Us and Them
And in the end, we're only ordinary men
Me and you
- Pink Floyd, Us and Them
Human beings have long fostered the unfortunate, and incorrect, idea that in order for one of us to win, another has to lose. We seem to believe that success is a limited resource that can only be attained at the expense of another. And we justify it with the idea that aggressive capitalism and ambition is the main catalyst to economic progress.
Filmmakers of all genres in 2013 are calling for a rethink, for us to challenge our notion of the “other” – the people we exclude to make sure we are included. The haves that enjoy their privilege at the expense of the have-nots; the haves that have lost their soul in the progress, and the have-nots that inexplicably idolise them (of course, having-not depends very much on what you figure you should be having - as Betty Sue Cox reminds us, it doesn't take much to be so very rich).
Elysium & Hunger Games: Catching Fire take the idea of the 1% elite to sci fi extremes – the lesson? You can’t keep the masses down. They will destroy your bubble. The system will equalise itself. Just ask Marie Antoinette. And take heed, Jacob Zuma. In Elysium, the masses settle for access to health care and seem disinterested in vengeance. In Hunger Games, well we shall have to see (unless you've read the books, in which case you already know), but the point, at least so far, is that the masses possess more humanity than their oppressors.
The Wolf of Wall Street, The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers exposed the sick heart of consumerism and excess, while Woody Allen called the heartless 1% to account for the damage they have done in Blue Jasmine, and created a sort-of 21st century Blanche Du Bois for Cate Blanchett in the process (only, no one is trying to destroy her but herself). A change of heart for a man who’s spent so much time idolising Manhattan’s intellectual elite.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave all look at struggles for social equality and liberty by political have-notes, the victims of unjust laws. While 12 Years casts a scathing eye on the racial horrors of America's past, The Butler shows just how slow change can be. The oppression in Mandela is all the more disturbing because it is perpetrated by the white minority (how they ever thought it was going to last is beyond comprehension - that it ended with minimal bloodshed is miraculous), while Bono's closing credits song is a synecdoche of a bigger problem - we still need white people to tell black stories.
Perhaps most heartbreakingly, both Fruitvale Station & Captain Phillips examine the very sad truth that the perceived value of a life is still connected to the colour of your skin and the affluence of your origin. Like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant was profiled, judged and treated according to the colour of his skin - and it was acceptable for him to end up dead. In Captain Phillips, Muse seals his own fate by going up against the US Navy with his puny resources, but it is a testament to his devastating lack of opportunities that he sees no other option. Muse's own country seems regards him as expendable - when everyone is too busy surviving, no one has time to risk their own lives for yours. What the US Navy pulled off to save Captain Phillips was commendable, beautifully executed and a picture of America's tenacity in fighting for the humanity of those they consider to be their own. It's a human shame that only certain lives, matching certain criteria, warrant that kind of effort.
Art reflects our reality, and hopefully we use it to reflect back on our own lives and the future we want to create. Some of our best filmmakers have taken the time to talk. Are we listening? Will we try to change the way we see and understand each other, or will we keep repeating an endless loop of reflections? (disclosure: that last phrase was just an excuse to link to a great music videos).
Final thoughts from Boyd Varty, a white man who learnt something invaluable from two great black men as a kid on his father's game farm: TED Talk - What I Learned from Nelson Mandela.
There is room at the mountaintop
for everyone in God’s plan
- The Rapture, It Takes Time to Be a Man