Issue 6: Feature Article—The Screenwriter as Social Commentator

From the ‘social problem’ films of the 1930s through to modern films dealing with such issues as terrorism, racism and gay rights, filmmakers have always been drawn to exploring issues affecting the world they live in. The final article in our short series on the screenwriter’s role explores a few issues around the idea of the screenwriter as social commentator…

‘Audiences want to be entertained, not preached at…’

Good ‘social issues films’ can weave social/political comment around an emotionally engaging story that makes the audience care about the issues on a human level.

Take a classic like On the Waterfront (1954) (pictured above). While it’s based around union violence and corruption among longshoremen, when you watch the film, you’re simply drawn into the experiences of former boxer, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dockworker who testifies against a corrupt, Mob-connected union boss. (It’s interesting that the film also serves as director Elia Kazan’s reaction to criticism of his actions in identifying eight Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities – part of the so-called Communist ‘witch hunts’ of the 1950s).

Films can open audiences’ eyes to ‘what’s really going on’ in the world, from a very specific point-of-view. But unlike other mediums (like journalism), films come wrapped in attractive packaging, which makes their message more widely accessible and digestible. By chronicling the struggles of a compelling protagonist, filmmakers can take audiences on a journey, sweeping them into the world they create and involving them in the issues that inspires the protagonist to act.

‘Social films polarise audiences, stimulate debate and create controversy…’

The war on terror, the death penalty, politics, religion…name any controversial topic and there is bound to be a whole raft of films on the issue. Most of these films nail their colours to the mast, putting forward a definite point-of-view that viewers either agree with or heartily refute.

Films of this nature are designed to inspire a reaction – from reactionary articles in the press/online and social media comment through to spirited discussions between friends in the bar after the film.

We’ve touched on the whole idea of ideological baggage before – people bringing their personal views to the movies with them – and ‘social/political films’ are designed to press those provocative ‘hot buttons’ and force the audience into a response.

Not surprisingly, controversy often attaches to these films, and some even morph into something much larger than a two-hour-plus motion picture. Take, for example, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which regularly appears on list of the most controversial films of all time, or RSL‘s perennial favourite, American Sniper (2013), which sparked all kinds of debate about (among other things) America’s role on the world stage.

These controversial films generate their own publicity as word spreads and more people than otherwise would have done go to see them, either out of curiosity or to take part in the ‘conversation’.

Making a wider social comment through fiction is a powerful device and one that has become particularly associated with certain genres. War films are the obvious example. From WWII and Vietnam to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are few other topics that polarise opinion to a similar extent as war.

Films that deal with war can take many different angles, from soldiers’ experiences on the ground, through to political decision-making and the after-effects of the conflict. These films humanise something often written about in the abstract. After all, stats on fatalities can’t compete with up-close views of mangled bodies, and reports of battles raging can’t compete with watching bombs explode and destroy towns.

It’s easy to wrap these stories up with an ideological bow and present a stacked point-of-view to the audience. As we discussed last week, films – such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – that fail to take a stand on emotive issues can even draw criticism for not coming down on one side or the other.

‘Scripts about social issues don’t sell…’

There’s a fine line between films with ‘a message’ and those that cross the line into being ‘preachy’.

We’ve all sat through films that felt more like enduring some big-mouth pontificating away without much regard for anyone else’s opinion, rather than a story with a engaging dramatic narrative. Films that act merely as a mouthpiece for a filmmaker’s ideology, without being entertaining and engaging on other levels, tend to turn off all but those who are sympathetic with the particular cause and point-of-view.

However, films that attempt to say something meaningful about the world within the conventions of the motion picture can not only find an audience, they can be global hits that win over audiences and critics alike.

The bottom line is that even if the motives of screenwriters and filmmakers are pure, film is a business, and projects need to be financially viable. Therefore, unless it involves a big name, a project is unlikely to move forward unless it makes sense from a business point-of-view. That means having the potential to appeal to a wide audience; an audience that wants thought-provoking entertainment, not a two-hour mad rant.

‘Social issues films can change the world…’

Filmmakers have always been drawn to exploring important issues, and some of the films they make even go as far as achieving large or small-scale change in the real world (for good or evil). For example:

The Birth Of A Nation (1915): Widely held to have contributed to a resurgence of interest in the Klu Klux Klan.

The Battle of Algiers (1966): Often held out as a ‘blueprint’ for mounting a revolution.

JFK (1991): Led to the passing of President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which opened up access to documents relating to the president’s assassination.

Whether they set out to change the world or not, films have the power to generate huge amounts of interest and attention, shining a big spotlight on to issues and stimulating others to act.

So…?

Films don’t exist in a vacuum – they form a part of the cultural life, both of the time period in which they’re set and the time period in which they’re released. Go back and look at they types of films released around the time of On the Waterfront and you’ll see just how many diverse films released during the ‘McCarthy era’ were made as explicit or oblique reactions to the Communist witch hunts.

When people get angry or passionate about an issue, they like to vent those feelings. If that person happens to be a creative, then that anger or passion will be transmitted through art. Film is an ideal platform to explore deeper issues – either by focussing on the issue at hand and using it to drive the narrative, or by weaving it in more subtly. But to be effective, film has to fulfil more than one function – and, in order for it to reach a wide enough audience to be financially viable, like it or not, one of those functions has to be as an entertainment medium.

What does this all mean for the budding or working screenwriter with a message to share with the world?

Well, it means that unless you’re working ultra-low budget and planning to finance the project yourself, your script will need to present its ideas in a way that’s entertaining and commercial. That doesn’t mean you can’t go political or controversial; it just means that you’ll need to ensure audiences will respond to what want to say.

And remember, no-one cares about your opinion. They care about your characters, the journeys they take and the injustices they encounter along the way.

Next time around, we start our look at how some well-known and highly-regarded filmmakers have tackled the fact-based film with a look at the work of Martin Scorsese.

Issue 7 of RSL is out on 17 August.