By Ruth Conniff
This is to announce the launching of a new annual movie award: the Progressive Picture Prizes or The "Progies."
2007 will go down in movie history as a year when progressive political pictures formed a substantial trend in both features and documentaries. I identified this film vogue in my 2005 book, "Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States," asserting that since 9/11 American cinema had entered a new wave of left-leaning movies. In contrast to many Hollywood flicks -- generally escapist entertainment and/or reactionary propaganda -- progressive cinema strives to raise awareness about issues so that audiences can endeavor to change the world and make it a better place.
When I’d completed "Progressive Hollywood," many documentaries by "Fahrenheit 911’s" Michael Moore, "Super Size Me’s" Morgan Spurlock, "Outfoxed’s" Robert Greenwald, etc., proved there was a strong anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-corporate, anti-MSM trend in nonfiction films. However, there was scant evidence that the same was true for features, as only a handful of leftist fiction films – including the anti-global warming "The Day After Tomorrow" and the Che Guevara biopic "The Motorcycle Diaries" -- had been released by early 2005. But my bold prediction was borne out with the subsequent release of politically-minded features. They included: The anti-racist "Crash," anti-McCarthyite "Good Night, and Good Luck," pro-gay rights "Brokeback Mountain," anti-big pharma "The Constant Gardener," anti-"oil-politik" "Syriana," pro-Chicano rights "Walkout," the revolutionary "V for Vendetta," the anti-violence "Babel," the pro-Palestinian "Paradise Now," et al.
2007 witnessed the apotheosis of the progressive trend in both features and documentaries, as 1000 filmic flowers bloomed. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, ticket buyers often overlooked many of these pro-people, anti-establishment films. In order to highlight this movie movement, and to draw attention – and audiences – to them, the "Progressive Picture Prizes" is being launched. The "Progies" shine a light on films in a number of categories, honoring them for their achievement in crafting consciousness and conscience into content for a mass communications medium.
THE RENOIR: The Progie Award for Best Antiwar Feature is named after the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who directed the 1937 anti-militarism masterpiece "Grand Illusion." The only major studio feature depicting combat in Indochina that was released during the Vietnam War was John Wayne’s pro-war "The Green Berets." In stark cinematic contrast, 40 years later, a number of fiction films about Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called "War on Terror" have been released while warfare and operations continue. The nominees are:
"In the Valley of Elah": Director/co-writer Paul Haggis’ ("Crash’s" Oscar-winner) meditation on war crimes committed by GIs in Iraq and the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by U.S. soldiers returning to the home front, co-starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon;
"Lions for Lambs": Director Robert Redford’s scathing look at neo-cons, media and the Afghan War, stars Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Redford;
"Redacted": Writer/director Brian De Palma’s deploys a dazzling display of cinematic and New Media techniques to expose atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, co-starring Izzy Diaz;
"Rendition": South African director Gavin Hood (2005’s "Tsotsi") cast a withering eye on the "War on Terror" and its draconian tactics in this anti-torture drama starring Oscar winners Streep and Reese Witherspoon, plus Jake Gyllenhaal, Omar Metwally and Yigal Naor.
And the winner of The Renoir is: "Redacted." Whereas De Palma’s "Casualties of War" was released about a decade and a half after the liberation of Saigon, his similarly themed "Redacted" found its way into theatres during the Iraq War’s "surge" of U.S. troops. "Redacted" is inspired by actual events – the alleged rape of an Iraqi teenager by U.S. Marines, who then purportedly murdered her and her family, burned their home and blamed the war crime on insurgents. For a top Hollywood helmer (De Palma directed blockbusters such as 1996’s "Mission Impossible") to undertake this hard hitting subject matter, especially while the war was still on, took unimaginable guts. Predictably, the courageous De Palma was raked over the coals by the usual rightwing suspects, charging him with being "unpatriotic." But in the spirit of believing that dissent against government-perpetrated injustice is the highest form of true patriotism, and for being avante garde in both form and content, "Redacted" wins the Renoir for Best Antiwar Feature.
THE LENNON: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Musical is named after John Lennon. This peace activist and musician starred in the 1967 satire "How I Won the War" and the 2006 doc "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," composed the antiwar movement’s anthem, "Give Peace A Chance," plus other radical songs such as "Working Class Hero" and "Imagine." The nominees are:
"Across the Universe": Director Julie Taymor’s (who lensed one of the first post-9/11 progressive features, 2002’s "Frida," about the Communist painter Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek) musical uses Beatles music to create an ode to antiwar campus protests and the sixties’ counterculture.
"Hairspray": This big budget production masqueraded as a musical, but beyond its tootsie-tapping tunes and dances, was a serious message about the Civil Rights Movement, as Queen Latifah leads a protest march against police abuse of power, while Nikki Blonsky helps desegregate a Dick Clark-like TV show for teens. With a cross dressing John Travolta as Nikki’s mother, this rollicking rock and roll show also commented on gender identity, body image and inter-racial dating. Also starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and Amanda Bynes;
And the winner of The Lennon for Best Progressive Musical is: "Across the Universe." With its depiction of 1968’s Columbia University student strike and of the peace movement he became a leader of, it’s not hard to imagine that John Lennon would be proud of this musical his songs helped to inspire.
THE DZIGA: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Documentary is named after the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose 1920s nonfiction films such as the "Kino Pravda" ("Film Truth") series and "The Man With the Movie Camera" stretched the revolutionary boundaries of film form and content for documentaries. The nominees are:
"Body of War": Ex-talk show host Phil Donahue’s directorial debut is a pull no punches look at veteran Tomas Young. After a sniper shot the Kansas City-born soldier in Iraq, Tomas returned home in a wheelchair and went from being a gung-ho grunt to peace activist;
"Darfur Now": Actors Don Cheadle and George Clooney daringly confront the genocide in western Sudan, risking their own necks to save the wretched of the Earth.
"The 11th Hour": Leonardo DiCaprio narrated and produced this cinematic, scorching look at climate change.
"No End in Sight": Charles Ferguson’s penetrating analysis of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and how we got into the mess in Mesopotamia;
"The Price of Sugar": Narrated by Paul Newman, Bill Haney’s documentary reveals the hyper-exploitation of Haitian cane cutters in the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic by Big Ag, while lauding worker-priest Christopher Hartley and his crusade for workers’ rights;
"Sicko": Michael Moore rails against and exposes the terminal illnesses of America’s healthcare-less system;
"Terror’s Advocate": Although primarily a feature filmmaker, Barbet Schroeder trains his lens on attorney Jacques Verges, who defended Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigade, the Baader Meinhof Gang, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other extremists as he takes a nonfiction look at the demi-monde of terrorism;
"Trumbo": Peter Askin’s biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, based on a stage play by his son Christopher Trumbo, with actors such as Michael Douglas, Danny Glover, Liam Neeson and Donald Sutherland reading Dalton’s letters;
"What Would Jesus Buy?": "Super Size Me’s" Morgan Spurlock returned to docs, producing an exorcism of consumerism and the over-commercialism of Christmas featuring the faux televangelist Reverend Billy.
And the winner of The Dziga for Best Progressive Documentary is: "Sicko." Even as he condemned the inhumane practices of U.S. health insurance companies, Michael Moore celebrated French street demos and Cuban healthcare.
THE GILLO: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Foreign Film is named after the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, who lensed the 1960s classics "The Battle of Algiers" and "Burn!" Americans films weren’t the only ones that tackled political topics. The nominees for Best Progressive Foreign Film include films that premiered and/or were released in the USA in 2007, and they are:
"Blame It on Fidel": When Anna’s (Nina Kervel-Bey) parents become pro-Allende activists in 1970s France, the little girl selfishly experiences their commitment as an inconvenience causing downward mobility. But the child attains compassion, and perhaps some consciousness, when Chile’s democratically-elected president is overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup. This French film co-stars Julie Depardieu (Gerard Depardieu’s daughter) and is directed by Julie Gavras (daughter of the Oscar-winning director of the political masterpiece "Z," Costa-Gavras);
"Never Apologize: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson": Actor Malcolm McDowell wrote this tribute to the anarchist British director who – before McDowell starred in "Clockwork Orange" and "Caligula" -- discovered him for 1969’s student revolutionary movie and Cannes Festival winner "If…" This film is derived from McDowell’s one man play about Anderson, and includes news and archival footage plus film clips from Anderson’s other movies, such as 1973’s "O Lucky Man!";
"This is England": Shane Meadows’ riveting take on 1980s skinhead neo-fascism in the UK, as seen through the eyes of a boy (Thomas Turgoose);
"The Unknown Woman": Giuseppe Tornatore’s (director of 2000’s "Malena," starring Monica Belluci) feminist mystery about a Ukrainian émigré (Russian actress Xenia Rappaport) and her history of sex trafficking, which follows the abused woman to Italy;
"The Year My Parents Went on Vacation": When the Brazilian boy Mauro’s (Michel Joelsas) activist parents are forced to go underground, he moves into Sao Paulo’s Jewish quarter. Mauro is more concerned with the World Cup than politics, but even the soccer mad lad is affected by the military coup in Brazil.
And the winner of The Gillo for Best Progressive Foreign Film is "The Unknown Woman." Tornatore’s deftly directed thriller has a Hitchcockian verve that keeps viewers on the edges of their proverbial seats, even as it explores the hidden motives that drive people to commit heinous crimes, making the unknown known. "The Unknown Woman" is uncompromising in its opposition to sexual enslavement and for women’s rights.
THE BRANDO: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Film Activist is named after Marlon Brando. Onscreen, the actor renowned for bringing greater realism to screen acting also tried to raise political consciousness with movies such as the Black power-themed "Burn!" and 1987’s anti-apartheid "A Dry White Season." Offscreen, Brando brought his star power and checkbook to various underdog causes and groups, including civil rights, the Black Panthers and most notably, the American Indian Movement. On March 27, 1973, during the Academy Awards ceremony Apache Sacheen Little Feather declined Brando’s Oscar for "The Godfather" on his behalf because, as she told the vast TV audience, of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and in televison…"
And the winner of The Brando for Best Progressive Film Activist goes to George Clooney. Onscreen and off- Clooney has used his artistry and celebrity to advance progressive ideas and causes. Not content to just be a Tinseltown heartthrob, as an actor/director/writer/producer Clooney has used his clout and renown to make movies with meaning. 2005’s "Good Night, and Good Luck" not only savaged fascistic Senator Joe McCarthy and his underhanded blacklisting tactics, but criticized the contemporary mass media for not challenging the Bush administration. That same year’s "Syriana" was an insider look at the realpolitik of oil politics. 2006’s "The Good German" was an anti-fascist drama, while this year’s "Michael Clayton" is a trenchant expose of and diatribe against Big Agriculture. In 2008, he will co-star in the Coen Brothers’ CIA picture "Burn After Reading." Offscreen, the actor activist took full court advantage of his stardom to shine a light on the genocide in Darfur, by going to the United Nations and even Sudan itself, risking death in order to help some of the planet’s most downtrodden. In December 2007, Clooney and Cheadle, who both appear in the "Darfur Now" doc, received the Peace Summit Award from the Nobel Laureates in Rome. Bravo, George, for unselfishly using your celebrity to help les miserables and for making meaningful movies, instead of only formulaic blockbusters!
THE SERGEI: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Lifetime Achievement is named after the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who created Russian revolutionary classics such as 1925’s "Battleship Potemkin" and 1927’s "10 Days That Shook the World."
And the winner of The Sergei is Robert Redford. As an actor, director and producer Redford has proven himself to be a principled progressive concerned about the state of the Union and the human condition. In 1972’s "The Candidate," Redford examined America’s electoral system, and opposed the Hollywood Blacklist in 1973’s "The Way We Were." 1974’s "The Great Gatsby," 1979’s "The Electric Horseman" and 1994’s "Quiz Show" ruminated on American materialism and greed. Redford confronted American power in 1975’s anti-CIA drama "Three Days of the Condor," Nixon and Watergate in 1976’s "All the President’s Men" and the prison system in 1980’s "Brubaker." Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, "Ordinary People," took a sympathetic look at mental illness. 1990’s "Havana" was a sympathetic portrayal of the Cuban Revolution, while Redford executive produced the 2004 Che Guevara biopic "The Motorcycle Diaries." This year’s "Lions for Lambs" excoriates neo-cons and their war in Afghanistan, and his next project is reportedly a biopic about Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. As a filmfest stalwart, his Sundance Film Festival has given indies what may be their biggest domestic, if not international, showcase, as well as a training ground for emerging talent. Robert Redford exemplifies the Sergei Eisenstein tradition of using film to change the world for the better, earning the 71 year-old actor/ director/producer the Progie Award for Best Progressive Lifetime Achievement.
THE TRUMBO: The Progie Award for Best Progressive Picture is named after Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, who was imprisoned for his beliefs and refusing to inform. Trumbo helped break the Blacklist when he received screen credit for "Spartacus" and "Exodus" in 1960. The former Communist’s other movies include: 1940’s "Kitty Foyle"; 1943’s "Tender Comrade"; 1944’s "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"; 1957’s "The Brave One" (for which he secretly won an Oscar under an assumed name); 1962’s "Lonely are the Brave"; 1966’s "Hawaii"; 1971’s "Johnny Got His Gun." The nominees are:
"Charlie Wilson’s War": Mike Nichols directed this highly entertaining drama about the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, co-starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie reveals how a freelance private policy became official U.S. foreign policy, how covert actions operate and the cynical role of religious fundamentalism. "Charlie Wilson’s War" suggests that Washington’s support for Islamic extremists during the first Afghan War led to 9/11;
"The Great Debaters": Director Denzel Washington also plays the real life character Melvin Tolson, an academic at an all Black college and debate team couch by day, and leftwing union organizer by night. During the Great Depression, the African American debaters triumphantly go on to compete at Harvard. Co-starring Forest Whitaker and John Heard;
"Michael Clayton": George Clooney, Michael Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack co-star in this suspenseful legal drama that exposes Big Ag;
"There Will Be Blood": Paul Thomas Anderson’s powerful drama is a bold excoriation of both Big Oil and fundamentalist evangelism based on socialist Upton Sinclair’s novel "Oil!"
And the winner of The Trumbo, The Progie Award for Best Progressive Picture, is "The Great Debaters." This is a stand-up-and-cheer movie about racism and class struggle during the 1930s. "Debaters" depicts Jim Crow, lynching, union organizing, Black/white unity and disproves the despicable canard that African Americans are intellectually inferior to Caucasians. Denzel’s character, the leftist poet and academic Melvin Tolson, is called a "Communist" in the movie, which neither confirms nor denies whether or not Tolson is indeed a Red. However, he is indisputably portrayed as an admirable character, a cross between Tom Joad, Mr. Chips and Malcolm X (whom Denzel memorably played in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic). A union organizer, as well as a Black nationalist, Tolson opposes oppression because of class and racism. James Farmer, Junior (Denzel Whitaker) and his academic father (Forest Whitaker) are also depicted; the former went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality and was a key Civil Rights leader. The casting of John Heard – arguably Hollywood’s most politically committed actor – as the racist redneck sheriff is a bit of canny casting.
The rally to protest Tolson’s imprisonment is not only in the "Free Huey" tradition, but comes at a time while the Jena Six are fighting for their freedom in the South. Much has been made of Oprah Winfrey’s public support for presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, but the fact that her company co-produced "The Great Debaters" is a far bolder and more left-leaning political statement. The crowd-pleasing screenplay by Robert Eisele (a strike captain during the Writers Guild strike) features a feel good story, likable characters and is highly entertaining, as well as enlightening. Perhaps this is the key to reaching audiences with progressive pictures.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is a staff movie reviewer for the Los Angeles Journal and author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States."