A couple of weeks ago I shared the bottom five of my top ten movies for teaching media literacy. Now that you’ve had time to watch those, here are my top five to round out the list:
5. Network (1976)
The film industry has always loved to criticize the ‘lowbrow’ television industry, and Network is probably the most virulent and nutty critique of them all. Its exposè of TV’s cold exploitation of audiences, sensationalist entertainment, and Faustian relationship with corporations is old news today, and the last 30 minutes is almost too loony. But there’s no better cinematic document on how network television is programmed, packaged, and sold to consumer demographics, and how success is measured, not in artistic quality or cultural value, but in market shares and Nielsen ratings. There is a generational angst at play in the network dynamics of the film, where the young eat the old unless the old are willing to be used by the young in their empty pursuit of a “30 share and a 20 rating.” One of those elder statesmen of journalistic integrity is turned into a messianic spokesman for the angry and disenfranchised American working class – cough, Trump, cough – and then executed when his ratings drop. The world is, after all, a business.
4. Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Robert Townsend’s hilarious look at a black actor struggling to make it in Hollywood is a piercing examination of black stereotypes and the lack of opportunities available for black actors in mainstream entertainment. Townsend’s Bobby Taylor is always too black or not black enough to fit into any role. The only roles on offer to black actors in the film are gangsters and that character that dies really early in movies. The protagonist of Hollywood Shuffle is constantly told that he isn’t an “Eddie Murphy-type.” If he was more like Eddie Murphy, i.e. if he was Eddie Murphy, then there would be more parts for him. At one point in the movie, Bobby Taylor has a nightmare in which he shows up for a casting call where everyone looks and acts like Eddie Murphy. Later in the film, the protagonist, and the filmmakers, dream of the roles they want to play someday, including Shakespearean kings, Superman, and Rambo – all the roles black actors are never considered for, then and now. The film is a personal story for director and actor Robert Townsend and screenwriter Keenen Ivory Wayans, but it’s a far too common story for people of color in mainstream media. Hollywood Shuffle proves that if you want the industry to change, you have to do it yourself.
3. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Few American films feed on the anger and cynicism of their particular era like Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. The movie was released shortly after the death of Senator McCarthy, a man of the people who bullied and lied his way into the national consciousness. However, the story of a man’s rise from local media rabble-rouser to TV personality superstar to political demagogue sounds eerily familiar today. Andy Griffith plays a folksy, singing, proselytizing oaf, named Lonesome Rhodes, who, like Arthur Godfrey, ascends from radio to television to become a working class hero. On his way to the top, we see Rhodes step on his friends and sell out to every advertiser and politician that comes a-calling. The Vitajex sequence in the film is a masterful examination of the fine lines between commerce, entertainment, and politics. Rhodes uses his easy charm and powers of persuasion to weasel his way into American homes and political circles, and he becomes delusional with fame and power. Eventually, Lonesome is exposed as the sinister, hateful charlatan he is, but perhaps too late for the media culture he comes to epitomize. A Face in the Crowd shows us the ugly side of celebrity idolatry and the unchecked role of media, and the final shot of a Coca-Cola sign flashing on and off is one of the most troubling in American cinema.
2. Quiz Show (1994)
On the surface, Robert Redford’s film is nostalgic in its depiction of the glamor and vibrancy of the world of television in the late 1950s. This was a time when television was still very new and exciting; before it had permanently displaced radio and movies as the dominant mass medium in American culture – the central nucleus of the modern family. It was also a time when television was still considered a public trust. Ultimately, Quiz Show pulls back that shiny veneer and exposes the inner workings of the television industry, and how the public’s trust is so calculatedly exploited and manipulated in the endless pursuit of ratings and profit. Redford shows us the masters of the universe, the media owners and advertisers, pulling the strings from their corporate offices, and the well-intentioned but flawed individuals so easily corrupted by the fame and wealth television offers. Equally the film indicts us, the audience, as culpable in the failed promise of television, in our obsession with celebrity and glamor, and in our willingness to accept the ‘reality’ media feed us.
1. Putney Swope (1969)
One of the most polarizing and unusual films you’ll likely see, Putney Swope is a brilliant, subversive satire of the advertising industry, white privilege, and corporate greed. Easy targets, I know, but there are few media texts that do it so sharply, or humorously, or oddly. The plot revolves around a Madison Avenue advertising agency that is turned on its head when its token black employee, Putney Swope, is accidentally voted in as the new CEO. With the motto, “Rockin’ the boat’s a drag. You gotta sink the boat!”, Swope immediately fires all the white men, except for one token white guy who Swope pays less for doing the same job as his black colleagues. Surrounded by young, gifted, and militant, black men and women, Swope vows to tell the truth in advertising, and he refuses to take accounts from cigarette and alcohol companies, or any other product that destroys or devalues black America. Unfortunately, they still have to make some actual ads, but the commercials Swope and his colleagues produce feature all those things advertising traditionally avoids, like homelessness, interracial relationships and facts, and they also parody the misogyny and chauvinism of the traditional advertising messaging. Remember, you can’t eat an air conditioner.