(Audrey Wells is a retired educator, freelance writer, and co-author of The Art of Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years.)
In an important film from the 2008 presidential race, Ann Coulter warns of Hillary Clinton: “She’s far more liberal than she’s going to let on.” And Dick Morris bemoans, “Hillary Clinton is really the closest thing we have in America to a European Socialist.” I’m talking about Hillary: The Movie, produced by the Koch-funded conservative group Citizens United. A fancy piece of propaganda, complete with ominous music, stark lighting, and reenactments of allegedly shady dealings, the film tops off years of right-wing accusations meant to undermine Hillary Clinton, who in their words has “mastery of the black arts of attack politics.” Irony included.
Poisoning the reputation of Hillary Clinton has sopped up large chunks of private money from the right wing – and way over $50 million in tax dollars. These efforts led to the 2010 Supreme Court decision many want to overturn, known as Citizens United. (If you find yourself wanting to blame Hillary for these attacks, it may be a sign the poison has worked.)
Let’s back up. In 2002 Congress established the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) also known as McCain-Feingold. Section 203 in the BCRA prohibited unions and corporations from paying for broadcast, cable, or satellite media that mentions any candidate within 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. In other words, no pooling large amounts of corporate or union money to air political advertisements — attack or promotional — close to an election.
Then two years later, in 2004, the group Citizens United filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), claiming television advertisements for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 violated the BCRA because the film was openly critical of President George W. Bush. The FEC dismissed their complaint, saying funding for the advertisements was commercial activity, not electioneering. Inspired, Citizens United branched into the documentary film business. If Michael Moore could make documentaries that influence political opinion without restraint, well, they could too.
Check out the Citizens United website to watch previews of some of their 24 films. Try Occupy Unmasked to get their version of the Occupy Movement, Rocky Mountain Heist on how the liberal agenda has taken over Colorado, or Battle for America to hear how an Obama presidency would ruin our country.
Back to 2008: in their effort to advertise Hillary: The Movie close to a primary, Citizens United brought suit against the FEC. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, and in 2010, the group Citizens United, in a 5-4 decision, won and won big. Any restrictions on money spent on political speech by corporations, unions, or associations were lifted. Why? In the majority view, to protect First Amendment rights.
On to another presidential candidate this year. Did you know that, as it says on his website, Bernie Sanders worked as a documentary filmmaker? He wrote and produced his major project in 1979, two years before being elected mayor of Burlington, and you can see it on YouTube. It’s a 29-minute biography titled Eugene Victor Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary 1855 – 1926.
The narration begins with a dose of Sanders’ sarcasm, saying, “If you are the average American who watches television forty hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm spray deodorants, every hack politician in your state, and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.” Debs ran for President of the United States five times as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, conducting his last campaign, in 1920, from prison for defying the draconian 1918 Sedition Act by speaking out against American involvement in World War I.
The film’s simple soundtrack has two narrators and features Sanders reading Debs’ own words. The imagery is limited to still shots of stock photos (including a lynching), campaign paraphernalia, and political cartoons that each stay on the screen for about 30 seconds. The production values may not impress, but the content is worthwhile as a primer. Debs is a key historical figure of the American labor movement, and for people who want to know Sanders better, this film makes clear why Debs was a hero to him.
For some laughs on the subject of American social class and racial divide, I recommend John Landis’s 1983 Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Remarkably, this film plays well today, and it is fun to see Minnesota Senator Al Franken in a bit part as a clownish baggage handler. Bo Diddley has a role, and Jamie Lee Curtis too. Yes, today’s viewer will have to forgive some of the dated attitudes and depictions (especially around sex), but if you take it easy, there are laughs to be had.
The plot is launched by two brothers, commodity brokers Randolph and Mortimer Duke – one percenters, in today’s parlance – played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, who in this film both bear resemblance to the banker icon from the Monopoly game. In an effort to resolve their ongoing nature versus nurture argument, they manipulate the lives of street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and ambitious executive Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) by reversing their fortunes and callously betting on the results.
Landis fills the film with gags. The Dukes frequent the Heritage Club, where the sign over the door reads: “The Heritage Club, With Liberty and Justice for All, Members Only.” When Mortimer says to Randolph, “Mother always said you were greedy” his brother retorts “She meant it as a compliment.” But serious themes run throughout this comedy, and underlying racist attitudes are exposed. Funny as it is, the film still has the power to make us uncomfortable – in a good way.
A current popular culture depiction of super wealth can be seen in a 2014 version of Annie (the character who was born during the Great Depression). When Jamie Foxx, in the role of Will Stacks, a cell phone tycoon who runs for mayor of New York City, bellows “Politicians are all liars” and “You’re fired,” we get a whiff of Donald S. Trump. As a publicity stunt, Stacks takes in foster child Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis), and her life is transformed, not with servants, not with robots, but with a smart home that can read her mind and fulfill every wish.
Round out your viewing experience with Anthony Baxter’s 2011 documentary You’ve Been Trumped, and watch Trump in action as he bullies and bulldozes his way to establish a luxury golf course on wild sand dunes in Scotland. Now, Trump is on the political course and swinging. “FORE!”