“When will Hollywood develop a social conscience?” asked a participant at a recent Washington D.C. preview of the Don Cheadle film Traitor, which opened Wednesday, August 27th. Sponsored by the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, the event brought together policy makers, and representatives from Embassies and Muslim advocacy groups, for a screening followed by a discussion featuring writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, actor Guy Pearce, and Brookings Senior Fellow Peter Singer.
The audience’s questions, which also included queries about why the film did not explore the root causes of terrorism, and feature more moderate Muslims, point up the conundrum of American popular culture. Its influence far exceeds that of the U.S. government; yet its purpose is to entertain – not educate much less repair America’s reputation throughout the world. American film companies, and the parent companies and conglomerates that own many of them, are obligated first and foremost to their shareholders. They must make a profit, and to do this, they need to tell compelling stories. That does not mean that films can’t be thought provoking and instructive while they entertain; they can and do. Think of the “teaching moment ” in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, when a group of neighbors realize the idiocy of importing Middle East conflicts to the streets of New York, where they are all Americans. A film featuring Adam Sandler as a former Israeli Special Forces Soldier seeking a new life as a hair stylist in New York would hardly seem to be a vehicle for meta-messages about the Arab Israeli conflict, but that is the beauty of it.
Traitor and Zohan have the capacity to go beyond “preaching to the choir”. Traitor is targeting the Bourne Identity audience, according to writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, while Zohan was nominated for a Teen Choice Award. Both have to deliver what their audiences expect: an action-packed thriller for the Traitor audience and an Adam Sandler comedy for Zohan. As Nachmanoff explained, he fought hard to make the main character of Traitor an African-American Muslim — the first such lead in a feature film — instead of the more traditional white hero initially called for in the script (drafted by Steve Martin). As a devout Muslim, Cheadle’s character, Samir Horn, makes room for the sub plot about the battle for Islam between moderate believers and violent extremists. Samir even quotes the Koran to argue against the actions of the terrorists. At one point, Guy Pearce, as FBI agent Roy Clayton, notes that Christianity has extremists, too – pretty provocative stuff for a mass audience thriller. If Traitor contextualized its plot with a brief history of the roots of terrorism and included a smattering of moderate Muslims, it would not succeed as ‘edge of your seat’ entertainment.
Still, the audience comments at the Traitor screening raise intriguing questions for the next administration. Given the tremendous reach of American popular culture, are there ways to harness its power to reflect more accurately the diversity of people and perspectives that characterize the U.S.? We all have heard the stories about people wanting to come to America because they believe it will be just like “Baywatch”, the most popular TV show of all time. How to balance the needs of for profit entertainment with the fact that it, nonetheless, shapes views of America and its people?
The problem is magnified by the unique nature of culture in the U.S.: in no other country is government support and control so minimal, and the private sector so dominant. Commercial culture comprises one of the U.S.’s most significant exports. When I served as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands (1998-2001), aerospace products were the leading export, and the government spent considerable time and funds targeting the sales of particular products to specific countries. Yet, we leave the “soft power” influence of film, television, literature, music, and the performing arts entirely up to the private sector. The foreign audiences who see “Baywatch” and every “Rambo” movie often do not realize that a distribution company, not the U.S. government was responsible for their viewing pleasure.
As various models for public-private public diplomacy funds and agencies are being floated around Washington, wouldn’t it make sense to think of supplementing — not replacing — commercial distribution with some targeted, strategic distribution of entertainment products? This would require some funding and planning, but not the major expense of making the films and TV shows. It has occurred on a modest level in the past, for example, when copies of the film Amistad were sent to many U.S. Embassies for screenings. Some films which contain (subliminal) messages we would like foreign audiences to receive may require additional distribution funds. Nachmanoff noted that films with African American stars tend not to do well abroad. If we want foreign audiences to see Traitor, the first American film with a Muslim lead, it may require more than the commercial distribution system.