For the bulk of contemporary American moviegoers, the concept of protest is deeply rooted in the pop culture of the past. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, protests and sit-ins were overwhelmingly looked upon as antiquated relics of the past. Prominently featured in films set during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, protests have become part of everyday life in 2020.
Today, the fight against systemic oppression is as alive as ever. And for many Americans, reality suddenly appeared movie-like in the wake of the George Floyd protests, which kicked off in Minneapolis on May 26. Similar protests quickly sprung up across the country, and history was made.
According to numerous scholars, the anti-police brutality protests of 2020 are on course to be the largest protest movement ever recorded in the U.S. As of mid-June, an estimated 26 million Americans had participated in an anti-police brutality protest in some capacity.
It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood churns out its own spin on the protests of 2020. Until then, potential revolutionaries looking for inspiration have plenty of research material at their disposal, albeit fictional. On-screen freedom fighters are sometimes anonymous, and their fights may happen in familiar-looking cities, under governments and regimes that are eerily similar to our own.
If you’re looking for a new perspective on protests, political movements, and the legal system in general, you’re in for a real treat. The following films offer a sobering glimpse at life under systemic oppression, and what can happen when the people finally rise up.
Children of Men
In general, the dystopian films that most resonate with moviegoers are those that mirror our own experiences. In this way, Children of Men is one of the most powerful science fiction films ever made. Set in a futuristic version of London in 2027, years after humanity suddenly lost its ability to breed, Children of Men offers a glimpse of hope in a bleak, uncertain future.
Sound familiar? Indeed, while the film (directed by Alfonso Cuarón) failed to make waves at the box office upon its release in 2006, Children of Men is widely considered a modern cinematic masterpiece. It holds the No. 13 spot on the BBC’s list of 100 greatest films of the 21st century.
The film’s story centers on Theo (Clive Owen), a former freedom fighter just trying to get by. Thanks to the film’s powerful opening scene, we quickly come to realize that Theo’s life isn’t as safe as it appears, even as dystopian Great Britain “soldiers on.” When his former lover Julian, still an active resistance fighter, asks for his help, Theo jumps at the chance to escape his mundane existence.
That simple choice essentially thrusts Theo into the very heart of the film’s anti-government resistance. Alongside Julian and Kee, a young woman in his care, Theo is labeled a fugitive, and actively hunted via the country’s ubiquitous surveillance equipment. Additionally, the government saturates all available media channels with photos of the fugitives, in addition to spreading disinformation about the true nature of their “crimes.”
Of course, fake news and the spread of disinformation aren’t simply the brainchild of creative screenwriters. In 2020, fake news is unfortunately rampant and easily spread via social media. It’s up to savvy citizens to learn how to spot fake news, and help curb the spread of disinformation, whether its intended purpose is economic or political.
V for Vendetta
Eye-catching imagery is often used in fake news and propaganda campaigns, but images and symbols can also become revolutionary tools. The Guy Fawkes mask is a prime example of this phenomenon. As far as on-screen acts of rebellion are concerned, few images are as iconic as the grinning mask, thrust into infamy with the release of V for Vendetta in 2005.
Built on the bones of the 1988 DC comic of the same name, the dystopian film culminates in a revolution. Plus, the freedom fighter known as V blows up the British parliament building in spectacular Hollywood fashion. Rather than looking the other way and continuing to live under authoritarian rule, V encourages his fellow citizens to come together as one, and restore power to the people.
Yet the most memorable aspect of the film is the mask that hides V’s true visage at all times, known as the Guy Fawkes mask. Offering a captivating promise of anonymity, the mask has now crossed the line between film and reality, and millions have been sold around the world. The mask is based on the likeness of and named for the most famous perpetrator of the Gunpowder Plot, which took place in 1605.
The bombing of Parliament in V for Vendetta also mirrors the 17th-century plot, which ultimately failed. Fawkes and his compatriots were Catholics who aimed at protesting religious oppression, to an extreme degree. Because of their legacy, the Guy Fawkes mask is a common sight at modern protests and rallies and has actually existed since long before the movie.
Modern, real-life protest groups such as Anonymous have even adopted the comic’s stylized mask, and its creator, graphic artist David Lloyd, wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m very happy with all circumstances where the mask is being used by people who are trying to do what they believe is the right thing — to combat any tyranny they happen to want to confront,” Lloyd told CNBC.
As far as fighting tyranny and systemic oppression go, animated movies are an unlikely contender. Pixar’s The Incredibles is a breath of fresh air, offering children a glimpse into governmental oppression under the guise of a children’s movie.
On the surface, the Pixar juggernaut about a family of superheroes doesn’t feel necessarily “political,” yet its underlying theme is having to hide who you truly are for fear of oppression. Those with superpowers (called “supers”) are forced into a sort of life where “don’t show, don’t tell” mirrors “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), formerly known as Mr. Incredible, lives in a deep depression that is only lifted by late-night vigilante exploits with his best friend and fellow super, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). His school-aged children, Violet and Dash, are told that they can never use their powers, and Violet especially feels like an outcast because she is super.
The Incredibles does an excellent job of both illustrating the ways that oppression can be normalized, as well as calling attention to the contradictions of the legal system, from the arraignment hearing process to plea deals. In The Incredibles, the very act of using your superpowers is a crime. Yet, after Mr. Incredible and his family (with help from Frozone) manage to thwart a dangerous villain, the government calls on them to fight more villains rather than prosecutes them.
Just as video games can reveal social issues, so can films, no matter the genre. What’s more, protest films can give modern Americans various perspectives on fighting systemic oppression. Fake news and anonymous acts of rebellion are just the beginning, on screen and off.