The current xenophobia in the United States, manifested in crimes that have also targeted Indians, represent an intensification and mainstreaming of a sentiment that had begun to play out much earlier — at theatres near you. “Popular” cinema is often treated as fluff — an error, for successful popular cinema, be it Bollywood or Hollywood, is a highly accurate barometer of tastes, choices, fears, desires — and politics. A “hit” film mirrors something a large number of people like, love, or even hate. This is the “collective representation” that French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote of in his 1977 classic, Image Music Text: “the press, advertising, mass consumer goods; it is something socially determined, a ‘reflection’.”
This is why, for those watching the US box office closely, the rise of Donald Trump and his followers should not have come as a surprise. For some years, the shift of a markedly aggressive politics from the margins to middle ground had been heralded by Hollywood, reflecting an America that felt increasingly “under threat” from “invaders”, aliens, robots, viruses, villainous Arab-types; these screens reflected an America that was losing its self-confidence and turning desperately to “superheroes”.
The American superhero himself had been changing. He was once the ditzy and tongue-tied bloke who became an irresistible saviour-charmer soon as he had pulled on underpants over his tights. The new-age superhero was an entirely different being: in the post-9/11 world of automation, terrorism, economic contraction and military expansion, he became half-animal, half-man; half-metal, half-man; half-wit, half-man. Movies celebrating such heroes, Iron Man (2008) to Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), were huge successes, overturning traditional social codes, making anger and violence much more acceptable. Logically, their messages could not but impact millions of Americans staring at enormous screens.
And yet, the noughties also saw movies full of charm delighting the US box office. Each showed the joy of the unknown, the thrill of adventure — Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007), featuring a swashbuckling Johnny Depp, ‘James Bond’ Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), The Da Vinci Code (2006), Twilight (2008), which brought panting teen sexuality back, and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), were all top box office grossers. In 2008, as Barack Obama strode towards the American Presidency, Hollywood’s screens held wonder, magic with realism, shimmering optimism, playfulness pervading even tragedy. The last was perhaps the most beautifully symbolised by a set of books and films that preceded Obama and walked alongside him — Harry Potter.
The success of the Potter series (beginning 2001), following a boy who had lost his parents but gained a world of magic, mirrored a certain vision of life. Here, the individual was supreme, over hierarchy, family or creed. From The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) to Sex and the City (2008) the movie protagonist could lack conventionalism, suburban family feasts, the security of community. But the individual was deeply imbued with possibilities; every individual — no matter who they were or where they came from — held the potential of enriching themselves and their societies.
But as America faced greater military, economic and social stress, things changed rapidly, and Hollywood lost its mirth. In 2009, alongside the questioning Avatar came a mix of Harry Potteresque magic with traditional American horror and action genres — X-Men Origins: Wolverine, asking contemporary questions: Who was an alien? Who belonged?
By 2010, screens had grown darker. Another Twilight pandered to disturbing obsessions with virginity and sex, emphasising “lines”, “us”, “them” and how “crossing the border” (here, from human to vampire). As America rediscovered unease, its new-age superheroes, like Iron Man 2, began walking tall. In 2011 came a slew of superheroes, led by Captain America: The First Avenger, each more mechanised and violent, and less humorous than the last. There was retro fear too: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes rewound America back to the original’s 1968.
In 2012, The Hunger Games redefined persecution, emphasising survival by eliminating competition. The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers indicated America needed a steely protector. Even as intelligent Argo — again, about Americans besieged — made a mark, Resident Evil: Retribution rocked the box office. 2013 saw more — another Iron Man, another Hunger Games. By 2014, a shivering America was fighting back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and American Sniper. Films with subtlety were left weeping over The Fault In Our Stars, replaced by a tinny superhero faster than you could say Gone Girl.
In 2015 — the year Donald Trump announced he was running for President — E L James released Fifty Shades of Grey. There was more Avengers, Hunger Games, Star Wars. But Fifty Shades’ billionaire redefined love, now a power game where a successful man delivered body blows to someone vulnerable. Fifty Shades wowed the box office just as Trump — who as host of The Apprentice had for years tested job-seekers with sadistic tasks — announced his run.
In 2016, The Magnificent Seven, a remixed cowboy movie evoking an age when America didn’t feel too bothered about snatching native Indian lands or lives, was a hit. The turn towards openly aggressive self-aggrandisement blended with a dismissal of the cynical “politics as usual” that TV shows like The West Wing and House of Cards depicted. Such “Democrat politics”, increasingly assertive Republicans declared, had created glaring inequities in America, leading, for example, to O J Simpson being acquitted of his wife’s murder simply because he was black — the trial was re-enacted in the TV drama The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, throughout 2016.
As the 2016 Presidential election drew closer, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice hit the box office bulls-eye. Subtlety, optimism, open-heartedness were nearly gone from American screens now. Perhaps, as a goodbye to another time, The Jungle Book did well. But it was the era of Captain America: Civil War.