At one point in José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a police officer confronts local gang members in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, asking for his share of their drug revenue. The police are corrupt, but their illicit money supply has been cut off by their own belligerence: a massacre at a prison temporarily obliterated the black market. There aren’t many drugs or gang members around.
So the policemen shoot the teens in cold blood.
We’ve seen corrupt police onscreen before. But then, Padilha, who also wrote the script for the movie, which is sequel, replays the incident with its horrific, oppressive tension, this time informing us that the cops shot the kids not out of anger but because the police are planning to take over the market for everything in the slums: water, cable, and, yes, drugs too. A pure power grab, dastardly beyond comprehension.
Welcome to the cinematic rage of the contemporary moment. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see political dramas on television and in theaters, at home and abroad, dealing with corruption in excessive, dark, dense, violent, moralistic, and at times even campy ways. Directors and writers are channeling the rage of the world’s dispossessed with artistry and bravura. Their films are political but not partisan, broadly concerned with basic rights and justice.
Padilha is now a superstar for his uncompromising, stubborn, yet wildly entertaining film. It’s the same kind of fame that launched Cary Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre is a gritty and kinectic tale of gang tyranny and global immigration in Central America. Jiang Wen has also gained prominence for Let the Bullets Fly, a bracing, rigorous satire of government and corporate corruption nestled comfortably and safely in the Chinese historical drama genre (to pass government censors, it seems). Both Elite Squad and Let the Bullets Fly have broken box office records in their respective regions and countries — Brazil, where Elite is the country’s highest grossing film ever, and China, where Bullets is its second — challenging Hollywood’s global franchises with a deep sensitivity to local concerns.
Here in America smart political satires and essay-films only occasionally go blockbuster (Avatar and the Batman films are broad and safe in comparison). But if the success of The Hunger Games – itself breaking all sorts of records and barriers – and the expectedly large audience for tonight’s premiere of Game of Thrones is any indication, we might be headed for a marked shift in global televisual culture.
I’m reluctant to tie together all of these films and television shows. In part that’s because both Let the Bullets Fly and Elite Squad are so specific, dramatizing local and national concerns. Elite Squad explores an aggressive special unit of the Rio police, whose lawlessness is tacitly supported by the city’s middle class, themselves eager to extinguish drug production and distribution in the city (it’s the dystopian flip side of a global drug war perpetuated, in part, by American policy). Let the Bullets Fly is a cacophony of symbols, metaphors and allegories about national Chinese policy. The non-mainland Chinese viewer will probably miss the most of its references (I know I did). But what’s clear is it’s firmly opposed to the collusion of big business and the government, a very serious problem in China.
And around the world. Both films still explore themes that resonate across national lines. At home, we have spent a lot of time questioning why various industries, conglomerates, banks and financial services firms are so well-integrated into our legislative process, and the incredible inequity of power such collusion perpetuates. At the same time the Trayvon Martin shooting has spurred a different set of questions, on how extensively police forces and state laws can rob citizens of vital rights and safety. We haven’t produced a film fueled by the kind of rage Padilha and Jiang exhibit, though we’ve come close, particularly in documentaries like Inside Job, indies like Margin Call and almost-smart studio movies like Wall Street 2. Police corruption is a popular narrative here, but The Departed is nowhere near as manic as Elite Squad (or even the Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs). And for every Departed, there’s a Town.
What about The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones? Both are quite intense, Game of Thrones markedly more so. They both presume that the needs of the powerful — mainly, to hold on to power — are fundamentally different from that of the people. And that’s about where we are politically in America. We understand, implicitly, that something is wrong. Many of us are not being heard. Many people know that now, and both Games and Game channel that awareness in surprising and compelling ways. Yet in Lionsgate’s film and HBO’s series everyday citizens have – so far – largely not been heard. It will happen. We know Katniss Everdeen will spark a revolution (of sorts? I haven’t read ahead). And the war consuming Westeros in Game of Thrones seems ripe for a backlash from somewhere; at the very least, Daenarys’ reverse-colonialist quest through Essos will certainly be questioned by her followers as soon as times gets tough for the foreign queen.
And, of course, both are fantasy. They grittily narrate the tyranny of an oblivious ruling classes, but they take place in other worlds (Let the Bullets Fly has some surrealism, but it’s 1920s China). Any real-world blockbuster featuring characters like current or recent politicians might be too much, except for in carefully calibrated documentaries — Gasland, Wasteland and its ilk are the heirs to Moore’s Farenheit 9/11, but none have come even close to that film’s monstrous popularity.
Are Americans ready for epic, passionate, cynical yet true-to-life blockbusters about institutions screwing over citizens for sheer profit and power?
I think we are.