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Around the release of Zootopia, a friend on Twitter posted a short thread about the futility of cinematic/literary metaphors for race. His argument was that, at best, these metaphors over-simplify and reduce complex real world matters without materially contributing to combating racial injustice. At worst, these metaphors unintentionally confuse and obscure real world suffering. And so if someone wants to make a literary argument about race, perhaps it would just be better to strip the metaphors away and have a frank conversation about the topic.

I adore District 9. It’s one of the essential science fiction films of the last ten years. It’s also a metaphor for apartheid in South Africa. Aliens forced to live in poverty and as non-citizens while they’re poked and prodded by paternalistic Afrikaans. It is also obviously problematic to recast black South Africans as alien space shrimp in the story of their own struggle for liberation (and to also make one of those white Afrikaans — who is the film’s POV and lead — so integral to that struggle).

District 9‘s metaphors are awkward and mishandled but their heart and ideas are mostly in the right place. Zootopia is one of those films that actively confuses matters in viewers. One of its implicit underlying messages is “cops are your friends in the fight against racial injustice” which is actively offensive if you know anything about the role that police play in supporting white supremacy in America. Its decision to make animal species metaphors for the various races also leads to a host of troubling implications about “race” which is itself primarily an invention of white supremacy.

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I was thinking about that Twitter thread a lot as I watched John Carpenter’s 1988 science fiction agitprop, They Live. An unquestionably radical work of American filmmaking, They Live is a gonzo, paranoid fever dream about a radical awakening of class consciousness. Its response to the nihilistic crush of capitalism and the soul-wrecking complacency of modern life is revolutionary organization and, when appropriate, revolutionary violence.

But next year is the 30 year anniversary of the film’s release, and I can’t help but wonder how effective the symbolism of the film can still be. Carpenter made an undeniably subversive film. It’s raison d’etre is a call to arms (literally at times) against a world order defined by Ronald Reagan’s doublespeak “New Morning in America.” But if one hasn’t experienced a Marxist awakening of class consciousness, do the film’s metaphors still exist or does They Live simply become another hyper-masculine, violence-driven science fiction film?

In his Great Movies essay for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Roger Ebert recounted an evening spent watching the film at an outdoor screening. Battleship Potemkin is one of the most famous pieces of revolutionary art ever crafted. A 1925 silent Soviet film, Battleship Potemkin recounts one of the turning points in the Russian people’s struggles against the tyrannical czar and one of the moments where it became clear to the Russian people that a future revolution would be possible.

Ebert (who I love and who was one of my chief inspirations as a culture writer) waxed poetic about the revolutionary spirit that filled him after he watched the film. There was something for him about seeing the film with such a large crowd, in a public space, and with a live band providing the backing score. But methinks Ebert was being a little hyperbolic as he was occasionally prone to do. Did Ebert work after that to overthrow capitalism? Did he take up arms against an oppressive state? Did he start to self-identify as a Bolshevist? If not, I suspect there was very little that was truly revolutionary about his state of mind after that screening.

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They Live embraces the symbolism and explicit language of revolutionary socialism and was made by someone clearly well-versed in the movement’s history. Its heroes aren’t the bourgeois or even the middle class. The film is a celebration of workers and everyone left behind by the narcissistic greed of 1980s America. Its villains are the rich and those who collaborate with the rich so they can have their leavings. Cops are almost uniformly monsters out to suppress workers and keep them from coming together and working towards their liberation. Those civilians who are finding ways to fight back are oppressed at all turns and the government works tirelessly to keep them divided and beaten down. And when violence is the only remaining tool of liberation, it is embraced and even romanticized.

But how many people watched They Live and then joined a Communist vanguard party? How many folks picked up a copy of What Is to Be Done and looked for ways to radically organize themselves and those around them? Considering the dire straits that most Marxist-Leninist groups spent the last thirty years in, I can tell you the number is very low.

Socialists — particularly Communists — are often shy about discussing the nitty-gritty of their ideologies in public — once again, particularly Communists — because it runs counter to essentially every major virtue of American life. Talking in detail about the base and superstructure or the systemic ways in which American policing upholds capital/white supremacy/the patriarchy can make you sound like a loon. And, in They Live‘s defense, it’s a fundamental theme of the film. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has to beat Keith David to a pulp before the latter will accept how bad things really are… and Keith David had been the cynic to Piper’s idealist at the film’s beginning.

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John Carpenter hoped They Live‘s magic sunglasses and the film’s relentless cynicism about 1980s America would stir a radical awakening of class consciousness, but as someone whose work is also dedicated to the same cause, the film’s real lesson should perhaps be that even if you force someone to hear the truth, you can not force them to internalize those lessons in a meaningful way.

I take the fundamental evils of capitalism and the failures of liberal democracy to be a nearly objective fact, but ideology is such a powerful force in our lives that even if I showered the average person in arguments about why I’m right, I’m more likely to be dismissed out of hand than I am to be taken seriously. I imagine They Live is entertaining despite your politics (unless you’re on the far right in which case you’re likely recognize its implications better than some liberals) but without the background in its specific politics, the most important parts of its text are lost. And if you do know its politics, the film can come off as masturbation for the “enlightened” and that doesn’t help anyone.

Battleship Potemkin was a revolutionary film because it was made less than a decade after the Russian Revolution. Its viewers had overthrown a despotic government, and for citizens who didn’t contribute to the revolution personally, it was a hypnotic reminder of why revolt was necessary. They Live wants to be a film like that, but that sort of film will never have that sort of power in a capitalist system. You need vanguard parties to achieve that sort of work.

What art like They Live can do is radicalize folks that are already on the fringes of radicalization. And that is an achievement that shouldn’t be understated.

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