Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Film As Mechanism For Social Change

I am reading Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997), in the hopes of strengthening the screenplay, on the off chance that somehow I can find some way to make this happen as a movie. On pages 129-131 McKee makes the point that I have been making for some time to anyonesilly enough to listen to me:
In 388 BC Plato urged the city fathers of Athens to exile all poets and storytellers. They are a threat to society, he argued.  Writers deal with ideas, but not in the open rational manner of philosophers. Instead, they conceal their ideas inside the seductive emotions of art. Yet felt ideas, as Plato pointed out, are ideas nonetheless. Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in effect compelling the idea into us, so we must believe. In fact, the persuasive power of the story is so great that we may believe it's meaning even if we find it morally repellent. Storytellers, Plato insisted, are dangerous people. He was right.
From there, McKee points to the example of the Charles Bronson film Death Wish.  McKee is obviously a liberal, and compares Death Wish to Naziism.  Yet he also acknowledges that the film was powerful in its impact. I would even argue that this film played a major part in turning around American ideas about the legitimacy of civilians using guns in self-defense.

John Wesley, the author of many hymns that are still popular, asked the question in the 18th century, "Why should the Devil have all the best music?"  This quote has been echoed by one of the founders of Christian rock 'n roll, Larry Norman. I don't think that Larry Norman meant that the style of rock 'n roll music was intrinsically sinful; he meant that because Christians had refused to use one of the most powerful tools available for persuasion--popular music--Christians had essentially abandoned the field to the crowd for whom rock 'n roll was simply another tool towards casual sex and drug abuse. The same thing has been true with respect to film; Hollyweird is not entirely driven by progressive ideas, but it is certainly dominated by them, and the entertainment that comes out of it reflects that domination. Until conservatives get past their obsession with winning only political battles, while ignoring the cultural struggle that goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, and not just election years, we are going to continue to lose.

As result of reading McKee's book, I expect to make a few changes to my screenplay The Laws of Men to conform to some of the established rules of narrative filmmaking. There will be a little bit more motivation for the slaves to run away at the beginning; I think I will put a bit more into the screenplay that shows Charles Langston's unique background, as the son of a slave owner and slave, freed by his father and sent to college. His powerful statement at sentencing all the more eloquent because it shows the ironic aspect of his parentage and his actions.

I received a number of useful criticisms of the promotional video, of which the strongest was that I had let my desire to show some of the context of slavery take precedence over what should be the primary focus of the promotional video: the story I intend to tell about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858, and the great moral and legal conflict that the Rescuers trial produced.


  1. Another good one is "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder.

  2. Charles Langston is in a sense a Moses figure, then?

    And Charles Langston's grandson was the poet Langston Hughes (Harlem, aka Raisn in the Sun). There is an interconnectedness we don't learn about when these names come up. These names do not just happen by themselves. I knew about the boxer who had the name of a famous abolitionist who changed it to that of a famous slave-holder to express his liberation from southern slaveholders of 100 years before. But I did not learn about that in school.

  3. Not quite: Charles Langston was the great uncle of Langston Hughes.

    Yes, Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, who inherited slaves and then set them free so that he could become a prominent abolitionist.

    These family connections are often quite interesting: a distant ancestor of mine was the Colonial Armorer for New Haven Colony.