The Purge: Election Year (2016)

The Films of 2016 Didn’t See Trump Coming, Either

As a gauge of the American zeitgeist, 2016’s films provided no warning of the reactionary backlash the nation just woke up to.

“I told you not to watch that channel. Those people are crazy.”

— Louise (Amy Adams), Arrival

This was a terrifying year. Inhabitants of the real world saw democracy, decency, and once-stable societies assaulted on all fronts. For dwellers of the imagined realms of conservative social media and manufactured news, though, the real world was not awful enough. The already febrile American conservative mediascape, with its armies of Internet trolls and alternate-reality websites, was roiled almost daily in 2016 with panic-causing phantasms. After years of training in manufactured outrage, from Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas / Christianity” shtick to black-helicopter murmurings about FEMA camps, the right wing was ready to leap on whatever viral claim ripped through its Facebook feed.

Given all that, it was only a matter of time before the right got to carping about Star Wars being a liberal conspiracy. (Lest we forget, Mike Pence once referred to Bancroft and Cook’s Mulan (1998) as “mischievous liberal” propaganda.) That’s what happened a few weeks before the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Screenwriter Chris Weitz tweeted that people should “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization” and later declared “Star Wars against hate.” Mark Hamill re-tweeted that one.

So was born the online rumor that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had been reshot to include an anti-Trump message. The concept of a film about a woman-led multicultural band of rebels battling a malign empire with a zero-tolerance policy on dissent must have been so distressing in some quarters that an imaginary Hollywood conspiracy had to be dreamed up to combat it.

As the outgoing vice president would say, this was a bunch of malarkey. The impracticality of embedding political messages relevant to the 2016 American presidential election in a film set in a galaxy far, far away is boggling to consider. Were all the X-Wing pilots suddenly going to be sporting safety pins? But nevertheless, Trump supporters — or at least a cabal of Macedonian teenagers masquerading as them — still called for a boycott.

One would have thought that after the US Presidential election, the outrage machine would have taken a breather. But even after Donald Trump, the white savior demiurge of the right-wing’s online troll armies slithered closer toward the presidency this didn’t stop. Warnings about sharia, traitorous Democrats, and rigged votes continued to flicker through what should have been a happily contented reactionary minority. The authoritarian mindset, however, doesn’t allow for rest. As always, what mattered most with these flash-pan freak-outs was not the stated object of protest, but their ability to channel an anti-elitist discontent. Star Wars makes for a big, fat, easy target.

Liberals would argue that Hollywood films, with their retrograde gender attitudes and might-makes-right narratives, are as conservative as Charlton Heston’s musket. But it’s right-wing gospel that Hollywood as an invented monolithic entity is deeply hostile to everything the right holds sacred. Breitbart, the online bilge pump run by new White House senior advisor Steve Bannon, features an entire channel of content called Big Hollywood devoted to showing just how un-American those showbiz people are.

This line of thinking disregards several inconvenient truths. Yes, it’s true that Democrats are over-represented in the entertainment industry. That likely influences the types of stories that are green-lit. We are far more likely to see, say, a heroic film made about a champion for gay equality or civil rights than we are to see one about, say, a proud segregationist or union-buster.

But the irony is this: For all its vaunted liberalism, Hollywood couldn’t have cared less about creating films with political messages in 2016. No matter how many Hillary Clinton fundraisers were held in the mansions of the Southland, such beliefs were not going to be allowed to mess with the business at hand; that is, getting people to pay as much for a ticket to a single theatrical release as they do for an entire month’s worth of streaming films and TV series.

That means, as always, spectacle. Some of the most popular films of 2016 were a carnival of special effects and anthropomorphic animals and superheroes and wizards and things blowing up real good. You could look for significance in the anti-heroic glowerings of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or fourth-wall-breaking snark of Deadpool, but that wouldn’t get you much except a headache.

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There were lessons about tolerance threaded into the discrimination-is-bad themes of Zootopia and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and conscientious-objectors-can-be-brave-too storyline of Hacksaw Ridge. Films such as Hidden Figures or Loving — films that directly confronted political issues — were safely confined to the past. If you wanted to see a film about how race, class, and power played out in modern-day America, you were limited to documentaries like 13th or Do Not Resist. As excellent as those films were, the tiny audience for documentaries in America meant that they were essentially left out of the national dialogue.

An exception could be made for The Purge: Election Year. This year’s iteration of the ever-more-overt agitprop futuristic exploitation series placed its cards right on the table: the dogged heroes were poor people of many different colors being hunted down by gun-nut middle- and upper-class white people with a decidedly Tea Party attitude. If there was a film this year that tried to sound the alarm in some manner about the anti-civil rights backlash forming in America, this was it.

All things considered, 2016 was an apolitical year at the box office.

In the postmortems after Trump’s upset Electoral College victory, the refrain was that the news media blew it. Reporters (elitists, the lot of ‘em) had apparently ignored the anger that was out there in the land. By this line of thinking, the news media should have known that discontented white voters — infuriated with how many of them now had health insurance, how low the employment rate was, and how few new wars had been started since the first black president took office — would turn to a frequently nonsensical crypto-fascist reality-television star to lead them to a promised land where taxes were low and minorities knew their place. According to this argument, reporters just had too much faith in the American public.

One could point the same finger at Hollywood. The film industry has never been good at realistic portrayals of Americans who dwell in even remotely rural or outer suburban zip codes; the topography where Trump voters were most commonly located. When they do show up, like the villainous hicks of Nocturnal Animals — one of Hollywood’s two varieties of rural folk; the other being noble laborers and dispensers of wisdom — you generally wish that they hadn’t.

Characters who dwelled further down the socioeconomic ladder (who, despite earlier claims to the contrary, were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton in the end), or away from major metropolitan areas, showed up occasionally in the year’s films, but generally only in indie releases like Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. Those films’ big-hearted, character-based, and reality-grounded stories are so far removed from Hollywood tentpole releases that they may as well be considered foreign releases.

So, the picture of America you would glean from the films it produced in 2016 bears little relation to the real thing. The Purge: Election Year, or unconvincing issue films like Money Monster aside, there wasn’t much evidence at the movie theater of the deeply dysfunctional and authoritarian-susceptible society that could produce a President Donald Trump. Sure, there was the solid if little-seen Imperium, in which FBI agent Daniel Radcliffe infiltrated a neo-Nazi skinhead group. But that had little to do with the white Christian nationalist identity politics mainstreamed and normalized by the Republican party of 2016. The Rogue One boycotters needn’t have bothered.

Some have pointed to Captain America: Civil War as emblematic of today’s divided America. That analogy doesn’t work, though. Each faction in that film is led by resolute and moral individuals who think they’ve got humanity’s best interests at heart. Captain America and Iron Man just disagree about how to get there. This is not the case in America, 2016. There is no heroism, misunderstood or not, to be found in riding a torrent of racial backlash and conspiracy theories to the White House.

The sooner that the nation’s films catch up to that disquieting reality, the better.