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  • Bulworth (1998) and Cradle Will Rock (1999):Critiquing Capitalism in the Late 1990s
  • Martin Halpern

The 2008 economic crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011 produced wide-ranging discussions about the failings of the existing capitalist order and the need to imagine alternatives to it. Since the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a national figure, the term "socialist" has been a focal point of discussion. Some of the debate involves little more than redbaiting. Indeed, the combination of climate change, the coronavirus, and the presidency of Donald Trump brought a continuous stream of worrisome news that has left little room for optimistic reflections. Searing film portraits of our anxious times such as Sorry to Bother You seek to awaken viewers to the depths of malevolence through which we are living. Rather than examine the dystopian visions in recent films, I will look back at two films from the late 1990s that explore socialist and communist ideas. Indeed, artistic critiques of capitalism and imagining of alternatives to it have been features of cultural life even in quiescent and conformist periods such as the 1990s.

Despite the disarray in progressive circles resulting from Clintonite centrism in the 1990s, two major film stars, thanks to their ability to leverage financing for major film projects, gave movie audiences an opportunity to critique a social system that was seemingly stable. Set, respectively, in the 1990s and in the 1930s, Warren Beatty's 1998 film Bulworth and Tim Robbins's 1999 film Cradle Will Rock grappled with the dilemma of how one can both survive within an unjust social order and perhaps even transcend it. Each film focuses on the preservation of individual dignity and either explicitly or implicitly contributes to the strengthening of collective struggle against late capitalism. As well-financed feature films appealing to a mass audience Bulworth and Cradle Will Rock provide critiques of elite capitalists and the capitalist system and offer sustenance and support for the idea that "another world is possible."1

Tim Robbins's 1999 film Cradle Will Rock provides a window on the New Deal. At the center of the film is the 1937 effort to stage Marc Blitzstein's pro-labor opera The Cradle Will Rock while the film's rapidly shifting scenes provide insightful glimpses on the mural movement of Diego Rivera, the struggles of steel workers and the unemployed, women's leadership roles, new opportunities for African Americans, and the roles of anti-communist, pro-fascist, and big-business opponents of the New Deal. The film's central focus is on whether impulses for solidarity and human caring, by artist or worker, may overcome the power of money.2

The danger that capitalists are able to use money to corrupt agents of change is evident in both the play within the movie and in the movie's story. In Blitzstein's play, we see that Mr. Mister, the dominant figure in Steeltown and a symbol of capitalist power, has successfully corrupted the clergy and the media. He also attempts without success to buy off Larry Foreman, the union leader. In the movie story, Blitzstein highlights to Orson Welles, who is about to direct his play, the vulnerability of the artist to the blandishments of capital. Welles is the host of a [End Page 37] successful national radio show and Blitzstein asks him, "How long can you whore your talents before you're used up unwanted?" Acknowledging that everyone needs money, Blitzstein probes, "The question is what will you do for the money? Where do you draw the line?"

Robbins's film opens with the words "a (mostly) true story," a reference to the fact that most of the film's characters are historical personalities and to the film's culmination with the depiction of a historic event, the runaway opening night performance of The Cradle Will Rock on June 16, 1937. The film's shifting focus on other historical events that happened earlier and later–the painting and destruction of Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center in 1933 and 1934, the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the Federal Theatre Project in 1939...


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