© 2021 KRCU Public Radio
web header.png
Southeast Missouri's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Class Warfare In 2019 Movies


Looking back at the movies that helped define this year, it's hard not to notice one big thing...


JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Ramona Vega) Baby, we got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) ...Groundswell of anti-rich sentiment in the city. It's almost as if our less fortunate residents are taking the side of the killer.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...Most games, for someone to win, well, someone has to lose.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lately, class warfare has driven big box office numbers and awards show buzz. NPR film critic Bob Mondello walks us through this phenomenon. Hello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Why now?

MONDELLO: Well, there's a lot happening at the moment. It takes about - anywhere from 18 months to three years to get a movie off the ground. Three years ago...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened?

MONDELLO: We had this election.


MONDELLO: And a billionaire - or a guy who says he's a billionaire - won the presidency. And since then, there have been a lot of people who think that income redistribution might be a good thing. We have - income inequality is almost at an all-time high. It's a time when we're thinking about these things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And discussing them. But what's interesting is the American myth is about a sort of level playing field and everyone having a shot at the top. But these films seem to sort of shoot at the very heart of that idea.

MONDELLO: Yeah, because we kind of know it's not true now, don't we?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess we do.

MONDELLO: If you look at a superhero movie, it's about someone with power defending those of us who don't have power. These movies are more about how this works out in the real world, where the people with a lot of power, with a lot of money, with a lot of clout don't necessarily do much except protect themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. What's unique, as well, about this time is how different genres of movies and from different places are all talking about class.

MONDELLO: There are some movies you expect to do this. Let's take a social satire. "Parasite," that's a Korean movie. It's about two families. The Parks live up on a hill and are very successful and rich. And the Kims live deep in a basement apartment downtown and are very impoverished. And it's really the "Upstairs, Downstairs" thing, right? And, you know, there's another one, Jordan Peele's "Us," which is literally about people who have privilege and who don't know that they've got privilege. They're simply living on the planet, but they're tethered to these souls that live underground that don't have that privilege.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And let's talk about another big blockbuster that has elements of this, which is "Joker," right?

MONDELLO: Oh, right. A - what do we call this? A superhero adjacent movie.


MONDELLO: And in it, the Joker, who is Arthur Fleck played by Joaquin Phoenix, is resentful of the way he's being treated. And he sort of starts a class war. And what he's upset about is Bruce Wayne's dad, a billionaire who goes on TV to talk about poor folks and how they're reacting.


BRETT CULLEN: (As Thomas Wayne) Those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven't as nothing but clowns.

MONDELLO: Now, that is the worst thing you can say to this man who's making his living as a clown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And here's one of my favorite films of the past season, "Hustlers," which is really a story about this very issue.

MONDELLO: Absolutely. These are strippers who decide to get some of their own back. This is right around the time of 2009, 2010. It's right...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the financial crisis.

MONDELLO: ...After the financial crisis. And they have been dealing with a whole bunch of really rich guys who come into the club. This is Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. They've got a con.


LOPEZ: (As Ramona Vega) You ever think about when they come into the club? That's stolen money. That's what's paying for their [expletive]. The firefighters' retirement fund.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, Bob, it's not just about poor versus rich, right? It's also about what our society values right now. We see the rich and famous on social media. We see their lifestyles. We know what we don't have. And there is envy and criticism, but there's also this aspiration, right? The poor want what the rich have.

MONDELLO: You know, Hollywood always gave you the poor - the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin back in the old days who looked at the rich people and wanted to be like them and, of course, couldn't be. And so that was what fueled the audience's love for him, that he was one of them and that he aspired to all of that. Hollywood is aspirational - right? It's a dream factory. It makes us see the world the way we'd sort of like it to be most of the time. What's interesting about these movies is it's sort of showing us what's wrong with that dream.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's making money, actually, for Hollywood...

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...In the biggest irony of all (laughter).

MONDELLO: It sure is. Yeah, The "Joker" just hit a billion dollars worldwide not too long ago. "Hustlers" made $150 million, "Parasite" has made $117 million - that's overseas largely. I think they've tapped into something that is on everybody's mind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's film critic Bob Mondello. Thank you so much.

MONDELLO: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAGBAJA SONG, "NOTHING FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.