On the face of it, our modern cultural landscape is absolutely filled with ‘revolutionary’ things. Some of our most popular franchises have been founded on revolution – what else is the appeal of Star Wars if not seeing a bunch of plucky and loveable rebels topple an evil regime and bring peace and prosperity to a galaxy far, far away? We love the idea of effecting change, of putting our own mark on the world. But take a peek under the hood, and the truth is a little less empowering, and far more complicated.
‘Revolutionary’ stories like Star Wars take place in a world of moral simplicity, in which the bad guys are unspeakably evil, the good guys are embodiments of honour, and where there’s always an exposed exhaust port on the Death Star which, if shot in just the right place, leads to the entire evil regime going up in smoke. It’s no surprise that there have been three Death Stars in the Star Wars franchise to date; it’s the perfect symbol of achievable defeat.
Then there’s the matter of where these ‘revolutionary’ stories originate from. Star Wars, of course, is now under the ownership of Disney, itself the Death Star of the 2019 entertainment world, but any revolutionary story with the reach and influence to get its message out is likely to be backed by one mega-corporation or another. That’s not to say that subversive themes are impossible under this capitalistic scheme; The Last Jedi took plenty of fire from certain corners of the Internet in large part because it actively challenged and questioned the simple assumptions which had lain at the core of the franchise since the 1970s. Ultimately, though, any big Hollywood production with revolutionary aspirations is going to have to settle for a compromise that’s amenable to the floors upon floors of corporate lawyers concerned about merchandising, or appeal to foreign markets, or fidelity to the overall brand. This doesn’t just apply to blockbusters, either; when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, they took Fox Searchlight, the studio responsible for producing several indie-styled awards contenders a year, under their wing, and will be exercising tighter oversight over Searchlight’s output now the merger is complete.
This kind of climate means that, when films or television with apparently genuine revolutionary aims do make their way down the pike, they exist in a strange, paradoxical state. For instance, the show Mr. Robot launched in 2015 to critical raptures and audience buzz thanks to its scathingly anti-capitalist sensibilities, unfurling a story in which an underdog hacker took on a corporation knowingly nicknamed Evil Corp in a bid to unveil the insidious influence of “the 1% of the 1%” within society. The slogan for season one’s extensive marketing campaign was “f*** society” – that might be fodder for a legion of ‘we live in a society’ memes in 2019 – but back in the comparatively backwater days of the Obama administration, such unrestrained anger was genuinely striking. Mr. Robot has fallen in the ratings significantly since that lightning-in-a-bottle first season, but it’s been able to make its way to its now-airing fourth and final season thanks to a network that’s been consistently supportive of its creator’s idiosyncratic vision.
Mr. Robot is a genuinely great show, but it’s hard to ignore the ironies inherent in its success and longevity. It airs on the basic cable USA network, which is owned by NBCUniversal, a mass media conglomerate with a massive portfolio which includes the film studio Universal Pictures and the NBC network. In turn, NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast Corporation, one of the biggest media companies in the world with a yearly revenue of nearly $100 billion. Comcast is not a beloved company in its home country, the US, synonymous as it is with notoriously poor cable services and an apathetic/hostile customer service, but its monopolies over cable and TV means that its customer base of tens of millions is safe forever. In short, Comcast is the kind of company that Mr. Robot’s hero, Elliot Alderson, would spend his life trying to expose and take down. But in the real world, Elliot’s revolutionary activities are marketing fodder for Comcast, and are routinely showcased at NBCUniversal’s annual ‘upfront’ presentations to advertisers. It’s an equation that’s difficult to square, and which adds a deeply bitter note to the revolutionary thrills of Mr. Robot.
The more revolutionary the story, the stranger the explanation for its existence within today’s entertainment industry. Boots Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You, produced under the comparatively small-scale Annapurna Pictures, had some trouble making its way to the UK. It’s not hard to see why. For one, it’s a film with very American sensibilities, in its brash soundtrack and garish colours, and grounded very specifically within its Californian setting. Perhaps more importantly, though, Sorry to Bother You is the epitome of a difficult-to-market film. It starts with the quirky conceit of a black call centre worker adopting a cheery ‘white voice’ to achieve more success in telesales and accelerates from there into a lunatic corporate satire which makes Black Mirror look pitifully tame by comparison.
While many blockbuster films, especially those of Disney, include some greedy businessmen in dark suits as foil for their lovable heroes, presenting the problem as a few bad apples within a generally acceptable system, Sorry to Bother You presents a capitalist system which has completely rotted from the bottom down. Rather than pulling back from a wide-ranging critique as it goes on, it becomes angrier and more determined in its tone until it presents its solution; armed revolution. The viewer is left with the impression that capitalism is broken and must be burned down by almost any means available. In short, it’s a film that can be accurately described, without judgement, as Marxist in its intent. When Sorry to Bother You was finally picked up for UK release months down the line, it was the UK branch of Universal Pictures who stepped in to give the film a wide release and a mainstream marketing campaign.
It’s difficult to say. As frustrating as it can be for viewers wary of the influence of mass media, so little of the content we consume, even the most rebellious and anarchic of it, comes from a truly independent and small source, and even companies that are independent are routinely tied up in corporate relationships with larger entities, like the deal that indie outlet A24 struck with Apple a couple of years ago.
There’s a kind of vicious cycle at work here, where the greater success of a revolutionary piece of art, the easier it becomes for big companies to monetise and hone into a readily marketable brand, even when the product begins in a genuinely independent place. Either the work of art is made prohibitively expensive to enjoy, as with many recent ‘revolutionary’ art exhibitions, or the message is watered down to the point where there’s nothing much revolutionary about it at all. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was an incendiary piece of dystopian fiction back in the 1980s, but its recently released sequel was met with midnight release parties in enormous bookstores and Q&A sessions streamed nationwide to cinemas. None of that prevents Atwood’s book from courting controversy, but it certainly makes that struggle a lot more difficult.
Searching for culture that’s both popular and genuinely revolutionary is a lengthy and frustrating endeavour, ultimately. But the more that films like Sorry to Bother You and shows like Mr. Robot are produced, the harder it becomes to avoid the paradox of revolutionary content backed by companies who would very much like it if the system remained just about the same, and the likelier change one day might come.