Cinematic Arts & Politics in Hollywood

14 Nov

Last article in our 6 week series on Hollywood Politics Inside & Out

The arts and politics have had a relationship spanning many, many centuries so it was a natural progress for politics to merge into motion pictures when it was invented.  As we have looked at before, we know documentaries and propaganda films are the most obvious examples. However there is usually some political issue in most films, both mainstream and independent, whether it was intentional or not. That’s a lot of movies to choose from! Here are four, spanning over the 100+ year old industry, which will help us get a glimpse of its history.

In the 1930’s, the political themes that run through movies were the Great Depression and the effect it had on people. Many films featured travel to find work and the subsequent crime as people struggled with the on-going economic crisis.  One film which had an impact in this time period is I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Based on a true autobiography by Robert Elliott Burns, the story follows an ex-military sergeant James Allen, played by Paul Muni, who quits his office clerk job to become an engineer but soon finds out that there is hardly any work available. He accidently gets caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to a Southern chain gang. The story follows Paul’s escape and life on the run. The film made consumers aware and question how crime and punishment should work. At the time the film was released, Robert Elliot Burns was still in prison. He (and other prisoners on chain gangs) was able to appeal his sentence and was released due to the public’s reaction. Chain gangs stopped being used in 1955 and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang helped pave the way. [1]

The 1940’s propaganda films gave way to fear of communism and corruption. All though the next film features corruption, the film makers were caught up in the post war paranoia. On The Waterfront (1954) stars Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, an ex-fighter and now dock worker who is used by his corrupt union boss to help with an ambush on another dock worker. After the doc worker’s murder Terry feels guilty and has to decide whether to testify to the police and Waterfront Crime Commission or to keep quiet and save his life. At the same time this film was released the basic plot, crime and corruption in New York’s dock yards, was a major problem. The International Longshoremen’s Associational was suspended due a few members who had proven to be criminals. The director of the movie, Elia Kazan was caught up in his own battles just before filming. The Cold War had begun and fears of communist spies and another possible war were wide spread. Elia had been a member of the Communist Party (1934-1936) before resigning in protest was called to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At first he refused to name names but changed his mind which caused him to lose friends. Similarly, the script writer Budd Schulberg also had to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, all of which made it hard to find a producer. Despite all this the film was a success and Elia Kazan introduced many new actors to audiences and influenced a new generation of directors. [2]

In 1992, Malcolm X directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington was released. Just like the man 27 years before race issues still played a part in the production of this film. Originally the film studio had wanted Norman Jewison, who had earned an Oscar nomination for his civil rights film In the Heat of the Night, but after a public outcry, Jewison bowed out and the studio decided on Spike Lee. Even after this there were still protests over how Spike and Denzel would portray Malcolm. There was even an up roar over Spike Lee asking for black journalists to interview him. It was assumed that Lee wanted only black interviewers however the reality was that he preferred them because they were obviously more understanding and that of course any interviewer of any colour was welcome. Misunderstanding aside, this requests opened some media outlet’s eyes. They found that they lacked diversity and added black journalists to their staff. The film was a hit with both critics and consumers. The film reminded and inspired many minorities to keep striving and pushing forward for equality. 16 Years later the U.S.A. elected their first black President Barak Obama and just today he won his second term! So although race issues still exist, things are getting better! [3]

2008 Saw the release of Milk, a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and openly gay politician Harvey Milk. The film follows Harvey (played by Sean Penn) from 1970 when he decided to move to California with his partner Scott Smith (played by James Franco) which subsequently inspired him to move into politics to his murder in 1978. Although the film studio tried to keep it separated from the on-going campaigns against or for California’s Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriages, the film premiered two weeks before the vote. Despite the film receiving high scores with critics and consumers Proposition 8 still passed. [4]







42 Responses to “Cinematic Arts & Politics in Hollywood”

  1. littlebells November 14, 2012 at 10:44 AM #


    As usual, you blow me away with your research. What a great topic for you! HW does really make a large impression on our society, doesn’t it?

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 7:16 PM #

      Thank you LB! Yes, I knew it made an impression on society too but I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang did surprise me with the extent it had amoungst the public!

  2. Comic Relief November 14, 2012 at 12:02 PM #


    I love this article. I’m want to try to resist talking too much, but impulse control seems pretty low today, so I’ll try to at least avoid being long-winded. Your tongue in cheek “glimpse” of political films is fantastic for how finely you have chosen your few films. The fact that you’ve addressed how these films impact the social environment we live in is impressive also.

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 7:20 PM #

      Thank you, CR! Talk as much as you want, lol! 🙂

  3. Comic Relief November 14, 2012 at 12:04 PM #


    Give me time, I saw a really great documentary and I will post it here later pertaining to Warner Brothers early history. That documentary talked about how “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is of a few great Warner Bros. early films that were socially responsive or conscious regarding the times the movie screened.

    Fake looking punches in the trailer aside, the documentary highlighted how this movie was controversial for it’s many scenes of misery and brutality against of prisoners.

    • Comic Relief November 14, 2012 at 12:28 PM #

      The documentary is “the brothers warner.”

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 7:49 PM #

        That looks like an interesting documentary! I hadn’t realised these type of films started so early. Thanks for posting it! 🙂

        • Comic Relief November 15, 2012 at 8:48 PM #

          The documentary was really excellent about detailing the few films that were decidedly socially conscious. Those few films were really inspirational.

          • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:29 PM #

            It sounds good, I’ll have to find somewhere that sells it or streams it!

  4. Comic Relief November 14, 2012 at 12:08 PM #

    “Problems with white journalists”, his argument with the African-American community was just as difficult. Spike Lee had a very public turf war battle with poet Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones during much of the film’s development (see below). Given the political leader was as inspirational to many as he was polarizing to others, Malcolm X inspired a fierce loyalty that had ripple effects across a lot of arts communities. Thank goodness the film was good enough to be an acceptable chronicle of the controversial leader’s life. I think Washington received one of his first oscars nominations.

    Ozzie your take on a lot of this firestorm (across all American communities) was as tactful as it is tasteful.

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 8:06 PM #

      Thank you! Yes, I had read that there were riots or protests during filming about how much they were going to protray of his story? If I worked on that project I would of had massive stomach ulcers due to the amount of stress and pressure thrown about!

  5. Comic Relief November 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM #


    Regarding Proposition 8 and the film “MILK,” let’s say you’re a California resident and you don’t have an appreciation for diversity. How about, like the movie, purely recognizing all of the ways the LGBT community has contributed to the best of what we practice in law, medicine, the arts, psychology, sports, etc.

    Oh well, fortunately Hollywood did not drop this ball.

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 8:12 PM #

      Yes, I was glad when Milk won it’s Oscars. It was a shame about the out come of the vote. Hopefully, things will change soon!

  6. Open Book November 15, 2012 at 3:37 PM #


    Great! Great! Great film research and perfect social awareness examples.

    In your research did you find other arts besides film, who participated in the same social causes through their work?

    • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 3:41 PM #

      Let me clarify. Did other arts like visual, dance or theater arts ever take up these social causes u mentioned in your article? I hope that is a better clarification.

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 9:16 PM #

        Sorry, I disappeared! I was trying to remember and find some other research I did on this.

        There’s political posters. This artist has did the famous Obama one and has also done a few others.

        This site has alot of graffitti art work plus posters and some other bits and pieces.

        More coming….

        • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 9:19 PM #

          This is great Ozzie!

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 9:59 PM #

        Political cartoons, usually featured in newspapers.

        The statues and sculptures I found were definately not safe for work so I leave them out!

        I even found a few interpretive dances!

        There’s a a dance/dramatic art video by anti gay adoption group in France, which I won’t post as I believe in equal rights. However, it’s getting noticed by the media and it’s not hard to find. It’s very wierd though!

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:01 PM #

        And this one is sort of off topic but I found it inspiring and thought you all might like it too!

  7. Open Book November 15, 2012 at 3:49 PM #


    There was a film about the Equal pay act of 1970 in the UK. I thought it was quite inspiring. In the UK do u think films like these are influential in bringing about social change in the country?

    The film I’m referring too is. “Made in Dagenham.”

    • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 4:25 PM #

      The reason I ask this film was released in 2010, well after this event occurred. So I was wondering if UK audiences are more attracted to it’s historical elements than being preached too? In other words would this film ever gotten made in the 1970’s given it’s controversial topic and appealed to UK audiences?

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 8:34 PM #

        Hmmm, I’m not sure on documantary films. We do have them of course, I just don’t reember seeing any at the moment. We do have alot of documentaries (1 hour long usually) on the main TV channels. They are fantastic and they are the ones that change the way we live. There’s one just recently which has blown a whole lid off something (not going to mention what because it’ll bring the whole tone of the discussion down and I will get very angry, cry and possibly vomit!) and they’re investigating it more so there’ll be follow one up soon. As usual, they can be vicious and career enders but they bring it to the public’s attention and something get’s done about it.

        • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 9:23 PM #

          This film was a drama not a doc. But are u saying more docs. are better received in the UK rather than a dramatization of an event?

        • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 9:26 PM #

          Thanks Ozzie great answer to my Q. Sorry I should have said that first before diving into another Q. LOL!!

          • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:10 PM #

            Lol! I could probably expand on it but I’m not sure if I made sense and would probably repeat myself alot!

    • Comic Relief November 15, 2012 at 8:58 PM #

      “Made in Dagenham,” it’s odd how few films you see like this. I’m not sure any community (other than the U.K. film community) does such a good job portraying big (societal) ideas in such an otherwise small (intimate) movie.

      • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:15 PM #

        I’m not sure myself, reguarding how many films like that are made here, lol! I think there was a TV programme (it’s probably an indie film actually) that was on tonight but I was busy and I missed it. 😦

  8. ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 7:08 PM #

    Welcome to tonight’s discussion old and new friends! 🙂 Feel free to jump right in!

  9. littlebells November 15, 2012 at 8:21 PM #

    Ozzie I am so sorry I am late to the discussion!

    Are you still here?

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 8:36 PM #

      No problems, LB! I’m still here, running on 1 hour of sleep so I’m typing extremly slow, lol! Expect nonsense and spelling mistakes! 🙂

      • Open Book November 15, 2012 at 9:29 PM #

        Oh! Sorry I’m late to the discussion also. This was such a great and informative, well researched topic Ozzie. Thank u!

        • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:04 PM #

          No Problems too! 🙂

  10. Comic Relief November 15, 2012 at 8:43 PM #

    Hi all,

    I’m late but trying to catch up.

  11. Comic Relief November 15, 2012 at 8:59 PM #


    Seems I missed you. Thanks for the interesting article.

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:05 PM #

      Hi CR! 🙂 I’m still here but I don’t know for how much longer, lol!

  12. parisienne November 15, 2012 at 9:59 PM #

    Hey everyone!

    Sorry I showed up late! Let me catch up!

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:06 PM #

      Hi Paris! 🙂

  13. parisienne November 15, 2012 at 10:09 PM #

    Ozzie, are you still here?

  14. parisienne November 15, 2012 at 10:11 PM #


    Extremely informative article. Great Job! In your research did you find i’m just curious to see if the U.S. government has ever asked Hollywood to make a film in order to condition the people for governmental changes? I hope that made sense.

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:26 PM #

      Thank you! Very good question! I don’t think I came across any but it wouldn’t surprise me. Over the last few years we’ve had alot of Middle Eastern war films or so I’ve noticed. I’m not saying they are conditioning us because we’ve had on going conflicts going on in that region for decades now but we’ve probably got a long way to go before we ever achieve peace. So I don’t see them going out of fashion anytime soon!

  15. parisienne November 15, 2012 at 10:25 PM #

    I’m going to go for the night. Great article!

    • ozzie20 November 15, 2012 at 10:31 PM #

      Yes, I better go too before I fall asleep (although with my luck as soon as I sign out from here I’ll be wide awake. So I could be back here soon!). It’s been a fun discussion! 🙂

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