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What Is a “Political Film,” Anyway?

It’s about revolution. Or elections. It can be a thriller. Or a comedy. It’s a movie whose politics we love. It’s a movie whose politics we detest. It’s even, sometimes, a zombie movie.

From left: I Am Not Your Negro, Night of the Living Dead

Polls gauge public opinion. So do movies. Seventy-nine expert witnesses—film critics, programmers, and academics—named their candidates for the most significant political movies of the past 120 years, listing a combined total of over 450 individual films. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) won … by a lot. What did we learn?

1) Polls are about the polled as much as the subject. Virtually all who provided lists were based in North America. Consequently, American films and American taste ruled. Six of the 10 highest vote-getters—around 30 of the Top 50, and half of the full 100—were made by Americans. (China and Japan were unrepresented in the Top 50; Iran, Romania, and South Korea in the Top 100.) Nevertheless, the overwhelming primacy of an anti-colonialist Italian-Algerian co-production in which no English was spoken, and which was written, directed, and scored by Italians (two of them associated with spaghetti Westerns), is a victory for cosmopolitanism.

2) Although voters represented several generations, some eras are more politically fraught than others. The oldest and newest films in the Top 50—D.W. Griffith’s fifth-place Birth of a Nation (1915) and Ava DuVernay’s twenty-eighth-place Selma (2014), both screened at the White House—span a century. But so far as decades go, the 1960s dominate—slightly less so among younger voters. Including The Battle of Algiers, 15 out of the Top 50 were produced during the 1960–72 period, with another six set then. No other period came close. Seven films were made or set in the 1940s, three of those detailing wartime atrocities.

3) There is a consensual idea of what constitutes political cinema, if not a universal buy-in. “Every film I care about is political,” a seasoned critic explained by way of declining to participate in the poll. The personal may be the political. Still, subjective evaluations notwithstanding, some movies are understood as more “political” than others.

Over a dozen films in the Top 100 were about elections. Eight concerned the subject of revolution, over 10 depicted anti-democratic coups, and many more focused on political violence ranging from strikes and demonstrations to murder, genocide, and war.

Eight of the American movies in the Top 50 dealt with (or in) racism. Only two of the Top 50 make feminist statements. Younger voters were more militant, supporting The Hour of the Furnaces (#32), The Murder of Fred Hampton (#37), and Born in Flames (#43) in proportionally higher numbers. Roughly half of the Top 50 (and exactly half of the Top 10) could be described as entertainments. (The entertainment quotient falls off a bit between #51 and #100.) Right-wing political icon John Wayne barely makes it into the Top 100 (too bad he turned down the lead in #59 All the King’s Men). His left-wing analog Jane Fonda appears not at all. On the other hand, Warren Beatty stars in three movies in the Top 50, two of which he directed, thus joining Sergei Eisenstein, Spike Lee, Peter Watkins, Alan J. Pakula, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Godard, Oliver Stone, John Ford, Raoul Peck, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Jia Zhangke as the filmmakers with more than one Top 100 picture.

To take a phrase from a young Maoist in Jean-Luc Godard’s thirteenth-ranked La Chinoise (1967), the list is consecrated to “sincerity and violence.” The Battle of Algiers garnered nearly as many points as the two runners-up—The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)—combined. Cited by 35 voters, Pontecorvo’s painstaking re-creation of an anti-colonial revolt, so naturalistic it was advertised at the time as nondocumentary, headed 12 lists, three times as many as fourth-ranked All the President’s Men (1976), Dr. Strangelove, and The Birth of a Nation, each put first by four voters.

In ways, the poll confirmed popular wisdom. Before the results were tabulated, I asked the chatbot formerly known as Sydney which American and foreign “political movies” were most often cited in lists and polls. “There is no definitive answer,” was the sage response. “Different sources may have different criteria and methods for ranking political movies.” And yet, based on the “web sources” Syd consulted, the most frequently mentioned or praised movies (by critics and audiences) were the poll’s top four vote-getters. And aside from The Battle of Algiers and Battleship Potemkin, the bot’s two other foreign films, Costa-Gavras’s anti-fascist thriller Z (1969) and The Lives of Others (2006), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s account of a lonely Stasi agent, made the Top 20, numbers 15 and 19, respectively.

Consensus within the consensus: Over half of the eligible American films were selected by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The pariahs not listed on the registry include three problematic blockbusters that made our list: Warren Beatty’s 1981 pro-Communist Reds (#41), Oliver Stone’s unpatriotic 1991 JFK (#34), and, of course, Griffith’s white supremacist Birth of a Nation, the foundational work of American commercial cinema. None were surprising choices. What made the poll results interesting were the ways in which the notion of “political” was expanded or contracted.

One list was headed by Shinsuke Ogawa’s 1971 documentary, Narita: The Peasants of the Second Fortress, detailing the popular armed struggle against the construction of Tokyo’s Narita Airport; another included a 40-minute documentary portrait of sex workers occupying a French church—The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak, by the feminist activist Carole Roussopoulos; and a third listed the long-banned 1943 Warner Bros. cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, with the observation: “perennially misunderstood, this is at once a celebration of marginalized Black culture and a still necessary assault on the white supremacist values naturalized as ‘all-American’ by Disney.”

Consensus coalesced around movies that caused, courted, or re-created controversy. Feted in Venice, banned in France, introduced as evidence in the trial of the Panther 13, The Battle of Algiers was as much a political event as a political movie. So too Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front (#45), at least in Germany, where the movie’s antiwar message caused Nazi brownshirts to disrupt screenings and attack movie patrons. Conspiracy buffs imagined The Manchurian Candidate to be Lee Harvey Oswald’s “trigger film,” and, according to Susan Sontag, liberal intellectuals left Dr. Strangelove’s previews convinced that, once it opened, movie houses would be stormed by “mobs of American Legion types.” (It was in fact delayed two months after Kennedy was shot.) Similarly, a few hysterical pundits expressed concern that Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing (#8) would inspire riots in theaters.

In a class by itself: D.W. Griffith’s openly white supremacist, blatantly demagogic account of America’s Civil War and Reconstruction, quite possibly the most revered and reviled movie ever made and, in many ways, the most influential. It was followed in the poll by a partner in crime, Leni Riefenstahl’s sixth-place love letter to Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will (1935). Except for a few outliers, younger critics shunned both The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will—suggesting that objectionable politics trumped historical significance. (It’s notable that younger voters all but ignored the second-place finisher The Manchurian Candidate, perhaps a response to the film’s stereotyped Chinese and North Korean Communist villains.) No films were more reprehensible than Birth or Triumph, but none engaged twentieth-century politics more directly or cast a more powerful spell, not only on audiences but filmmakers.

After that pair comes one of Riefenstahl’s inspirations, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin, which got one first-place vote. (Younger critics didn’t much care for Potemkin either, although Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, which came in #25, got five votes.) Variously banned in Britain, France, the United States, and Germany (where it also had its greatest success), Potemkin was the most celebrated and proudly propagandist propaganda film ever made.

Are political films necessarily tendentious? Not necessarily, although, like most movies, many are what the French political philosopher Jacques Ellul termed “sociological propaganda,” implicitly supporting the status quo. Just shy of the Top 10 (with one first-place vote), Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is a case in point. The feel-good spectacle of James Stewart’s Boy Scout freshman senator filibustering a corrupt Congress to its senses may be Hollywood’s most resilient—and universal—political fantasy. Yes, the system works, and one good man can make a difference!

Based on an actual case, All the President’s Men (1976) is also sociological propaganda, illustrating Truth, Justice, and the American Way. On the other hand, despite its nominal happy ending (complete with a We the People–style bromide), Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s tenth-place A Face in the Crowd (1957) is not. Hardly a popular success, the movie was a canary in the coal mine, a warning made by two former Communists against the TV-mediated merger of politics and show business. Another film showing a media-driven map to power, the Robert Redford vehicle The Candidate (1972), in twentieth place, is also more cautionary than comforting.

A more realistic fictional depiction of American electoral politics than The Candidate, Robert Altman’s mockumentary miniseries Tanner ’88 turned an invented candidate loose in the 1988 Democratic primaries. Largely forgotten, it received only a single vote, although it provided as accurate an impression of the 1988 primary season as found in Sidney Blumenthal’s written history, Pledging Allegiance. (Indeed, Blumenthal was credited as a consultant.) However amusing, the movie was hardly a revelation. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, the existence of a National Entertainment State was a given.

Having demonstrated cinema’s power to rewrite the past, D.W. Griffith similarly proved that a film might intervene in history. Shown at the White House and endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, falsified the history of Reconstruction, reactivated the Ku Klux Klan, and promoted a new national narrative based on Aryan birthright. It also inspired America’s first counter cinema, the “race movies” made by Oscar Micheaux and others.

Other movies have sought to force similar revisionism. If JFK failed to rebut the Warren Commission, it did contribute to a political climate that helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977), ranked #42, may not have toppled the Polish government, but it did cost the head of the Polish film industry his job and got the minister of culture booted from the Politburo. Still, causal effects can be exaggerated. Akin to the belief that All the President’s Men inspired a spike in applications to journalism school is the cinephile legend that La Chinoise inspired the Columbia students who, three weeks after the movie opened in an out-of-the-way Manhattan theater, began occupying campus buildings.

Can TV alter the course of an election? The cynical comedy Wag the Dog (1997) got six votes and placed #54, having provided a new expression for media-manipulated bait and switch. Dramatizing the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that removed Augusto Pinochet from power, Pablo Larraín’s No (2012), which garnered several votes and ranked #79, suggested that TV sorcery might be a source of democratic power.

The 18-minute campaign film A New Beginning (1984) did not by itself reelect Ronald Reagan but immeasurably helped by casting him as the star of a feel-good patriotic spectacle. Sometimes known as Morning in America, it furthered the notion of politician as performer introduced by #38 Primary (1960), Robert Drew’s cinema verité account of JFK on the campaign trail. It also introduced the theme music (Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”) and visual rhetoric that would characterize campaigns for decades to follow.

The 2004 campaign brought Lionel Chet­wynd’s TV film DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, the ineffectual John Kerry biopic Going Upriver, and Michael Moore’s enormously popular Palme d’Or laureate Fahrenheit 9/11. Did Moore’s movie persuade anyone to support John Kerry? (It received but one vote in our poll.) More recent tendentious campaign features by Dinesh D’Souza and Steve Bannon are essentially Pavlovian infomercials. These belong to that subset of political films that celebrate or, less frequently, satirize political leaders. The exemplar here is Triumph of the Will, surely the greatest photo op of the twentieth century, and a movie that Bannon is not afraid to admire. (The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s 1940 parody of Hitler, in general, and of Triumph of the Will, in particular, finished #26, with one critic’s vote for #1.)

Still, election-year films can surf the zeitgeist. The bicentennial confluence of two Cinderellas, Jimmy Carter and Rocky Balboa, is a suggestive coincidence. The poll’s two most cited American examples of leadership films—Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X (#22) and Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln (#24)—were election-year period dramas that spoke to the present. Thanks to Denzel Washington’s performance, Lee’s film added its subject’s analysis to the discussion that followed the L.A. riots, while, with its focus on the president’s success in getting the Thirteenth Amendment through the lame-duck House of Representatives, Lincoln could hardly fail to remind the viewer of the shenanigans required to pass the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The most fantastic of straightforward political films, Gregory La Cava’s 1933 Gabriel Over the White House, a movie masterminded by William Randolph Hearst to coincide with FDR’s inauguration and advocate for a Mussolini-style dictatorship, received one first-place vote and, at #30, finished three places ahead of Citizen Kane (1941), which—Henry King’s 1944 flopperoo hagiography Wilson notwithstanding—might be considered Hollywood’s preeminent example of a Great Man film. In addition to Triumph of the Will, these include Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V (1944). Neither was cited in the poll, although Raoul Peck’s 2000 Lumumba got several votes, including a first-place nod, to rank #63.

It feels more democratic when individual protagonists serve to illuminate a larger social conflict. The poll’s preeminent example is Do the Right Thing, which deploys a host of characters to embody or articulate a range of viewpoints. Two more examples are The Lives of Others and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 Memories of Underdevelopment (#27), a newsreel-enriched portrait of a disaffected bourgeois in revolutionary Havana. The epitome of Italian neorealism, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), got two first-place votes but wound up only #52.

Other films privilege movements, like labor unions. Martin Ritt’s inspirational Norma Rae (1979) received but a single vote, although Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) finished twelfth, and Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954), another movie about striking miners, ranked thirty-first. Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) placed twenty-fifth. Edgier movies featured revolutionary cells. In addition to La Chinoise, the Top 50 included Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). A blaxploitation film animated by the ideas of Frantz Fanon, it finished #40, just ahead of Lizzie Borden’s independent feature Born in Flames (1983), which envisions radical feminists fomenting revolution via pirate radio stations.

V for Vendetta (2005), a movie adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, directed by James McTeigue, and subsequently adopted by left-wing anarchists and hard-right libertarians, received only one vote. It’s a curious omission. The movie introduced a political koan (“People should not be afraid of their governments—governments should be afraid of their people”) as well as a rakish, smirking icon. Endorsed by the anarchist hacker group Anonymous and by WikiLeaks, worn in demonstrations from Zuccotti Park to Hong Kong to Washington, D.C., the smiling Guy Fawkes mask was a meme foreshadowing the French yellow vest and the American MAGA cap.

Some films dramatize factual occurrences. Others, like V for Vendetta, imagine political scenarios. (A bootlegged cult film in China, V for Vendetta was unexpectedly telecast in 2012—a portent taken by some as evidence of the new leader Xi Jinping’s reformism. Dream on….) The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove scenarios illuminated and have come to represent the Kennedy era. Released during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the former posited a brainwashed assassin and a fascist coup; made after the crisis, the latter envisioned the end of the world.

While these movies (and A Face in the Crowd) are self-aware political scenarios, less artful ones abound. Anything but apolitical, Reagan-era action flicks like First Blood (1982) and Top Gun (1986) are too frankly propagandist to be allegories. Westerns, however, as the genre that exemplified America, were implicitly political (Italian as well as American). Rich in Cold War tropes, John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), an anti-blacklist allegory that gave Solidarnosc its poster image and became the favorite film of presidents Eisenhower, Clinton, and George W. Bush, got one vote each.

Particularly during the Cold War, science fiction tended toward political allegory. No less than High Noon (or V for Vendetta), the scenario advanced by Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers lent itself to multiple, opposite readings. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is one of the most influential political movies ever made—an unfashionably progressive plea for co-existence appearing a year into the Korean War that made so profound an impression on Ronald Reagan that he astonished Mikhail Gorbachev three-plus decades later by recounting the plot. Neither of these films made a single list, but a substantial number of voters read the ultimate ’60s nightmare and original zombie apocalypse film, George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead (#35), as a political allegory of a divided, TV-transfixed, racist America.

Essentially thought experiments, these genre films differ in their imaginative metaphor from more down-to-earth political entertainments-cum-exposés that, in addition to JFK, include two other thrillers dealing with political assassination: Z, set in the early ’60s, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (#14), made in 1970 and set in the fascist 1930s. The opposite of imaginative political scenarios are movies made to commemorate. The Top 50 included three monumental examples. The most cited was Claude Lanzmann’s ninth-place Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour portrait of Holocaust witnesses and survivors.

Five-hours-plus and, at #17, the highest-ranked twenty-first-century film (as well as only one of four movies in the Top 100 set in the nineteenth century), Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) restaged the Paris Commune as it might have been reported on live TV. The Battle of Chile (1975–79), Patricio Guzmán’s three-part, four-and-a-half-hour chronicle of the 1973 coup against elected socialist leader Salvador Allende, also finished in the Top 20, along with Alain Resnais’s short Night and Fog (1956) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for voting rights.

As befits its spot atop the poll, The Battle of Algiers is both commemoration and scenario (and also, thanks in part to Ennio Morricone’s thrilling score, entertainment). On one hand, the movie is appreciated for its seemingly objective documentary realism. On the other, it has been taken as a metaphor for urban guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, Iraq, and the United States, understood as a warning and even an instruction manual—a source of inspiration for radical groups like the Black Panthers and an object of study by the Pentagon and the CIA.

A political film is political not only for what it shows but for what it does. “The problem,” according to Jean-Luc Godard, who led the poll in titles with six films nominated in addition to La Chinoise, “is not to make political films but to make films politically.”

Thus, Salt of the Earth was made by blacklisted Hollywood writers and directors, Chantal Akerman’s thirty-sixth-ranked Jeanne Dielman (1975) with an almost all-female crew, and Jafar Panahi’s unranked This Is Not a Film (2011) under a form of house arrest when he was forbidden to make movies. Plug pulled by its Hollywood studio, the 1974 anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (#39) was self-distributed, albeit by wealthy independents. Oscar Micheaux, the most independent (and impoverished) of independent filmmakers, did not receive a single vote—not even for God’s Step Children (1938), likely the only movie in American history banned by the U.S. Communist Party—although his successor Melvin Van Peebles did get two votes for his one-man Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).

Produced by Sam Greenlee from his own novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was financed mostly by Black investors and directed and scored by Black artists. Several scenes of urban insurrection used Gary, Indiana, one of the first large American cities to elect a Black mayor, as a stand-in for Chicago. Like Salt of the Earth, it was hounded by the FBI (with theaters subjected to intimidation), and like Hearts and Minds, it was abandoned by its distributor. Unlike either, however, The Spook Who Sat by the Door became a cult film, leading a fugitive existence circulating on bootleg VHS tapes.

Some took The Battle of Algiers as a manual. The period’s other great Third Worldist film, #32 The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), clandestinely made by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas in the late 1960s, was designed to instruct. What began as a reform-minded short grew into a four-hour-plus history of left-wing Peronism fashioned largely from interviews and newsreel footage. Dangerous to show in its native Argentina even as it provocatively addressed spectator passivity, Furnaces was structured to create space for discussion.

Nearly six hours long, made for but buried by French television, La Commune (Paris, 1871) integrates that discussion within itself in its critique of the medium. Arguably the most original political film since Battleship Potemkin, if not The Birth of a Nation, La Commune is doubly pedagogical—made to educate its participants as well as its audience. The movie was shot in chronological order in approximately two weeks, after 16 months of preproduction during which the large cast, many of whom were political activists, had to research their characters. Actors merged with their characters as the events of 1871 reflected the situation of France in 2000.

However unusual, these politically made films are all professional motion pictures. A whole other stratum, all but unrecognized in the poll, dates to the early 1930s, with the footage of strikes and demonstrations shot by the Communist-allied Workers Film and Photo League and its European analogues. Not simply documentaries, these films were organizing tools meant to be shown in union halls and at political gatherings. This activist tradition was revived and elaborated in the late 1960s by various New Left collectives, including Newsreel, Third World Newsreel, and the Medvedkin Group, as well as other exponents of what Cuban theorist Julio García Espinosa called “imperfect cinema.”

As so-called guerrilla newsreels were facilitated by lightweight 16-millimeter and later video cameras, the development of the camera-phone in the early twenty-first century created a new sort of political cinema. The 2009 Iranian “Green Movement” and the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war that broke out two years later brought short, phone-made video newsreels and political statements, often uploaded to YouTube. The British filmmaker Peter Snowdon curated a number of these “vernacular videos” in his 2013 feature, The Uprising. The French journalist David Dufresne went a step further with his 2020 documentary, The Monopoly of Violence, using vernacular videos produced during the gilets jaunes demonstrations in France to create a dialogue among police, demonstrators, and the official media. (Dufresne was live-streaming demonstrations during the recent mass protests.)

Political cinema is no longer the province of professionals, if indeed it ever was. One respondent put the 26-second, 8-millimeter Zapruder footage, taken in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, third on their list, behind Shoah and Triumph of the Will. If the Zapruder footage illuminated history, Darnella Frazier’s 10-minute phone-camera documentation of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 changed it.

There is a case to be made that, along with the various amateur recordings of the January 6 storming of Congress, Frazier’s 10-minute film belongs with the most significant political documentaries made in America over the past few years, if not ever. Because the personal really is the political.`

The New Republic thanks Hoberman for curating this special issue and Julian Epp for his Stakhanovite (as Eisenstein might have put it) labors on its behalf.