Politics at the Movies: The Best of 2011

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Based on a real LAPD scandal that occurred in 1999, corrupt veteran police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) works to take care of his dis-functional family, and struggles for his own survival as he is forced to face up to the consequences of his wayward career.
Photo Credit: Millennium Entertainment
April 22nd, 2012

Political movies must walk a very tight rope when released into theaters. If they seem to support one political agenda more than others, they risk alienating a large portion of their potential audience. Since many political films are put out in limited release, the loss of even a few potential viewers can be detrimental to their success.

In 2011, there were several political films released, and some of them were very polarizing. Very few of these were about actual elections, such as "The Ides of March." Many were about issues that have become increasingly political in the modern age. "The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975)" is about race, while "Putty Hill" is about poverty. "Into the Abyss" is a nuanced study of capital punishment in Texas, and "Rampart" takes on the heady topic of police brutality and corruption. Any of these powerful films could have a case made for them being the best political film of 2011.

In terms of how many people actually saw these films, "The Ides of March" could be the best of this crop. It was directed and starred by George Clooney, an international superstar and household name. It was also starred by Ryan Gosling, who is quickly becoming just as famous as Clooney. It covers a presidential campaign that is sullied by dirty politics. The film is a gripping drama full of suspense that serves to expose the seedy underbelly of modern politics.

"The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975)" is a documentary-style movie that has footage from the years in the title. In the late 1960s, the Black Power movement was in full swing, but many in the media and society tried to marginalize it. A few Swedish journalists were fascinated by the movement and interviewed some of its most famous names, including Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis. The result is a showcase of just how far the country has come and how much further it still needs to go when it comes to race issues.

Set in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood, "Putty Hill" takes a look at one of the poorest and most desolate neighborhoods in Maryland. Director Matthew Porterfield paints a grim picture of the lives of these individuals through a series of on-camera interviews. It shows how the sting of poverty can last for generations without ever judging any of them for not being able to pull themselves out of Putty Hill.

Texas is rather notorious within the United States for the numerous executions of convicted criminals. Texas executes more prisoners than any other state by far. "Into the Abyss" focuses on two men convicted of a triple homicide in the tiny city of Conroe, Texas. One of the men spends his entire life in prison, while the other is sentenced to death. Through interviews with both men and the victims' families, a portrait of grief, loss and revenge is painted. It does not focus on guilt or innocence but instead tries to draw out raw emotion about a very politically charged process that reaches out and touches nearly everyone in the community.

"Rampart" is the only other entry that has a big star in the cast. Woody Harrelson portrays Dave Brown, a LAPD detective with a shady past. It is loosely based on the aftermath of a real-life LAPD scandal from the 1990s. It was nominated for several awards and has a very talented and well-known cast, including Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver, to name a few. The film is all about consequences to actions, particularly those of crooked police officers. As the Internet and 24-hour news cycles make it easier to find out about corruption, this drama seems very timely.

There were a few other movies that some critics have put on their political film lists for 2011. These include "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "The Adjustment Bureau." The problem with these films is that their purpose was more to entertain, and anything political was beside the point. This is especially true of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which could be seen as a political allegory, but was really just a good sci-fi story at heart.

"The Adjustment Bureau" did involve the government and its meddling with personal lives, but was also a sci-fi tale that didn't really have a point. Good political films always have a point, even if they take a while to get to that point. The five films listed are truly political because they focus directly either on politics or on politically-charged issues while making a clear point. Any of these five films would qualify as not only very political in nature but also as the best of a year full of really great political movies.