The screen guillotine: How 2019's best film and TV channeled our collective rage against the 1 percent
Could Americans ever really hate the rich? There is said to be a truism about this mercantile republic that we, in fact, love and adore the one percent. The continued presence of the Kardashians as cable TV darlings is perhaps today’s most resounding example. But there was something in the ether this year that felt different, that felt like the stirrings of something bigger. A quiet but tectonic shift that pointed towards a reorienting of energies. For the first time in as long as I can remember, it looked as though total disdain and antipathy for the wealthy was not just an underground concern, but an absolute crowd pleaser, a plot theme that put asses in seats. If Americans have never hated the rich, could late-stage capitalism — barreling towards a final apocalypse thanks to climate change and far-right ethnonationalism — teach us to?
Elizabeth Warren leading huge crowds in cheers calling for a 2-cent-wealth-tax and Bernie Sanders inferring that a certain billionaire presidential candidate is the “dumbest person on earth” are a central part of this equation, of course. But I was just as intrigued by what I saw on television screens and in theaters. It’s one thing, when acting as a citizen in the realm of politics, to vote for justice; it’s another, when acting as a consumer in the realm of culture, to go home from a long day at work and decide to bathe in class warfare.
The idea of the country collectively endorsing anything at this point feels naive; things are stratified and all art is in its own way niche. Besides, the shows and movies I'm thinking of have relatively small audiences in comparison with say, The Avengers, which must be a rubber stamp of the status quo or Disney-owned Marvel wouldn’t make so damn many of them. Still, powerful ideas unleashed can turn trickles into torrents, and at the heart of some of the most gripping stories this year was not just economic anxiety, but unmistakable hatred of the upper class.
It’s one thing, when acting as a citizen in the realm of politics, to vote for justice; it’s another, when acting as a consumer in the realm of culture, to go home from a long day at work and decide to bathe in class warfare.
Typically, in the U.S., a piece of art that offers a critique of the wealthy is accompanied by some kernel of traditional “American dream” optimism. It is our founding mythology. But in 2019, wealth was violence. On TV, there was season two of HBO’s Succession, a show in which the ultra-wealthy corporate elites are the protagonists, but, in a move that breaks from the history of money-obsessed American media, also entirely irredeemable, as well as themselves unhappy and undeserving of the power they have over the proletariat. In theaters, there were class-baiting epics, ranging from indie to blockbuster, including the resoundingly popular Hustlers, a strip club, post-#MeToo Robin Hood sparked by the indignity of the 2008 financial bailout that plays drugging and robbing investment bankers for slapstick laughs.
Two films that best excoriated the rich this year are both from outside the U.S. — Mati Diop’s Atlantics from Senegal; Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite from Korea — yet they found homes in the highest of establishment highs here, with Diop’s West African migration masterpiece winning a distribution deal with Netflix and Bong’s unsettling grotesque an early favorite to be nominated for and win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and possibly even Best Picture.
These films come from distinctly different contexts, and it’s what makes this moment so potent. Anywhere you turn, it seems, you will find contempt, a sort of after-effect of the same globalism that emptied out the American heartland but which also now offers the possibility for solidarity. A single world united in anger at the one percent. “No matter which country it is ... we’re all living this one giant nation of capitalism,” Bong said in an interview earlier this year.
He sees a gathering swell. “When we're seeing people on the subway, on the streets, complete strangers, we wonder, how rich are they? ... We always wonder about this, because we live in the era of capitalism,” he told GQ. “There was Us by Jordan Peele, Shoplifters by Hirokazu [Kore-eda], Burning by Lee Chang-dong, which all talk about class. ... These films sort of exploded out in the past couple of years.”
In Parasite, a poor family, through subterfuge, wiles their way into work at the home of a bourgeois one, only to find that there is an even more meager group living in the dankest recesses of the house. Everyone up and down the ladder is cruel in pursuit of the scraps, an argument that the system we live in makes all of us, not just the rich, desperate and a bit vile.
Atlantics, to my mind the best movie of the year, puts a tender spotlight on the emotional and human cost of economic injustice, using the theme of migration as a catalyst. Diop’s perfect film, her first feature, is unlike any I’ve ever seen. A little bit horror, a little bit love story, a little bit film noir, a little bit social commentary. It’s best to go in without knowing anything, as I did, but if you’re prepared for spoilers, the plot is set off by the disappearance of a boatful of construction workers who, after getting stiffed by a wealthy real estate baron in Dakar, are attempting to get from Senegal to Italy to make up for the loss of opportunity. The women they’ve left behind are haunted by the departed boys and compelled to avenge debts not paid.
At the heart of some of the most gripping stories this year was not just economic anxiety, but unmistakable hatred of the upper class.
At the center is quiet Ada, a teenager who has been married off to a wealthy man Omar, who takes her to fancy lounges and buys her a new iPhone, telling her it will “change her life.” But Ada is in love with one of the missing boys, Souleiman. The question becomes whether she will choose the certainty of money over the uncertainty of the heart, a kind of West African Romeo and Juliet for the late capitalist era. “The violence of a certain capitalist economy makes a lot of life fragile, vulnerable, and empty of meaning,” Diop told Vulture. “The film is about the beauty and innocence of love between two 20-year-olds, which is ruined and cut down by economic issues.”
But if there is one cultural product that could radicalize even a scab, it’s Succession, a show about an ultra-wealthy family jockeying for control of a News Corp-esque media conglomerate. This year, season two of the show became a critical juggernaut while doubling down on the terribleness of its characters. They dispassionately fire entire offices and cover up sex crimes by shredding documents and use each other’s misfortunes to leverage more power. They are your worst nightmare of what rich people with power are actually like, a group so flagrantly odious, it’s as though you’re getting a reality TV view of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette, bumbling around their Upper East Side Versailles, bickering in business casual, and stuffing themselves with cake while people starve. Succession is beyond satire and the Roys are beyond anti-heroes — they are villains as protagonists, Batman told from the point of view of Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, a family of people with disdain for themselves, each other, and everyone else.
Though their starring role in the series at first compels you to identify with them, and some of the visual appeal is the luxury porn of the family’s life, they commit so many atrocities with such banality and so few personal consequences, emotional or judicial, it can’t help but remind you that you live in a world of limits and repercussions, and the rich just don’t. In one harrowing scene from season one that has blackened everything since, they prove they can even get away with manslaughter, as long as the victim is poor. By the end of season two, even the triumphant rags-to-riches origin story of the sociopathic patriarch Logan (played scarily well by Brian Cox), who built the media empire after a childhood of poverty, is smashed to bits when his brother tells him that the amorality at the center of his business means that he is not a success and that their mother would be ashamed of him. Or, as one character tells Logan: “I don’t know if you care about anything. And that scares me.”
Lurking in the background of Succession and all of these films is, of course, the specter of Trump, the orange billionaire elephant in every room. He’s a contradictory figure, a lowbrow outer-borough rich man, though probably not as rich as he claims to be, who has harnessed anti-elite madness to win the most powerful job in the world. It’s a mess. But what is not in doubt is that no matter your politics, he has been the proven north star of class rage; whether you’re liberal or conservative, he is a symbol and vessel through which to express various and endless resentments.
The interesting question for me, and likely anyone reading this, is whether or not this new zeitgeist portends success for New Deal populists Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in 2020. I am too ensconced in my soft liberal New York bubble to ever think I could make political predictions of that sort. And it’s very possible that the fact that the establishment — Netflix, Hollywood, and the most bourgeois of cable channels, HBO — has endorsed these products means all of this will become just another way to sell commodified edginess to consumers, a sort of cosplay of justice that siphons off any radical energy into a paid-for thrill, helping ensure that the masses only throw Molotov cocktails in their minds.
But, it is also fair to say that a quiet revolutionary spirit is buried somewhere in the American spirit, a long-dormant but buzzing energy in our original DNA that’s unleashed when powder kegs really blow. Many of us have only read about those moments of American insurrection in our history books. It’s hard to imagine what true revolution would look like in today’s weird iPhone world. But maybe — and I really do mean just maybe — the screen could show us.