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How film has shaped the American image of democracy


In NPR's 50th anniversary year, one of the ways we celebrated was through stories - under the banner We Hold These Truths. How have Americans learned about democracy? Well, lots of our notions and beliefs first flickered before us at the movies.


SIMON: Movies have shown us democracy means people speaking freely without fear, as when a young senator, played by Jimmy Stewart in 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," holds the floor to tell crusty, old colleagues...


JAMES STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty.

SIMON: Democracy is supposed to help dreams come true and life get better, as when Claudia McNeil, as the Southside Chicago grandmother of 1961's "A Raisin In The Sun," rebukes her family.


CLAUDIA MCNEIL: (As Lena Younger) You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home. And then we kept you out of trouble till you was grown and that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar. You're my children, but how different we've become.

SIMON: Even "The Godfather" reflects America's democratic idea - work hard and you'll be rewarded - as when Brando's Don Corleone tells his son...


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I worked my whole life. I don't apologize for taking care of my family. And I refuse to be a fool dancing on the string held by all those big shots.

SIMON: Although, a student in Alexander Payne's 1999 "Election" thinks her student council election - classroom democracy - is a mere sham.


JESSICA CAMPBELL: (As Tammy Metzler) Who cares about this stupid election? We all know it doesn't matter who gets elected president of Carver. Do you really think it's going to change anything around here?

SIMON: We asked two great film commentators to share their thoughts.

MARK HARRIS: One thing that people can draw from a lot of movies now about democracy is it's not easy. It's not a sure thing. It's a lot more fragile than we may have imagined it is.

SIMON: Mark Harris is the author of "Five Came Back" and other books about film. He cites Elia Kazan's 1957 "A Face In The Crowd." Andy Griffith plays a wayfaring fraud who becomes a media star, then a national force.


ANDY GRIFFITH: (As Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes) The general's been talking to Fuller. He's selling him on the idea of creating a new cabinet post for me. In time of imminent crisis and danger - that's the way the general puts it - who could rally the people better than I could, hold them in line right behind the gun? If we put Fuller across the way, I know we're going to - he's going to owe me that, secretary for national morale.

HARRIS: Television is a bully pulpit in that you can manipulate the feelings of a mass audience in incredibly dangerous ways as long as you package it in a way that's kind of palatable to the majority of them. My gosh, you know, all we have to do is look at the era we're in to realize how resonant that movie is.

SIMON: Wesley Morris, a New York Times film critic who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism, says Spike Lee's 1989 "Do The Right Thing" uses rising racial tensions over a pizza place in a changing neighborhood of Brooklyn to show a challenge of democracy. Not everybody feels represented.


GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Buggin' Out) Hey, Sal. How come you got no brothers up on the wall here?

DANNY AIELLO: (As Sal) You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you want to do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your stepfather, stepmother, whoever you want, you see? But this is my pizzeria. American Italians on the wall only.

ESPOSITO: (As Buggin' Out) Yeah, that might be fine, Sal. But you own this. Rarely do I see any American Italians eating in here. All I see is Black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say.

WESLEY MORRIS: How does democracy water down or - you know, how do the tributaries of democracy flow down into this one little block in Brooklyn?

SIMON: Wesley Morris also thinks George Romero's 1968 film "Night Of The Living Dead" has a lot to say about democracy.


KARL HARDMAN: (As Harry Cooper) Go ahead. Go ahead. You want to stay up there now? Helen, get in the cellar.

MORRIS: I thought a lot about the Capitol storming while I was watching - I watched it, you know, somewhat recently. And it really is just a horde of people who really don't have an agenda but do have this sort of programmed response as dictated by their zombiehood. And they're not thinking about what their goal is. They just know they have to destroy and eat living flesh. And it's entirely incumbent upon the living people in this movie to figure out a way to stop the invasion, save their own lives and try to get the world back to some semblance of normalcy.

SIMON: Those recent violent challenges to democracy also caused Mark Harris to question his esteem for Batman in Christopher Nolan's 2008 "The Dark Knight."

HARRIS: He is a vengeance-driven, extralegal vigilante who does not believe that the rule of law can be enforced within democratic systems. He believes that you have to work outside them in some ways to keep the peace.


BEATRICE ROSEN: (As Natascha) I'm talking about the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante.

AARON ECKHART: (As Harvey Dent) Gotham City is proud of an ordinary citizen standing up for what's right.

ROSEN: (As Natascha) Gotham needs heroes like you, elected officials, not a man who thinks he is above the law.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) Exactly. Who appointed the Batman?

ECKHART: (As Harvey Dent) We did. All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.

HARRIS: Like a lot of great artists, Christopher Nolan is fascinated by the fact that democracy is constantly in peril, that it's not a guarantee, that if you're telling a story that is Batman versus the Joker within the context of Gotham City, it has to be, ultimately, a story of one kind of lawlessness versus another kind of lawlessness. So "The Dark Knight" should trouble your sleep.

SIMON: Both critics think there are current stresses on democracy - insurrection, big money, dark money, redistricting, voter suppression and issues Madison and Jefferson probably didn't contemplate, like who gets to use what public bathrooms. It may be contentious. They're also promising storylines. Wesley Morris says...

MORRIS: I would love to see a bathroom bill movie, like, an actual, you know, fight over whether or not trans people have a right to pee in public restrooms.

SIMON: Mark Harris says he thinks there's even cinematic potential in a story about filibusters.

HARRIS: As a liberal and as a progressive, I have a hard time sometimes holding that thought in my head alongside the thought that there is value in protecting imperiled minorities against mob rule, against the tyranny of the majority.

SIMON: Wesley Morris says...

MORRIS: I just think in the last five or six years we have forgotten - things have been so tense for so long that we are really afraid to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. And there's a way to do it so that it can be really funny but also really trenchant.

SIMON: Movies have been a common experience, even language, in America. People of all backgrounds, regions, identities and faiths have said, I'll make him an offer he can't refuse, play it again, Sam, show me the money, let it go, and I am your king now. But in a divided country in which people now get information and entertainment from so many different, separate silos, will movies still speak a common language about democracy?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.