Hollywood's New Radicalism by Ben Dickenson

First published by Morning Star on 5th December 2005

Turning the Lens

A review of Hollywood’s New Radicalism, by Ben Dickenson

NICOLAS LALAGUNA strips away the glitter to reveal the ideals that drive many radical Hollywood celebrities.

Many now say that it was always inevitable that 25 years of free-market fundamentalists in control of the world’s last superpower would change the face of media ownership across the globe and would, in turn, monopolise and homogenise the cultural commons.

But few have so clearly dissected and scrutinised the process as Ben Dickenson.

He argues that this very process of growth and centralisation of ownership has been one of the driving forces behind the global expansion of discontent and, at the same time, one of the main hurdles to progressives getting their message heard.

Hollywood’s New Radicalism tracks the parallel journeys taken by the media empire and its more progressive sons and daughters over the last three decades. The narrative clearly runs alongside a wider political timeline.

It starts during the central and south American adventures of the 1970s and early ’80s, on through the “greed is good” ethos of the ’80s, pausing to reflect on the co-opting of much of the Hollywood left under the allegedly “progressive” democrat Bill Clinton, before continuing on to bask in the shining light that was the anti-globalisation movement of the mid-1990s, concluding with the anti-war movement.

With media ownership so highly centralised and controlled, it is not surprising that, here in Britain, many of us are blissfully unaware of the deep vein of political activism that runs through Hollywood.

The surprisingly large list of very radical and famous filmmakers, actors and actresses that he uncovers in the book goes much further than the usual suspects.

What is so very interesting about Dickenson’s work is the way that he interlaces the political-corporate histories with both the activities of the Hollywood radicals as private individuals campaigning on the streets and the films that are actually being made by them.

Among the many interesting conclusions that he comes to is that the “celebrities” whose careers and private lives match up politically are easy to spot.

When you put the films made by Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, Spike Lee or Steven Soderbergh under a microscope and compare them with the stands that they have taken in public, there are clear similarities between their art and their actions.

Equally, there is now a cynical drive by corporate Hollywood to get a slice of the radical action. Subversive chic is selling at the theatres around the world and Hollywood wants a cut.

Thankfully, there are still people making films about what they believe in.

In fact, there are a great many of them across the entire industry, such as Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Martin Sheen, Robert Altman, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, George Clooney, not too mention highly acclaimed documentary-makers such as Michael Moore.

The nature of what Hollywood has become is clearly laid out early in the book. BAFTA-winning television producer and one-time Hollywood director Tony Garnett sums it up. “Hustlers and sleazebags are attracted to Hollywood by power and money, but some of the brightest people in the US can also be found there.”

The book is a rollercoaster ride, clambering up and plummeting down through wit, intelligence, pessimism and then shuddering to a reassuring halt with hope for the future.

Dickenson’s work is a must read for anyone interested in media, culture and political activism. Personally, I haven’t been able to watch a film in the same light since reading it.