As the end credits roll on Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, a strip club DJ’s voice booms at the audience, announcing the film’s actors for a final dance. Hustlers is a tale about Wall Street, strippers, and the many ways to get paid or scammed in America. Earlier in the film, Ramona, the architect of the film’s central hustle, played by the transcendent Jennifer Lopez, tells her coconspirator Destiny (Constance Wu), “This whole country is a strip club.”
The metaphor isn’t a compliment, so much as it is a moral reeducation; as Scafaria told Total Film, she wanted to make “a stripper movie about capitalism.” And so, by the end of the movie, the DJ’s voice shatters the fourth wall and the theater transforms into a strip club too — the audience becomes unavoidably complicit, consumers in a metaphorical buffet of flesh and cash. You may have thought you were going to the movies, but you ended up enmeshed in full-contact economic critique.
And watching Hustlers probably isn’t the only time you’ve stepped into an ongoing debate over the world’s economic future if you’ve been watching movies in 2019. Many of the year’s most popular and acclaimed films, like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out — as well as smaller, critically acclaimed films like Peterloo (basically a Bernie Sanders rally set in 19th-century England), Atlantics, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco — all presented sharp critiques of class divides and the capitalist system. The appetite for these movies perhaps springs from the universality of the subject matter. Asked to explain the global success of Parasite, Bong concluded, “We all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”
But at the same time, as this year’s Oscar nominations again came under scrutiny for their overwhelming whiteness, plenty of movies also celebrated or yearned for the established status quo. Critical and box office hits Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman offered gauzy, vaguely nostalgic reimaginations of 20th-century America, a place where even aging, washed-up white men still pull the levers of economic and social power. (Ford v Ferrari accomplishes a similar feat.) Scorsese and Tarantino headed toward the troubled past in their latest films, with very little critique or reexamination of a troubling present.
Film as a vehicle for social and economic critique — some of it explicitly revolutionary — is nearly as old as the medium itself. But there was a noticeable uptick in the quality and quantity of the class conversations in 2019’s movies, perhaps because debates about the economic future of the US are intensifying as quickly as the gap is widening between rich and poor. Senators Elizabeth Warren, who calls for “real structural change,” and self-described socialist Bernie Sanders are both among the leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, presenting two of the most radical economic visions a mainstream political party in the US has entertained for decades. According to an April 2019 Gallup poll, never have more Americans (43%) been willing to embrace socialism. In this divided moment, it makes sense that audiences find themselves increasingly drawn to films that either offer bracing critiques of capitalism or gymnastic defenses of it.
The year’s most self-conscious economic critique was Parasite. Depicting the intertwined relationship between two families in Seoul, Bong turns the physical landscape and the architecture of place into an allegory of economics: Who lives on top and who toils at the bottom? We first meet the Kim family in their basement dwelling, where the camera lingers on the hand-laundered socks hanging to dry on a light fixture. Then the camera looks up toward the street level, the first of many metaphors about rising and falling in the film. Without spoiling the movie’s rambunctious second half, the Kim family steadily rises, enmeshing themselves in the lives of the Parks, a wealthy and oblivious family living at the literal and economic top of Seoul’s society.
We see members of the lowest classes of Korean society fight among themselves for the figurative scraps from the table of the wealthy Parks; we see the Parks’ blithe materialism, the ways they enable their children and retreat from the world. The same rainstorm that ruins the Park family’s camping trip — a minor inconvenience — finds the Kim family wading through a river of shit to escape their flooded home and save their belongings. But the Kims are not lower-class heroes, nor are the Parks deliberately evil. As Kim family patriarch Ki-taek remarks, “Rich people are naive. No resentments. No creases on them.” The world can’t help but appear smooth when you only see it from the backseat of a luxury automobile.
When the existing economic system feels like theft, suddenly stealing in all its forms becomes morally justifiable.
In Knives Out, director Rian Johnson’s modern adaptation of the murder mystery genre, a similar upstairs-downstairs class divide emerges between the wealthy Thrombey family and the virtuous and intrepid nurse Marta, who looked after their late father. While Knives Out’s politics aren’t radical, the movie’s inversion of a classic trope of the mystery and detective genre — that the stolen property ends up in the rightful hands at the end — presents a satisfying comeuppance: The Thrombeys lose their house and inheritance. But Johnson’s movie makes a statement of capitalistic virtue, not radical politics. Marta inherits the house because she is morally superior, a fundamentally reassuring message about individual actions, not systemic inequality. As far as political thinking goes, Knives Out is more Mayor Pete than Liz or Bernie.
In both Parasite and Hustlers, in contrast, the directors suggest that capitalism produces a form of amorality. We see the Kim family’s struggle and their ingenuity, as well as their graft and avarice. A shared system of reality emerges between their conning of the Parks and the callous way Ramona treats stockbroker marks in Hustlers. When the existing economic system feels like theft, suddenly stealing in all its forms becomes morally justifiable. Humanity becomes inputs and outputs, and the only crime of the hustle is getting caught. As Bong told Wired in 2017, “capitalism turns ... love into something ugly and turns living things into commodities.”
Scafaria and Bong, even as they make us empathize with the con artists and criminals in their movies, ultimately seek our revulsion — not at the actions or actors themselves, but the system and structure that can only end in exploitation. And using Parasite’s architectural metaphor, it’s only once you’ve seen what — and who — is in the basement that you will understand the damage done by the larger structural hierarchies themselves. When Parasite ends in a cascade of violence, we wonder how living on the hill and living in the basement might each affect your conscience, in different ways.
Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ two-hour thrill-ride-by-way-of-panic-attack, offers an even more nihilistic vision of what unfettered free-market capitalism might be leading us toward. The film follows Howard Ratner, a diamond and jewelry dealer, played by the excellent Adam Sandler, from set piece to set piece as he moves from one half-truth and one scam to another. Howard cheats on his wife, owes money to all the wrong people, and finds himself forever promising the next person he’ll make them whole if he can just have more time.
The film’s plot centers on the selling of a black opal, which Howard illegally imports from Ethiopia. It’s an act of economic colonialism and hustle we see in the film’s first scene. Kevin Garnett, playing himself, later explains to Howard how the whole industry is built on exploitation, as he excoriates Sandler’s character for trying to profit from the labor and suffering of people far away. The joke is, of course, that Garnett wants the opal, too. No one is clean in the film — least of all the viewer, who roots for Howard to escape each scrape and squeeze.
Uncut Gems ends, like Parasite, in an act of cathartic violence. And then the Safdies take us, through a bullet hole, inside Howard’s brain. The scene recalls the opening sequence of the film, where drilling for rare earths and gems in Ethiopia fades into a depiction of Howard’s colonoscopy. These three images — the mining, the dive into Howard’s asshole, the gaping bullet wound — intertwine in the film’s final moments. Fetishizing of material wealth is the shit that kills us: It’s in our guts and deep in our psyches. Bullet holes, bowels, and gems drenched in blood and suffering might all have something in common. In the end, when he’s lying dead on the floor of his shop, we might recall Howard’s most iconic — and meme-worthy — line of the movie with dark irony: “This is how I win.”
But there were plenty of interruptions to this cinematic parade of Marxist critique. From the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre, whose films worship capitalism in form and function, to the awards season favorites The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the movies of 2019 did not always forecast or encourage radical political thinking.
Scorsese is no lover of exploitative capitalism — viewers will recall the biting satire of The Wolf of Wall Street — but in The Irishman, the target of his examination this time is organized crime and its unholy alliance with organized labor. We see real-life Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in intimate and often unflinching portraiture. However, the film depicts almost none of the material benefits of organized labor or the people — beyond white men who already seem to have achieved middle-class comfort — who might benefit from it.
The Irishman serves to affirm a portrait of American labor movements as corrupt and greedy, whether Scorsese means it to or not.
As director Boots Riley, the genius behind 2018’s Marxist racial satire Sorry to Bother You, noted in now-deleted tweets: What is a movie about organized labor without a strike or a high-level negotiation? Instead, the movie makes the politics of organizing feel like a corrupt monarchy and union members seem like a corrupt mob. (Riley, facing criticism from Scorsese fans and parts of the political left, subsequently deleted his account. Radical politics might be more alluring than ever, but apparently asking hard questions about certain legacy directors is a third rail in American film criticism.)
When future mob assassin Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) first steals from his employer, union lawyers protect him. Pacino’s Hoffa emerges as a power-hungry politician who refers, obsessively, to the largest labor organization in the country as “my union.” To be sure, much of the film strives for a certain amount of historical accuracy, before it moves into conjecture and fabulation, and the relationship between organized crime and labor is a matter of the historical record. But, especially to Americans unacquainted with the many successes of labor organizing, both past and present, The Irishman’s meditations on class offer a pessimistic view of unions and their members. A critical consumer might wonder how The Irishman fits into a political moment where union protections are increasingly rare and under threat, despite the clear correlation between union membership and higher wages — both of which have been on the decline in the US for the past 50 years.
The Irishman is not uncomplicated in its treatment of its central characters. Scorsese is interested in mortality and existence: What do we live and die for? At least Hoffa believes in something, corrupt though his methods may be; Sheeran believes in nothing but the next kill or shakedown — and ends the film alone in a nursing home, staring into the abyss. But no art exists in a vacuum, and ultimately The Irishman serves to affirm a portrait of American labor movements as corrupt and greedy, whether Scorsese means it to or not.
Quentin Tarantino’s explicit depiction of conservative iconography and ideology resounds in a more pointed way in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What initially seems like a sardonic satire of aging in Hollywood, with washed-up TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the center of the action, turns into something more like a worshipful nostalgia trip back to the straight white man’s world and his former earning potential.
Brad Pitt’s intrepid stunt double, Cliff Booth, becomes the hero of the film’s final moments, where, not unlike The Irishman, we see a fictional and brutally violent climax play out against a backdrop of real historical figures and events. Here, the hippies and their dangerous revolution are stopped by the heroic actions of once-powerful men clinging desperately to their way of life — the very definition of the 20th- and 21st-century establishment. The people living on Charles Manson’s commune in the movie are not just would-be assassins but class interlopers — unemployed weirdos who have the gall to squat on an old movie ranch or drive their piece-of-shit car up a manicured private road. Tarantino deploys a great deal of wry irony in Once Upon a Time, but Cliff’s savage (if self-defensive) murder of Manson’s young followers is depicted with an unmediated directorial glee that seems to speak to a larger, more troubling rage.
Parasite was Elon Musk’s favorite movie of the year, which is an English sentence that almost eats itself alive.
You don’t need to sympathize with the fictional Charles Manson and his followers, — whose ideas were uniquely horrific, to simultaneously notice the creep of a certain economic and political conservatism in Tarantino’s supposedly final film. Rick Dalton’s flamethrower, a device Tarantino used to kill Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, is here turned into a weapon of the status quo — proof that Rick still has it. If the class war is on, it’s not hard to guess who he’s fighting for.
Whether these films have the desired — or any — impact on the viewer is a matter of debate. Chrissy Teigen tweeting “Phew Parasite was so fucking good!!” prompted onlookers to let her know that “in the class revolution, you getting ate too sis.” Parasite was also Elon Musk’s favorite movie of the year, which is an English sentence that almost eats itself alive. Whether rich celebrities can credibly wrestle with the ideas of a film that so clearly takes issue with their existence — or if they have any right to — lies beyond what fans and critics can guess. Does the appeal of the film in wealthy circles limit its power? Alternatively, do the Oscar nods for The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood suggest increasing durability of the status quo?
We know why the stakes of the debate are unbearably weighty. A recent study identified a correlation between a $1 increase in the minimum wage and a 3.5% reduction in the suicide rate for individuals with high school education or less. Economic conditions — and the debate and art around them — can be matters of life and death.
None of the movies that made a point of criticizing capitalism in 2019 exactly tried to solve the questions they raise: Parasite, Uncut Gems, and Hustlers all end in moments of violence or despair or resignation, while Knives Out offers the somewhat hollow victory of a fantasy role reversal. The economic system is not reimagined; the structures doing the damage remain. Like Scafaria’s closing credits scene in Hustlers, these endings remind us of our participation in the carnage. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or The Irishman, for all their conservatism and fetish for the past, will not dissuade a rising tide of young people who are open to a radical reimagining of capitalism. Parasite is a sleeper hit, but the millions of people who went to see it haven’t exactly taken to the streets to expropriate property.
But what all these movies do illustrate, in these dark hours of political and economic uncertainty, are the ways in which we’ll keep arguing — with greater and greater intensity — about the future of America in the movie theater. To use Scafaria’s metaphor, if you want to get out of the strip club, the first step is to realize you’re inside one. ●
Geoff Nelson is New York-based writer and teacher of writing. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Paste Magazine.