The Heritage of Hollywood

Grace LuckettSeptember 29, 2016HeritageFeatures

For generations, the Hollywood movie industry has arguably been one of the most influential forces in the media.

A movie depicts what is bad and what is good. This message is usually fairly explicit, with characters that fit the archetype of “The Hero” and “The Villain” often and obviously, and plots that detail exactly who the viewer is supposed to root for. These archetypes almost always relate to the sentiments of the time, meaning that the movie industry condenses the complex views and opinions of the masses into something palatable and understandable. This makes it easy to look back on formulaic films and see what the most popular viewpoints were. One area in which widespread opinion is propagated by the government therefore is made more accessible is foreign affairs. Often when America is embroiled in a national issue, such as a war or a campaign against terrorism, the enemies of those conflicts are chosen by filmmakers as “bad guys” in movies of the time. This shift in portrayal mirrors American engagement in global conflict, because filmmakers can incorporate aspects of real danger into their films. It also further villainizes already marginalized groups and validates preexisting American fears.

When World War II ended in the 1940s, the United States became embroiled in a conflict with the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War. The strengthening of Communism in Europe caused the Americans to become involved in proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Nuclear development on both sides sparked an arms race and increased tensions. This turmoil incited American fear of Communism, specifically Russians, as is clearly expressed in films from the era. The popular movie The Hunt For Red October is indicative of these anti-Communist and anti-Russian sentiments. Although the movie was released in 1990, near the end of the Cold War, the sentiments during that time period were still deeply ingrained in the minds of Americans. The movie details the search for a massive Russian submarine by American forces, and the eventual defection of the submarine’s commanding officer. The movie portrays the Russian-speaking men as generically evil, hard, and unfeeling, except for the commander, who chooses to turn over his submarine and cooperate with the Americans. The American audience assumes that these Russian men are “the bad guys” unless they submit to American rule. This movie, like many others of the time, capitalizes on preconceived notions of Russians, so negative characteristics were already associated with the film’s villains.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the popular James Bond film From Russia With Love. The movie details the conflict between the American spy James Bond, and a fictional Russian terrorist organization, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The film overwhelmingly and cartoonishly paints Russians as evil, adding to the negative stereotype of all Russians, while also playing off of the fear of Communism in order to sell tickets. By choosing an already existent and very real enemy, Hollywood producers incorporated a sense of danger into the conflict of the film, ultimately villainizing these people further, breeding fear and hate.

In more recent years, the United States has entered into armed conflict with Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a general campaign against Middle East-based terrorism. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, political rhetoric has fueled widespread fear of people from the Middle East, as their group as a whole was painted as being responsible for the attacks. This change in American sentiment and foreign policy can be seen in recent movies, which contribute to stereotypes of Middle Easterners as terrorists and validate Americans’ growing distrust towards them. One example is the Taken franchise, a series of movies released in 2009 in which the protagonist’s family members are abducted by Middle Eastern criminals. The movie features an almost constant stream of vaguely Arab villains who are promptly killed or wounded by the protagonist. The films paint a fairly black and white picture of good and bad, with the main character portrayed as solidly moral and just in his actions and the criminals as completely evil. The movie relies upon the fact that an American audience viewing it in theaters will already have an ingrained sense of unease about Middle Eastern characters and their motives, which is then validated as every character turns out to be untrustworthy or outright evil. The villainization of Middle Eastern characters in a multitude of films facilitates the acceptance of this group as villains by the general populace.

This portrayal can be incredibly damaging, as two PhD candidates from Notre Dame who did a study on the effect of popular movies on political views state: “We found significant evidence that popular films possess the capability to change attitudes on political issues. In an age where the biases of network news and talk radio programs are accepted facts, the movie theater may prove to be one of the last sources of cross-cutting exposure to political messages.”

The experiment they conducted involved randomly assigning people to watch movies with no political message, a subtle political message, and intense political messages. They found that those who watched movies with more intense political messages exhibited swayed opinions on the topic addressed. When Hollywood promotes images of an entire group that is already feared because of the actions of a small percentage of that group, it validates feelings of distrust and fear among the American populace.

Popular movies prey on the nonfictional danger that comes with having an actual enemy in international conflict, which validates preexisting fear and contributes to the marginalization and villainization of real cultural groups. Hollywood has left behind a roadmap of American hate and distrust, creating an overall negative heritage. In the future, we must decide if we want to continue to fuel this legacy or if we want to reject the film industry’s harmful heritage and pass on a more inclusive future.

Grace Luckett is in the 9th grade at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, New York. Grace is an avid reader, skier, baker, and singer.