Whenever white supremacists show up in our pop culture, they’re explosive. The opening of Selma, in tragic detail, depicts the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In O Brother, Where Art Thou, the three white protagonists goofily try to rescue their black friend from an elaborate Klan cross-burning in 1937 Mississippi. Selma and O Brother Where Art Thou are markedly different films, but both have keen investigations of white supremacy in America (that they are directed by a black woman and two Jewish brothers is surely a reason why). Both are also situated in the past when outwardly violent white hate groups were operating in the public eye.
But just last year, a string of African American churches in the South were burned, and there were avowed white nationalist murders at both Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas. The disease of white supremacy, latent or violent, has hardly been eradicated. So how are our films set in the modern day responding to what, for all intents and purposes, is a revival of white hate groups?
As recently reported, the KKK is experiencing a resurgence. Membership, per the organization’s spokesman, is increasing and waves of mainstream political ideologies are falling scarily in line with their principles of racism, xenophobia, and white nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in its annual report, described a disturbing trend in American hate groups: organized white nationalist and KKK groups have slightly lessened from just a few years ago, but not out of disenchantment for the ideology. Instead, these radical racists are dissatisfied with organized hate, preferring to spread vitriol and enact violence alone, in underground chat rooms, and on mainstream social media sites like Twitter.
When hate becomes disorganized, it becomes difficult, maybe even impossible, to correctly track and report. But, as the massacre at Emanuel AME attests, lone wolf racial hate is no less violent.
A little over a year ago, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg wrote about the disconcerting use of white supremacist villains in television dramas, saying that, in film, “white supremacy’s not an opportunity to tell stories about structural racism, or about black resilience,” but is instead used to draw an artificial line between evil white characters and heroic white characters that “rarely implicates the rest of us.” She continues to write that these stories commit a disservice to the portrayal of white supremacy in all its forms, respectable or radical. They allow viewers to “believe the comforting lie that we’re doing the bloody, glamorous work of cleaning our own house.”
In the short year since Rosenberg’s essay, white supremacist hate groups have taken a daily spot in the news cycle. Whether it’s the aforementioned rise of the Klan, the open white nationalist support for Donald Trump, the practice of “echoing,” the investigative media commentaries, or the influences of European white nationalist revival, outward white supremacy has left the bank and joined the current.
Our pop culture hasn’t yet had time to respond to this season’s rise in white nationalist thought. Donald Trump only became the presumptive Republican nominee in May; his tweeting and dog whistling of racist, anti-Semitic messages have only recently entered the “impossible for even CNN to ignore” territory. But are the recent works that do cast light on white supremacy reflecting the need for mainstream white implication? Or do they continue to only use violent hate groups as easy, lazy villains?
The answer, as it often tends to be, is complicated.
So far this year, two popular horror-thriller genre films have exploited violent neo-Nazism to terrifying avail — one a highly regarded independent film, the other a blockbuster sequel.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is the former, a graphically hypnotic film starring the recently (and tragically) lost Anton Yelchin as Pat, the leader of a young punk band named The Ain’t Rights. Desperate for a payday, the band haphazardly agrees to play at a neo-Nazi skinhead camp deep in the Pacific Northwest. Matters, as they generally might at a neo-Nazi compound, quickly get out of hand and the band must fight for escape once Pat is witness to the aftermath of a murder. Admittedly, the film is mostly indirect when it comes to the politics of the Aint Rights, or why they thought playing punk music to a bunch of violent neo-Nazis at an isolated compound would ever have been a good idea in the first place. But Saulnier and his cast offer clues, brief missives of disturbing imagery that suggest an awareness of white implication, even as they seek to humanize the villains.
At the opening of their set, the band plays a cover of Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks F*ck off,” in which the lead singer tells the neo-Nazi punks to do just that. The song clearly upsets the audience, and Pat looks worried as he dodges a thrown beer bottle. The Ain’t Rights finish the song and transition into their original songs and the crowd begins to nod along. In Pat’s mind, perhaps, this quick jab might absolve them of their implicit agreement of playing at the venue. This came from Saulnier’s own experience in the nineties punk scene. In an interview, he mentions that at certain concerts, there were always groups of easily identifiable racist skinheads, saying that he decided on the exploitative concept of “punks versus Nazis” because they were “our natural adversaries in this sort of [punk] world.”
A similar exploitative concept runs through the second horror-thriller to pilfer neo-Nazism, The Purge: Election Year. The entire Purge series, of which Election Year is the third, are gritty B-movies about a not too distant American future in which one night of the year is reserved for citizens to kill and destroy with impunity. Since the first entry, each film has been peripherally interested with race. In the first film, Ethan Hawke’s well-to-do white family is upended when their son lets in a wounded black man, The Stranger (Edwin Hodge), who’s hunted by a group of white yuppie ‘purgers’. In the second film, The Purge: Anarchy, The Stranger is given a name, Dwayne Bishop, when he appears in the climax of the film, serving as the right-hand man to Michael Kenneth Williams’ purge-resistance leader.
But these are glorified cameos in a film focusing on Frank Grillo (always a delight to watch) as a reluctant protector to a group of young people caught outside on purge night. It’s referenced in background that the purge was started primarily as a way to excise the unwanted poor and minority Americans for economic profit. This idea is brought to the forefront of Election Year, which brings back Grillo’s protector, now a bodyguard to a female senator seeking the presidency to eliminate the purge. The films are all violently silly affairs, but they touch on very real concerns and fears of modern minority citizens: That they are unwanted, and their lives do not matter to the culture-at-large.
As well, the purge organizers hire a group of white supremacist hit-mento hunt down Grillo and the senator. They are assassins in full tactical garb, but with the courtesy to tattoo their skinned heads with Confederate flags and swastikas so we won’t doubt their motivations. By the film’s end, it’s Grillo, not any characters of color, who must fight the skinhead leader. Election Year is not as subtly engaging as Green Room, resting on more than a few diatribes from its characters to exude a pretty clear metaphorical message. It also engages in a bit of perplexing hypocrisy: Killing for national catharsis is abhorrent, the film tells you, but enjoy while Frank Grillo kills bad guys real good. Saulnier’s film, on the other hand, is far more violent, but far more purposeful with its violence. It’s a starkly lit, sickly filtered horror film, but it doesn’t lack a clear sense of humanity.
Unlike The Purge, Green Room lacks any characters of color. This would normally be for shame, but here it feels necessary. In a time where violent deaths of black Americans are captured on video, livestreamed on Facebook, and broadcast on cable news, the last thing an audience needs to see is the sadistic death of a black character in a horror film at the hands of white supremacists. An audience doesn’t need to see the grisly murders of white characters, either, but there is a purpose to be explored in that violence. Much as it is important for black audiences to have on-screen heroes that look like them, it is imperative that white viewers have villains who look like them and use their whiteness as a weapon.
Dr. Lawrence Baron, professor of Jewish Studies at San Diego State University, wrote that exploitation films of the sixties and seventies used “the infamy of the Third Reich as grist for horror and science fiction movies. Since the Soviet Union had replaced Germany as the primary enemy of the United States … movies portrayed neo-Nazi conspiracies as the schemes of demented fanatics hiding in the tropics. Thus, these films implicitly marginalized whatever relevancy neo-Nazism had to American society.” As the focus of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups shift ever more so toward immigration and African American civil rights, the aesthetic called upon is less directly reminiscent of the Holocaust, and perhaps invokes more the American racial violence of the Civil Rights era and before; the use of attack dogs in Green Room and the lynching imagery in The Purge: Election Year come to mind.
And if this shift in imagery is true, not to mention if filmmakers are paying any attention to modern day civil rights activism, the idea of policing is bound to come into play. Surprisingly, or maybe not, few popular films — with the notable exception of Disney’s Zootopia — have interacted with the historical relationship between ethno-centrism and law enforcement, but have left television to explore the topic.
[Editor’s Note: the next few paragraphs contain Orange is the New Black spoilers.]
Orange is the New Black debuted its fourth season just weeks ago. Over its course, the season began to involve real-life movements into its story, primarily the rise of prison privatization and unjust murder of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers. Poussey Washington, played with brilliance by Samira Wiley, is killed when a white corrections officer rests his knee and full weight into her back during a cafeteria protest, unaware, for whatever reason, that he is suffocating her. The ensuing event is handled, as it often is in these tragedies, terribly. The corporate efforts to preempt any negative public relations result in Poussey’s body remaining in the cafeteria for not hours, but days. The season ends before many details are released to the public, or even to the prisoners, so it is unclear how this event will lastingly affect the prison population. But one thing is for certain: The murder did not manifest unannounced.
All season long, the guards had tolerated the formation of a white supremacist gang within the prison. Originally started by Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the series’ main character, as a task force against the formation of other minority gangs in an attempt to preserve an illegal underwear racket Piper runs, the group quickly spouts white supremacist hate speech. Much like in Green Room, the temporary alignment by a white protagonist with a white hate group for financial gain feeds a monster they cannot control. Soon enough, however, even the prison skinheads feel disdain for the guards. They unite, albeit briefly, with their fellow prisoners to excise the leading CO over his abusive conduct. The alliance is tenuous, and more or less used for comedy. Piper, the former leader of the group, could easily be held responsible for at least fostering the environment that led to Poussey’s death, but mostly escapes from blame. She is the first to join the spur of the moment silent protest at the season’s conclusion, but should that solidarity excuse her from forming a hate group, however accidentally it may have been? The line from violent white supremacy, to latent racism, to institutional structures may take a turn or two, but arrives from one to the other with surprising expediency.
Confronting the thought of a Nazi-like terror organization, let alone dozens of them, using America’s fraught history of white centrism quickly becomes an uncomfortable position. Green Room, The Purge: Election Year, and Orange is the New Black skirt with direct implication of the white viewer’s complacency in the actions of hate groups that bear their ethnicity, but they don’t allow indifference either. These groups are the problem of white America, and their existence will never be wiped clean until institutional forms of white supremacy are also tackled. Until then, all it takes is a Donald Trump and a couple of memes to call these hate groups out of the shadows. As the year continues, more films and television series will explore white supremacist hate groups, including Imperium, Daniel Radcliffe’s next post-Harry Potter role as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating neo-Nazis.
What’s unclear is whether white nationalist ideology will continue to grow in mainstream politics, and how our art will be forced to respond when we, as white viewers, can no longer deny the monster skulking just at the edge of our attention.