If art is a reflection of its era, then we are well and truly in a time of populist cinemaby Ben Flanagan / December 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
Is there a more tired pursuit than comparing a piece of pop culture to Donald Trump? He’s our pop culture president, a blob of references that could mean anything to anyone and nothing to everyone. The fiery blond tuft of hair, Twitter-happy demeanor and casual racism are so easily mimicked. From his rise as a property mogul with spurious ethics, to his unsolicited public intervention in the Central Park Five case, to playing hardboiled host on The Apprentice, Trump’s hyper-powered branding machine has made him an integral figure of modern American history long before winning the presidency. It can be exhausting, then, when the T-word is used to make sense of all and any pieces of contemporary fiction. Everything is Trump, particularly now he lords over us all.
Which makes it easy to roll one’s eyes when labels like “Trumpian” start getting thrown at films. It’s become a crutch for industry watchers, looking for the things that keep movies relevant when the film industry increasingly faces competition from gaming, Netflix and Disney. Yet if art is a reflection of its era, then we are well and truly in a time of populist cinema. This year, Hollywood movies kept returning to themes of class warfare. They reveal the distance between the Trumpian idealism: that nostalgia for a simpler, halcyon “Great Again” era, and the reality of a country beset with fraught social division. In their efforts to explore this division, several of Hollywood’s biggest films this year have inadvertently exposed the limits of using culture to fight politics.
Class warfare, Hollywood style
The widening wealth-gap was sent up in Us, Jordan Peele’s deliriously entertaining horror film that followed his phenomenally popular Get Out (2017). In Us, a rich African-American family is confronted by their doppelgängers—shadow versions of themselves who can barely speak. Across a night of violence, the film makes allusions to the Reagan-era Hands Across America campaign (a nationwide movement to end poverty by asking citizens to hold hands).
Us is an open circle of references, dangling plot threads, and self-aware humour that come together in recurring visual symbols of rabbits and scissors. The film thus suggests that recovering a deeper meaning is merely a rewatch away. Its depiction of a wealthy family…