On The Movies That Wake Us Up
I remember the month and year I became “politically aware.” December of 2005. It was an ordinary day, like any other. But it did not end like one. At 5:35 (I think), I stepped into Great Escape cinemas one person, and at 7:50 (or so) I exited a different one.
Let me set the stage: I was a “good citizen.” I was vaguely liberal on a few social issues, and vaguely conservative on others. I supported the President. Sort of. Even though I quietly made fun of his mannerisms here and there. I also “vaguely” supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or the troops. Or something. I was mostly politically unaware of what was going on around me. I had a muddy “both sides do it’ attitude toward Democrats and Republicans, though I really wasn’t sure what “it” was or why I should care. I didn’t know what a “libertarian” really was or what that meant. I didn’t know or really care who was on the Supreme Court. I got my news and commentary from Fox and CNN. I didn’t watch the Daily Show. I stayed away from topics like race and gender and feminsim — because those tended to start fights — and I did not know what “ableism” and “ageism” were. Plus, I didn’t really know enough about any of those topics to have really formed an opinion on them yet. I was ignorant in the extreme, and my ignorance formed a kind of blissful little cocoon that protected me from reality. I knew I was vaguely angry about the way that gay people were treated — because I knew people who were gay — and I knew that I didn’t like organized religion at all . . . but those views had not yet crystallized into actual political positions for me, because I didn’t yet understand how they were connected to the overall political landscape in Washington, nor how they played out across the country in everyday political settings, nor how they factored into the global political playing field . . . and how they were connected to other political issues and voices that mattered. In other words, I was a sheeple, quietly grazing in the fields of plenty provided for me by the mass media and the dominant paradigm.
Then I heard about a new movie coming out from the Wachowski Brothers. I had liked The Matrix, and so I was intrigued. I had never read Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel V for Vendetta, though I had loved Watchmen to death (though again, even in Watchmen’s case, the political messages had blown right over my head; I was very young when I read it). But hey, it was allegedly a futuristic, dystopian superhero film, and that sounded good to me. But I couldn’t get my friend Greg nor my friend Tonya interested in it. So, one evening, I went and saw it alone.
Hoh. Lee. Shit.
It may seem silly to say (and yes, I know the “problem” with using Guy Fawkes as a historical rallying point), but the tone and narrative of V for Vendetta shook me, and woke me up but good. All at once. And in a hurry. It was blinding, like having a pair of sunglasses torn off your face in the blinding afternoon heat. In the space of two hours and some change, thanks to the Wachowski Brothers and their film, my consciousness was ripped open and scrambled like the bowels of a tourist in Mexico who has made the mistake of ordering the spiciest thing on the menu, and then drinking a gallon of the native water . . . and then taking some laxatives. It was an astonishing and awakening moment for me, one in which so many things all clicked in my head at once. Like the tumblers all fell into place at the same time, like the clockwork gears of a combination lock all ticked into position at the same exact moment, and suddenly, I could see.
I left that theatre a changed person. Rattled to the bone, and suddenly very afraid for the world. I knew what was up. I suddenly understood my friends who were more political than I was; what drove them, why they did what they did; what their values were and why they had them . . . and why I now could no longer be friends with some of the more conservative of them. I had a sudden feeling of desperation — of the need to do something about it — all of it — though I had no idea what exactly I could do. I felt powerless and trapped, insignificant in the greater clockwork of the body politic and the greater political machine. I had been galvanized into suddenly giving a shit, about so many things it wasn’t funny, and the more my head whirled and spun with thought, the more things I found I suddenly gave a shit about, suddenly had an opinion on, suddenly had to do some research on in order to find out more, to know more, to realize more. And the more research I did at home that night and the nights beyond it, the more troubled I became; the more the galvanic charge built up in me, and the more of a progressive I slowly, gradually graduated into. The more I was pushed leftward, in other words; the more I studied the issues, the greater sense of wrongness I felt at the then-current situation, and the more I felt in my gut that things had to change, somehow, or else the world would perish from an orgy of corruption and indulgent, ignorant buffoonery on the part of conservative politicians everywhere.
Now, in the age of Donald Trump, I feel that the message of V for Vendetta — both the movie and the book, for they are very different creatures, owing to the fact that the movie is very much “inspired by” the book and not strictly “based on” it — is more timely and prescient than ever. It speaks to the days we live in now. Even though the film takes place in a dystopian England of the near future, it might as well take place in the America of today. Neo-Nazis run riot in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, killing an innocent woman, and the President issues a lukewarm response; the Russians might have been directly responsible for his election to the Presidency, and yet we have an electorate where 35% of the voters literally do not care that this is the case . . . and in fact still cheer his so-called “victories” when he champions police brutality and the denigration of our Muslim and Hispanic citizens. Yes, V’s immortal words — “these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition!” — though whimsical, are a fitting description of Trump and cronies like Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions. Never did I think I would fear my own government as I fear this one; never did I think I would have to. I had my beefs with President Obama — contrary to popular belief, he was not every progressive’s “dream come true”; he had a lot of warts that we progressives were not happy about — but never under his watch did I go to bed wondering if World War III was going to break out because of his Twitter feed, nor did I fear that due to his encouragement — or his lack of discouragement — Neo-Nazis might decide it was a good idea to set up camp in my home town and throw a big ol’ book burning party. We know, after all, that Trump doesn’t like to read.
So perhaps it’s time to dust off those books, movies, and TV shows that first “woke” you. Revisit them. Pay homage to them. Revel in them once more. Look upon them with fresh eyes in this age when being woke matters more than ever, and also, try to see them, once again, through the eyes you once saw them through . . . the eyes of a Sleeper. Let them wake you all over again, perhaps in new ways. And then — share them with someone who needs waking up. You probably can’t wake that person up on your own. And the movie, book, TV show, or comic book you share with them probably won’t do the job all by itself, either. But who knows? It might open the door a tiny crack. It might nudge them toward awakening just a little bit. It might push them closer to the edge of awareness just a tiny, small fraction more than the were the day before. And before you know it, you might just have a woke person on your hands. You never know. You can at least try.
Good luck. And remember, it’s like V said: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”