Every year at this time, my house turns into a version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia, with endless brooms and buckets descending on hapless Mickey Mouse. Only the brooms and buckets are DVDs of the year’s movies sent to me, as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to garner my Oscar vote. Like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the process begins as a benign, hopeful experience but then can turn almost nightmarish, as flick after flick shows up at my door, my will to watch declining with each new arrival. And this year hasn’t even begun so benignly. Perhaps it was Robert Redford, in a CNN interview to promote his new Oscar contender, All Is Lost, calling President Obama’s critics racists—“There you go again,” as a wise man once said—but I was in a sour mood about Hollywood from the start.
To make matters worse, two of the first four films to arrive—Fruitvale Station and After Tiller—were outright liberal propaganda. And one of them, Fruitvale, was particularly well-made liberal propaganda, sure to have its intended effect on the audience, reinforcing the racial cant that increasingly permeates our culture. Fruitvale is “based on a true story” (always beware when a film begins that way) about Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man shot by an allegedly racist cop at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station early on New Year’s Day, 2009. “Allegedly racist cop” is the operative term, though the film tries hard to erase that qualifier. After being relatively careful about verisimilitude for most of the movie, writer-director Ryan Coogler presents us with a flesh-and-blood, white racist cop who would make Bull Connor blush. The cop is a behemoth, towering over every other actor in the movie, black or white, by about six inches—Godzilla trampling on good and innocent men of color. Yet in real-life Oakland, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that police spend more time in sensitivity training than they do sleeping. (The real officer, Johannes Mehserle, claims the shooting was an accident and that he only meant to subdue Grant with his Taser. Witnesses say the policeman looked mortified after he shot the young man.)
But never mind, the film is seductive, turning its ex-con hero (a star-making performance by Michael B. Jordan) into a supremely likeable character by having him obsess over a wounded dog and dump a bag of marijuana he was intending to sell into the bay. We’re supposed to believe he had decided to go straight just before the hate-filled cop dispatched him. This is manipulative nonsense, of course, and Coogler has acknowledged that he made up these incidents. But given its political values, Fruitvale Station is sure to be a competitor in this year’s Oscar derby. (It has already won awards at Cannes and Sundance.) That the film arrived early in our mailboxes is a tip-off that the film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, will do his best to engineer a statue or at least a few nominations for it. If anyone can pull that off, Weinstein can. He has practically written the book on Academy membership mind control. A decade or so ago, when my politics were different, he might even have had me punching the Price Waterhouse ticket for Fruitvale. (Actually, there’s no ticket. Most of us vote online now.)
After Tiller is a different matter entirely. This documentary, about the four doctors still practicing late-term abortions after the 2009 assassination of “practitioner” Dr. George Tiller, is a tedious enterprise that’s hard to watch, not just for its gruesome subject matter, but also for its predictably biased filmmaking. The documentary is the most deceptive of forms, because, unlike fictional films, which are honestly stories, they pretend to the truth. But the motion picture cutting room is ground zero for distortion and misdirection. As far back as the 1920s, the pioneering Soviet director Aleksandr Dovzhenko demonstrated how the reordering of identical images through montage could create opposite feelings and conclusions in the audience. Most documentaries are no more “objective” than a Daily Kos blog post. Often they’re simply covert, ideology-driven prevarications masked under the phony guise of objectivity that cloaks the genre. A salient example in recent years is Al Gore’s ham-handed global-warming polemic, An Inconvenient Truth—winner of an Oscar. The British education system labeled it propaganda. Watching it now, only seven years later, the film seems like self-parody.
After Tiller takes a more subtle tack, pretending to even-handedness. According to the flyer that accompanied the DVD: “Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson have depoliticized one of the most incendiary topics of our time by focusing on the complexities of the issue in an approach that places humanity and compassion at the forefront.” Depoliticized, my foot. The film is nothing but political, every nuance arranged to make you think the four late-term abortionists are fine fellows doing the Lord’s work. The good news is that hardly anyone will see this manipulative movie. But I must stop now. The doorbell is ringing. More Oscar DVDs have arrived.