Film

This Independence Day, Stream Films That Offer More Critical Takes on “Liberty and Justice for All”

I’m not saying that this is what you should do instead of watching Hamilton on Disney+, but I’m not not saying it either.

From Mr. Freedom (1969), dir. William Klein (courtesy Criterion Collection)

Since the early 20th century, the US has been a dominant force in visual media, often using it as a tool to impose its own culture on others and paper over its sundry atrocities with a shiny, heartwarming facade. During the Cold War, the use of such media, including cinema, was honed as one of many tools to suppress liberation movements around the rest of the world, and since then certain strains of filmmaking have persisted as potent propagandist models. This has naturally attracted a variety of critiques, evinced in the entertainment and cultural expressions of other countries.

During the Cold War, the use of such media, including cinema, was honed as one of many tools to suppress liberation movements around the rest of the world, and since then certain strains of filmmaking have continued to complement US foreign policy. This propagandist model has naturally attracted a variety of critiques, evinced in the entertainment and cultural expressions of other countries.

On Independence Day, the US celebrates its founding fathers’ declaration of democracy for a select group of landowners, while excluding nearly everyone else (particularly the people whom most of them had enslaved). On such an occasion, it’s perhaps worthwhile to listen to what media makers of other countries have to say about the US, rather than revel in patriotic fervor and continue to perpetuate myths about its history and character. (I’m not saying that this is what you should do instead of watching Hamilton on Disney+, but I’m not not saying it either.)

Foreign representations of the US have of course varied greatly over the years. Expatriate William Klein made a biting satire of his former country with 1969’s Mr. Freedom. Foreign directors have also been in some ways better at capturing internal US strife than domestic news sources. While the Black Panthers were demonized by the mainstream news, filmmakers like the French Agnès Varda and later Swedish archival documentarian Göran Olsson made sympathetic portraits of their movement.

But to really dig into the sins of the US, you must observe the fruits of its military history abroad. Track the brutal history of US involvement in regime changes around the world, and you’ll find a host of various films about each attempted or successful coup. (Although, disquietingly, there are plenty of events with no substantial film coverage to speak of, at least not anything professionally made.)

For instance, there were numerous films criticizing the Vietnam War during the ’60s and ’70s, such as the 1967 French documentary Far from Vietnam, in which a host of directors (including, again, Klein and Varda) expressed support for the North Vietnamese. The Vietnam War movie is its own genre, one in which Vietnam is less a lived-in place than an allegorical space in which Americans struggle with their inner demons. Truly vital non-US perspectives on the war have of course come from the Vietnamese themselves.

Vietnamese movies about the American War run the gamut from triumphal flicks about trouncing an invading force to serious dramas about the lived experience of occupation. Essentially none of these films have received any US distribution, but some are available to stream if you do some googling, and I’d highly recommend it. Particularly acclaimed is Đặng Nhật Minh’s 1984 film When the Tenth Month Comes. Set during the closing days of the war, it follows a young woman trying to care for her son and ailing father-in-law while hiding from them the fact that her husband has been killed in combat.

From The Cordillera of Dreams (2019), dir. Patricio Guzmán (courtesy Pyramide Films)

Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán has dedicated a large portion of his work to the 1973 coup in his country and its aftermath. He was on the ground filming the coup in real time, which resulted in his multi-part The Battle of Chile, released several years later. The film turns the immediacy of the cinéma vérité movement into a nightmare, presenting viewers with a first-person view of events as they degenerated. It is easy to consider US interventionism in the abstract, but films like this make unambiguous the ruinous consequences of these actions for everyday people. (A scene in which cameraman Leonardo Henrichsen is murdered by military mutineers acts as brutal punctuation.) Guzmán would go on to make a biographical film about ousted leader Salvador Allende, as well as a trilogy which related various natural features of Chile to the lingering effects of the Pinochet dictatorship. Some of these films mention the US sparingly or not at all, but the shadow of its sinister intervention hangs over everything they discuss.

International critiques of US neo-imperialism persist in modern times, in ways both more subtle and overt. In Bong Joon-ho‘s 2006 monster movie The Hostthe monster is born after an apathetic US scientist has a massive amount of formaldehyde drained into South Korea’s Han River, poisoning and mutating local aquatic life. The US military seizes control of the campaign to curtail the creature with little regard for civilians, deploying the dangerous chemical “Agent Yellow” (this movie is not subtle with its references, but that’s one reason it’s so fun) to ineffectually attack it. The film is not overtly anti-American, reserving more satirical bite for the bureaucracy-crippled South Korean government, but Bong clearly recognizes the dynamic underlying and ultimately driving the imbalance of power in his country. Most damning, the inciting event is based on a real incident from 2000, when the US military did indeed have a Korean mortician dump formaldehyde into the Han.

Frank Grillo in Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), dir. Wu Jing (courtesy Well Go USA)

Some filmmakers around the world have taken cues from US action movies by flipping the script on the formula of the genre’s generic villains, slotting US figures into roles we’re used to seeing held by a variety of foreign boogeymen in our own action movies (from Russian characters during the Cold War to West Asian ones today). The deliriously jingoistic Chinese film Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) features Frank Grillo as “Big Daddy,” the head of a mercenary group trying to overthrow the government of an African nation. Big Daddy’s nationality is never explicitly stated, and it is not revealed at whose behest he works, but it isn’t too hard to fill in those gaps. (More problematically, the African country is never named, and its citizens are depicted through a grossly paternalistic lens.) It is anti-American agitprop stripped of all pretense.

One can shy away from these various depictions of the US, or dismiss them as byproducts of competing ideologies. Some might even take the classic George W. Bush view of criticism — “They hate us for our freedom.” Or perhaps this Independence Day, you might let voices detailing marginalized experiences awaken you to how drastically different the reality of US foreign policy is from the US-centric imagination of Hollywood and the mainstream media, which is heavily privileged, heteronormative, and white. During a time in which people are challenging institutions of US power and control in greater numbers and more fiercely than anything seen in a generation, that critical perspective is more vital than ever.

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