Message movies get a bad rap, don’t they? Especially when one considers the memorable films that could fall under this category: All Quiet on the Western Front, On the Waterfront, even something like Born on the Fourth of July. And actually a classic without much overt political content to speak of, It’s a Wonderful Life, is occasionally classified as a message movie due to the single-mindedness of its moral fable and how explicitly it spells out its homilies through Clarence the angel’s well-known aphorisms.
Not convinced? Are some of these not message movies, or are somehow demeaned by focusing on that aspect of their content? Well, it’s fine if you disagree because that’s exactly the kind of inquiry you may want to open up with students for whom you screen such films. I’ll tell you where I stand, though—all movies are message movies because, as media texts, they all have media messages. In a sense, that’s the classic “media literacy” stance on such matters, and in practice that theory plays out very simply, very easily: “regular” movies, message movies, and propaganda fall on the same continuum, and therefore can blur into each other depending on audience, context, and other factors.
In any case, if you’d like to explore such issues with students, I can’t recommend a recent film more highly than Won’t Back Down, which is releasing on home video this week. For starters, I’m a firm believer in approaching media literacy with content that will be somewhat familiar to students, subject matter for which they already possess schema; that way they can focus on how that content is shaped, presented, and subtly (or not so subtly) injected with what MLE folks often call “embedded values.” With Won’t Back Down‘s narrative about a school—and a system—that doesn’t work, you’ll have some subject matter that will be very familiar to students, namely, teachers and classrooms. For much the same reason, last year I recommended using films such as Monsieur Lazhar to study “representation.”
Before, during, or after screening Won’t Back Down (or any message movie of your choice) I suggest the following questions to guide viewing and analysis:
- How, when the film was made or released, was its topic, well, topical? (In the case of Won’t Back Down, the recent Frontline profile of Michelle Rhee points to the timeliness and continuing relevance of the hot-button issue of “ed reform.”)
- Where are devices such as caricature and generalization present, and how reliant is the film text on them? Hint: look for scenes where everybody, even in a large classroom or similar gathering, is behaving in exactly the same way.
- To what extent are central characters fleshed out by the script… or simply used as shorthand to signify a particular class/category/theoretical construct/demographic/issue? One way to discern this is to note the proportion of “non-issue” character development devoted to them, which indicates whether they are first “people” and then “symbols,” or if it’s the other way around.
- How often is dialogue in the form of polemic? Or maybe I should clarify that monologues ought to be included as well since often blatant message movies will be peppered by speeches. In either case, look for language that speaks as if to a problem beyond the immediate (e.g., do characters say “unions do x” instead of “this union does x” or “your union does x”).
- Could a nonfiction treatment of the same issue deliver the same key information and perhaps comparable (or greater) emotional content? (A nice pairing with Won’t Back Down might be the documentary Waiting for Superman.)
So are you interested in winning a Blu-ray of Won’t Back Down, courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment? Great. Here’s all you need to do:
1. Double-check that you live in the U.S. or Canada.
2. Leave a comment here (through 11:59 pm ET Jan 18) about your favorite message movie or favorite movie about educators/schools, and be sure to explain why it’s your favorite.
3. If you don’t see your comment, just contact me via email or Twitter (see below).
4. I’ll email the two winners, who’ll then be asked to provide (via me) their mailing addresses to the distributor’s publicist.