Film and Music: The Highways For Political Movement
Art has always been a way for people to express their emotions, ideologies, and inner most thoughts. While not every artistic piece is a political statement, the relationship art has had with politics is an intricate one. Music and film, especially, have had complex relationships with the political ideologies of both society and the individual. They have served as visual messengers to the public, communicating the artists opinions and beliefs about the world they live in, not unlike books, paintings, or drawings. They have both served as messengers from the ruling class and those being ruled, a testament to the true political power of these art forms.
Take “The Birth of a Nation,” for example. This movie was the first 12-reel film in the United States and was drenched with racist stereotypes, blackface, and a heroic depiction of the KKK. In 1915 this was all perfectly normal, and despite a campaign to ban the film spearheaded by the NAACP, the film drew widespread acclaim. It served as a powerful testimony of the Jim Crow era. The sentiments expressed in a movie vilifying Black individuals and praising the KKK were not uncommon—in 1915 the political climate was grossly and obnoxiously racist. While we could easily dissect the bigoted underpinnings of “The Birth of a Nation,” the creator of the movie, D.W. Griffith, was doing what many artists do: expressing his political ideologies. His ideologies, interestingly enough, reflected the attitudes of the larger society, but for a great deal of artists, their beliefs are unique. Their philosophies aren’t shared by the majority, and in many ways, they can be ridiculed, criticized, or even demonized for expressing them.
This happens most vividly with music. Genres such as rock or rap/hip-hop have faced ample critique from the outside world. They are too inappropriate. Too loud. Too offensive. Rap groups like N*ggas With Attitude (N.W.A) profited off of their angst-fueled lyrics; their lyrics told the very real stories of their very real lives as Black men in Compton, and they were met with harsh criticisms from…well, just about everybody. They told the story of their Blackness, their views on the police, and their views on what it meant to be a Black man not only in Compton, but the U.S. in general. It’s certainly interesting to note that while “The Birth of a Nation” garnered such great acclaim, the music of N.W.A, although noticeably uncensored, was heavily criticized.
Punk rock music in the 90s fared similar criticisms. It was inappropriate. Unsettling. With bands like Nirvana becoming wildly successful, parents were quick to condemn these groups for being bad influences on the youth. Nirvana’s lyrics were fueled with angst, despair, and a hauntingly volatile quality that only the foreman Kurt Cobain could offer. Cobain’s lyrics were also strikingly personal, intimately describing the pain that he often felt, the pain that led to his untimely suicide at 27. His lyrics explained his beliefs of the world and feelings about life. While his career was extremely successful, he was still met with harsh criticisms that encouraged the censorship of his gritty lyrics.
Both of these art forms have had such a critical relationship with political thought. For marginalized groups particularly, expressing themselves artistically can become a noticeably important form of resistance. Telling these stories becomes explicitly political. There are ample examples of people using their art to progress their viewpoints and express themselves: “The Color Purple,” spread a particular extension of gender equity coined “womanism” by Alice Walker; “Paris is Burning,” spread light on drag culture and the lived experiences of the LGBT+ community in New York; and many more films continue to express the lived conditions and opinions of individuals across the globe.
What’s important to remember however, is that all art exists as an expansion of the artist, and unsurprisingly, sometimes you’re going to have nauseating critiques of both the artist and their viewpoints on the world. But alas, that’s the beauty of art—sometimes it can be ugly. Sometimes it can be discomforting. Sometimes it can be difficult to process. But above all, art is a passionate excursion through the mind of the artist, a testament to their thoughts, beliefs, and life.