The Rise of Class War Cinema

We live in a new gilded age. Wealth inequality has spiked to a 50-year high. And anger at elites is only growing. Normal people face dwindling prospects and rising costs while billionaires prey off the poor and hoard wealth. Class resentment is boiling but the 1% have bought off our media to hide it.

But while the media plays down class conflict covering news, it’s open class warfare at the movies. Art houses and suburban multiplexes are screening stories centering the inherent brutality of stratified society.  The days of Tony Stark-style heroic rich guys are gone. Today’s wealthy movie characters aren’t heroic—they’re craven, predatory nitwits who don’t deserve the comforts they take for granted.

The upper crust terrified lower class victims in movies before, like ’80s horror and cult movies like Society, The People Under The Stairs and, obviously, American Psycho. But those were outliers. Today, populist rage has gone mainstream, with austerity-driven social services cuts and tenuous gig economy employment driving plots of comic book movies and critical darlings alike.

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Knives Out

Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson went from Star Wars to class war with Knives Out, a riff on Agatha Christie murder mysteries pitting an immigrant worker against the treachery of generational wealth. After wealthy author Harlan Thrombey dies, cartoonishly Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc is called in to investigate. When it’s revealed that Thrombey bequeathed his vast estate to his caretaker Marta, his family is enraged casts suspicion on Marta.

Class Consciousness: The Thrombeys are money-grubbing, entitled hypocrites while kindhearted lower-class Marta Cabrera lives with her undocumented mother in a cramped garden apartment with spotty wifi. Various Thrombey family members display liberal affectations, name-dropping Hamilton, arguing for immigrant rights and pledging to support Marta’s family. But once their wealth is threatened, the family locks into class solidarity and forgoes the liberal piety. Even the family’s self-professed social justice warrior chooses money over Marta.

Commitment to Class Warfare: Mild. It’s more of a #resistance liberal’s view of the world than a battle of haves vs. have-nots. While the Thrombeys are despicable, their most flagrant flaw is hypocrisy. They claim they’re self-made but depend on the patriarch’s largesse. They’re obnoxious but they’re not rent-gouging landlords, job-killing fund managers or polluting industrialists. The movie’s central suspense is over whether the family or immigrant and thinly characterized “good person” Marta will receive the inheritance. Johnson seems to believe that capitalism works just fine, provided that nice people get the money.

Parasite

In director Bong Joon-ho’s Korean-language arthouse hit, the impoverished Kim family tricks the wealthy Park family into hiring each of them as domestic servants. But when scamming the Parks puts the Kims at odds with the family’s previous employees, it triggers a desperate squabble with ruinous results.

Class Consciousness: The Parks are dimwitted and entitled. They’re oblivious to their privilege and their obliviousness fosters casual, habitual cruelty. They complain about the smell the Kims carry from their dingy basement apartment, showing how the rich dehumanize the poor almost by instinct. While the rich family flits around anxiously, believing that they face unique challenges instead of access to enviable creature comforts, the underclass families batter each other for resources instead of banding together.

Commitment to Class Warfare: Firm but not total. The rich people are awful and have no idea how awful they are, which makes them more awful. But, to a noticeable degree, that makes the problems seem personal, not systemic. As Struggle Session podcast host Leslie Lee III said, viewers could “come away with the idea that rich people should just be a little bit nicer to the help and you can avoid all these problems.”

Us

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his masterful debut Get Out had a majority black cast battling for survival against silent and deranged duplicates of themselves. As the film unfolds, we see they’re not the only family attacked (but they may be the most important).

Class Conflict: Where Get Out mined racism for metaphor and unsettling cinema, Us explored class instead, presenting a coordinated uprising by a literal forgotten, voiceless underclass.

Class Consciousness: Wavering. Peele presents an elegant metaphor with intriguing but unresolved mysteries. Since we never learn the origins or purpose of the doppelgangers, the audience can’t discern the relationship between them and the people they attack. We’re more privileged for living aboveground, sure. But is it our fault somehow that they’re so mistreated? There’s clearly a systemic problem but it’s not clear what the system in question is.

Joker

Todd Phillips’ Joker is a $1 billion blockbuster movie about Arthur Fleck, a man struggling with poverty, unemployment and mental illness. He lives with and cares for his mother and dreams of becoming a comedian until dark secrets from his past and chance encounters with violence unravel his life and sanity and unlock his inner drive to dance and wear makeup.

Class Consciousness: While Joker is about a comic book bad guy, the real villains are the callous elites of Gotham City enforcing austerity conditions on the city’s beleaguered population. Fleck’s violent episodes are precipitated by budget cuts to the city’s social programs. His first victims are Wall Street finance types and the attack sparks open class rage. Newspaper headlines blare “Eat the Rich” as thousands don joker masks in an Occupy Wall Street-style protest. After Fleck makes an explosive, murderous appearance on a Gotham chat show, the protest mutates into a city-wide apocalyptic riot. Fleck joyfully dances at the center of the maelstrom.

Commitment to Class Warfare: Deliriously high. Intentionally or not, the movie doesn’t give a viewer an out if their politics aren’t radical. To again quote Lee,  Joker “says the only real solution is violent revolution or at least trying to start one.”

Ready or Not

Foster home-raised heroine Grace marries upper cruster Alex Le Domas. On her wedding night, the family makes her choose a game to play, per Le Domas tradition. She draws hide and seek, meaning the family hunts her through the night to use her as a human sacrifice that, in accordance with a supernatural bargain the Le Domas family’s abided for generations, will ensure the family’s wealth.

Class Consciousness: The family are nasty, murderous buffoons who agree to extreme evil to maintain their status. Their empire depends on their ability to subjugate and exploit a member of the working class. Ready or Not has little interest in metaphor. It states its themes flatly and overtly, particularly when Grace reaches her boiling point and screams “fucking rich people” when she almost escapes the estate and an indifferent driver in a luxury car speeds away.

Commitment to Class Warfare: Nearly total. The rich are irredeemable monsters and revolutionary violence is the only correct response to them. There’s a bracing and refreshing lack of sentimentality throughout Ready or Not. A lesser film would spare the family’s servants. Not Ready or Not. The help are complicit in the family’s terror and are gleefully punished. Could a moral and compassionate person arise from such a family? Maybe but it might not be who you expect. Surely the children are innocent? Ho ho, no. The kids are monsters ready and deserve no mercy.

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