America’s confused leadership politics and film

  • Share

From its political inception, America was supposed to be the ultimate expression of meritocracy. Where the European political model bestowed God-given privilege on bloodlines, everyone else mere peasants destined to toil in the background of history while the pre-ordained built the castles and legacies, America was the first country where the likes of Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and Quentin Tarantino could flourish and become as rich and influential as they have.

It's where you can (theoretically) use nothing but your brain, talent, sporting prowess, luck, hard work or any combination thereof and become a titan in your field, after which nobody cares who your parents were or whether you worked in a video store.

The heroes in stories from popular culture that comes from America reflect that and expand upon it in a very specific way. Look at just one genre, science fiction. From Star Wars to Pacific Rim and Battle Beyond the Stars to The Matrix, the genre often depicts worlds that feature official, structured hierarchies where both the good and bad guys are expected to rise through, train in and adhere to.

But the conflicting ideals of respect for authority (on which America's expansive military might is based) and the impulsive ne'er-do-well who scoffs at authority in the American political imagination are all part of a very confused milieu. Despite a lot of entertainment depicting established structures of power simply because so much of the content of Hollywood movies is about mechanised, industrial-scale warfare, the hero figures who emerge to save the day are almost never found within those official structures, he (rarely – but sometimes – she) will almost always be an outsider.

Whether it's the neophyte who has to learn on the job and find the true heroism that was within him /her the whole time or the cocky lovable rogue (thieves or criminals are a common wellspring for such archetypes and in some cases – like in Rogue One or Suicide Squad – the characters' criminality is a direct feature of the story), someone will swoop in with little knowledge of or time for the official hierarchy or chain of command. Their bravado, devil-may-care outlook or simple belief in the cause will save the day. As we've sen time and time again, American culture is all about the opposite of official title, inherited power or peerage.

Or is it?

There are actually plenty of examples of divine right in American movies, with plenty of them depicting a ruling class in the form of kings, queens and the like. Look anywhere from the sword and sorcery genre (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), superheroes (Black Panther), kids' films ( Frozen ) and dozens of others.

The most interesting aspect of the entirely-forgettable Wachowski's effort Jupiter Ascending was the line directed at queen-in-waiting Jupiter (Mila Kunis) ; 'it's not what you do, it's who you are', an assertion that she's destined to rule no matter what she wants for her life and one that flies in he face of meritocratic recognition. Like Christ, some heroes or leaders are destined before they're born.

In The Wachowski's far more influential The Matrix, we assume the hero Mr Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is just an everyday schmoe who happens to be lucky or skilled enough to see behind the curtain of reality. But as Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and the rest of the Nebuchadnezzar crew know, there's a predestined chosen one, and they believe he's it.

The Chosen One is in fact a character archetype played out in American movies again and again. We assume Luke Skywalker has grown up a mere orphaned moisture farmer – an assumption he shares along with the audience. But over the course of the original trilogy, Lucas couldn't resist making the whole story a royal bloodline/ruling class fable in which we soon discover Luke is far from some backwater nobody.

In the new Star Wars trilogy under Disney, directors JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson dove even further into the Chosen One archetype. Along with the audience, the youthful hero Rey is also a scavenger and orphan similar to Luke, but a cornerstone of her character is to find out who her parents were, and after 40 years of Star Wars mythology we too assume they're somebody pivotal to the canon.

Even after her nemesis Kylo Ren tells her in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that her parents were scrap merchants who sold her for drink, Rey can't quite believe it – and we can't either. In the Star Wars universe, it's all about Chosen Ones, not nobodies.

The power of entertainment to shape opinions can't be overstated, and while many writers or directors even of Hollywood pulp can claim they aren't curing brain cancer, they're having a much stronger collective influence over our beliefs than anyone realises. After several generations of Hollywood conditioning about our responses to power, royalty, manifest destiny and meritocracy, we're left with a very knotted-up picture.

© 2011-2023 Filmism.net. Site design and programming by psipublishinganddesign.com | adambraimbridge.com | humaan.com.au