At the moment, our Instagram feeds and our TV screens are full of images of protest, peaceful and violent alike. The killing by a policeman of George Floyd has not only triggered a seismic wave of outrage about racial inequality, but has reminded us how our political allegiances are intertwined on a global scale. It is the butterfly effect in action; a single death in America can prompt protests in Europe.
These films all deal, in entirely different ways, with questions of oppression and the ways in which people speak out and act against it. From a hunger striker slowly dying in Eighties Northern Ireland to a masked vigilante inspiring the populace to rise up against a fascist state, they could not be more different in tone, style or approach:
The Battle of Algiers
If one wants to find the model for many contemporary protest films, look no further than the extraordinary The Battle of Algiers. It depicts the conflict between the French government in Northern Africa and the rebels who would not concede to their authority, and is shot in docu-drama style, with mainly non-professional actors and filming on location.
It portrays the guerrilla warfare that the Algerians engaged in against their occupiers in stark, unstylised fashion, a million miles away from Hollywood depictions of slow-motion heroics. Ennio Morricone’s percussive, urgent score starkly contrasts the lushness of his music for Hollywood films such as The Mission.
The name of Martin Luther King – as well as that of Malcolm X – has been much evoked in the US over the last few days, and Ava DuVernany’s 2014 film about the 1965 Selma voting rights marches is probably the most effective depiction of King on screen, thanks to a powerful and moving performance by the British actor David Oyelowo.
The film was denied permission to use King’s speeches, so the director and writer instead had to come up with similar versions of them, beautifully delivered by Oyelowo.
The artist Steve McQueen made an auspicious feature debut with his film about the Northern Irish hunger striker, Bobby Sands. Hunger shows the inhumanity with which prisoners were treated in the early Eighties in the notorious Maze prison in Belfast, and the ways in which they responded, from tearing up their clothes and resisting prison officers to, at the most extreme levels, going on hunger strike with the knowledge that it would inevitably be fatal.
Michael Fassbender shows why he became a major Hollywood star with his charismatic, ferocious performance as Sands, and the film’s centrepiece – a long, uninterrupted take in which he discusses the morality of his actions with Liam Cunningham’s priest – is a staggering virtuoso piece of writing, acting and direction.
The Irish director Neil Jordan has made several films that involve the IRA, not least his Oscar-winning The Crying Game, but arguably he made his masterpiece with the still underrated Michael Collins, a biopic of the Irish revolutionary who was responsible for establishing the Irish Free State. Jordan mixes thrilling, kinetic action scenes and rousing public gatherings with a carefully judicious emphasis on the political machinations that existed in Ireland a century ago.
The superb cast, led by a never-better Liam Neeson as Collins, includes Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea and a miscast Julia Roberts (presumably included for box office reasons) as Collins’s fiancée Kitty Kiernan, and, by the heartbreaking ending, it’s enormously moving, too.
The issue of women’s suffrage is one that has been treated surprisingly sparingly in cinema; many will think only of the character of Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins. This makes the existence of Sarah Gavron’s 2015 film Suffragette a welcome one, even if Abi Morgan’s screenplay suffers from fatal uncertainties of tone and focus.
The film never quite decides whether its characters – led by Carey Mulligan’s laundry worker Maud and Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst – are saintly freedom fighters or proto-terrorists, and Brendan Gleeson’s excellent performance as the detective on their trail, using innovative methods of surveillance, unbalances what should be straightforward sympathies towards the suffragettes.
Yet, when Pankhurst delivers her stirring speech from a balcony around the theme of ‘Votes for Women’, the film finally delivers on its promise and becomes both moving and stirring.
V for Vendetta
Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel was first published in 1982 and was widely seen as an attack on Thatcherism. Its film adaptation, written and produced by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue, appeared in 2005 and was interpreted as an attack on the Bush administration and the War on Terror, despite its British setting. Yet whatever its agenda, its story of a young, apolitical TV employee forming an alliance with the anarchistic freedom fighter ‘V’, who aims to bring down the fascist Norsefire Party, is both provocative and satirical, using the imagery and historical detail of Guy Fawkes to memorable effect.
If nothing else, the film was responsible for the iconography of Paul Staines’s famous political gossip website Guido Fawkes, and V’s Guy Fawkes mask can be seen on countless libertarian and anarchist protests today; a reminder that fiction and fact are more symbiotic than we think.