but that they exist in their own bubble — establishing an emotional disconnect that breeds resentment. This is especially relevant to many Harvard students, literally gated into the bubble of Harvard Yard, passing homeless people in Harvard Square every day.

The ways that many of these films blend often conflicting genres underlines this message even further. “Ready or Not,” a violent thriller comedy, is about a lower-middle class woman who marries into an uber-rich family and as a result has to survive their deadly game of hide-and-seek. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but the film highlights this detachment in its absurdity. The scenes with the rich family are mostly comedic and lighthearted, while the scenes with the bride are tense and serious. This difference in tone effectively illustrates how much your wealth affects the tone of your life. Limited consequences allows the wealthy to approach life with a degree of levity that is not afforded to others.

But why does any of this matter? You might be thinking, “Okay, so people care about inequality and it shows up in movies. What’s the big deal? I don’t even like movies that much.”

Most campus discussions on inequality can be found in Government and Economics courses. They employ data and graphs to create a picture of inequality that focuses primarily on its economic and political consequences. And while essential, these frameworks fail to highlight the empathy gap that is established between the rich and the poor.

In addition, many of us study inequality, and many hope to fight it beyond graduation. But, change requires mobilization, which requires emotional investment. If we want to fight inequality, or any other social ill, we need to understand its human impact and feel it.

2019’s films clearly illustrate the perils of the empathy gap better than any other medium possibly could. Sometimes words simply can’t do an idea justice. A New York Times think piece can only do so much to affect your perception of inequality. When one needs to elicit a feeling, dull prose always pales in comparison to vibrant poetry. Films are exercises in empathy, slipping you directly in the shoes of a character, then tying the laces tight until the screen cuts to black.

As students, we seek our education in the classroom, in our readings, and through our problem sets, but we would do well to augment our search for knowledge in less than traditional mediums. “Parasite”’s Song Kang-Ho’s restrained facial expressions — the pain, the desire for any shred of respect — articulates the empathy gap’s impact far better than any string of words or collection of graphs ever could. Film can move — it’s powerful — and at its best, it can change how one sees the world long after the credits roll. 2019 films are teeming with academic quality and motivational potential, and it’s time to start paying attention.

Daniel L. Aklog ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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