What the Best Movies of the Past Year Taught Me about Politics

LEGO-MovieWhen I say best movies of the last year, I have to admit that I’ve only seen a handful of new movies and that I count movies that released late 2013. I should also admit that I am a nerd. And while most of the literature I read is non-fiction, serious and usually devoted to some aspect of intersectional justice, I tend to focus my TV and movie viewing to comedies and comic book action. Fortunately, there’s a good amount of both out nowadays.

Here’s my top three, in reverse order: FrozenCaptain America: Winter Soldier; and The Lego Movie. Each one of these movies taught me something politically important this year. (Beware there be spoilers ahead.)


Frozen. Yes, it’s a movie designed for little girls – and I wouldn’t have watched if I didn’t have one. Also, technically it’s neither a comic book nor a comedy movie. But it’s hard to argue that Ella isn’t a superhero. And it’s also hard to say that her sister, Anna, herself isn’t a brave, sacrificial hero. I saw it several months after my daughter’s breathless reviews and replays, but I had to watch it even though it is another Disney Princess movie. But to call it another Disney Princess movie is to think of it as another Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, where the Handsome Prince comes and his undying – yet brand new – love rescues our despairing heroine1. Like recent near-misses The Princess and the Frog and Brave, the princess is strong and quite capable herself, yet it sets up as a traditional romantic princess movie – but then pulls the rug from under our cartoon eyes. (Spoiler Alert) We are led to believe that Elsa will be saved from Hans’s sword by the strong man’s-man, Kristoff, Anna’s burgeoning love interest. But he can’t. He’s too far away, the storm is too difficult, he’s not there. But Anna is. And Anna loves her sister. And despite the fact that she had already frozen herself touching Elsa, Anna steps in front of Hans and his sword. It is her sisterly love, not Kristoff’s bravery and manliness, that saves Elsa. And it is Elsa’s love for her sister that rescues Anna.

Lesson I’ve learned from Frozen: Liberation will come from communal bonding and love, not from outside interference. There is no knight in shining armor.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s not a classic in any sense. It’s not deep, but it was fun and held one of the biggest shockers in the Marvel Universe (unless you count gender- and race-changing superheroes as surprising. That’s really nothing new). It’s not the idea that Captain America’s old sidekick, Bucky, is back to life as a mindless killing machine, The Winter Soldier; that’s old hat. But the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. was a secret base for Hydra and that even Nick Fury’s superiors were in on this has repercussions throughout not just the movie and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but through much of the next movies – and I’d venture, the comics as well. Yet, Cap found a new partner in a guy he was jogging with (Sam Wilson, AKA, The Falcon. Hey, guess who the new, Black Captain America is in the comics, by the way?).


Lessons I’ve learned from CA:TWS:

– 1) Don’t give up hope. Allies and cohorts can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

– 2) Hydra has many heads and can appear in the unlikeliest of places – even among allies.

– 3) Never give up hope anyway. The fight for progressive values is hard and long and will cost a lot. But the people needing and wanting that will show themselves.

Finally, there’s The Lego Movie. This may sound odd, but while the other two movies were fun and taught some lessons, neither will really stay with me the way The Lego Movie will. Lego was groundbreaking. Not because it was a movie based on demon toys (I know you’ve stepped on them before), but because it’s a structured, multi-layered film to be approached on various levels. What it says about creativity, about bonding, about relationships, about the nature of heroism, about community-building, about Batman (who’s really just a pompous teenager fixated on his alienation feelings and making everything black!), about pop culture, about Taco Tuesday, about incessant pop songs, about destruction as an impetus for creation – all these things and more you can read at FILM CRIT HULK’s reflections (YES EVERYTHING IS IN ALLCAPS THAT HOW HULK TALK!). I’m surprised that this movie was made by the same people who gave us the frat fart movies 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street. But I’m struck by one of the central themes – in fact, the plot for the movie. President Business (Spoiler Alert: who stands in for the father) needs for all of his creations to be perfected and then static. He needs to glue his creations. In super gluing them, though, he destroys them of their life. The son – who is embodied in Emmet, but whose abundant creativity also lives in Wyldstyle, Vitruvious, Metalbeard, Unikitty and the other characters (even Good Cop/Bad Cop) – though, desires to continually create with meaning and bridge worlds. He eventually gets through to his father and the two begin building together. And then the baby sister enters (and our young hero has some more lessons to learn, of course).

Lessons I’ve learned from The Lego Movie:

– 1) While we can learn from our past, we must be careful not to idolize and freeze them. For instance, Martin Luther King’s been frozen in carbonite for a while. People who do not understand the first thing about him will use him to try to defeat racial justice, will attack black people for not living up to their ideas of what King is. But it’s not King; it’s a dead replica.

– 2) Keep building. Do not rest on laurels. Imagine, make, create, be wild.

– 3) Allow everyone to be a Master Builder, and work together to defeat the systems of oppression and death. The solution lies when everyone is empowered.

– 4) Every thing is awesome when you’re part of a team.

What were some of your favorite movies of the last year? Do they have political implications for you?

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1For another take on this, I’d recommend the Angelina Jolie’s Cheeks vehicle, Maleficent. It’s good for the alternative take on Sleeping Beauty (I always felt she was the greatest villain of the Disney world, yet sorely missing through most of the original) as well as some terrific scene-chewing by Jolie.


jasdye

When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!

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  • Cemetery Girl

    I have a daughter, so I have also seen Frozen repeatedly (and had to play “Let It Go” on repeat, and heard her adorable little 3 year old voice sing the chorus over and over as she gestures dramatically and twirls), and I love what Disney did with it. You can’t marry someone you just met. It defies all the other movies: they meet, immediately fall in love, overcome something, and marry so Disney can release a bunch of direct to video sequels. Not this time. Anna meets her prince, she thinks he’s great, and he’s really scum. I also like the song they sing about how Kristoff is a bit of a fixer upper. The love of your life is probably out there somewhere, doing something mundane, and not perfect. Girls have been told for decades about princes that are perfect and rescue the girl (or at best she helps the Prince.) Sure, they’re just movies, and girls don’t really grow up believing the stories, yet they look for their Prince Charming. Even the best guys have some flaws though, and sometimes the guys that seem perfect really aren’t the best. I also love that it is the sisters that end up being the strong, heroic ones in the movie. Kristoff is great, but it’s the sisters that actually get everything sorted out. I like my 3 year old seeing characters she likes working to fix their problems, learning they do have the strength to do it. She also loves Little Mermaid, which is a good movie but I don’t like that Ariel changes for a guy she met once. (I know, Ariel had a fascination with land, so she meets a guy that fits into her obsession and wants to be human even more, doesn’t really improve that aspect to me.)