Films tend to lean left because they put a face on the human condition, and thus make it harder for those who feel that the disenfranchised and those who are different should be left out in the cold. It’s an emotional medium, which wants us to understand a character and situation that may or may not directly impact our lives. That being said, the more compassion one feels towards those who are different and are disenfranchised, the more liberal one becomes. Films are often made by artists, and most artists know what it’s like to be an outsider. That’s why they became a filmmaker, writer or artist in the first place. A function of film is to teach empathy. Those who are on the left side of the fence feel empathy towards the people and causes films to put a human face on.
When one listens to conservative pundits, something they always hate is Hollywood. They’ve even expressed distrust about children’s films. In early 2012, conservative pundits warned the public about seeing “The Lorax”, an animated film based on Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s book. They also warned against parents taking their children to see the new Muppets movie, and “The Secret World of Arrietty.” I don’t really understand their opposition to “The Secret World of Arrietty”, because it’s a Japanese animated film, which really didn’t have an agenda. However, I could see why they opposed “The Lorax” and “The Muppets.” They had similar complaints against “Cars 2” and “Wall-E”, two Pixar films. They claimed that the message of these films about big oil or protecting the environment was somehow bad. Is it really a bad, liberal message to tell kids to protect the environment or is it simply something we should all agree on?
When conservatives aren’t complaining about children’s films, they complain about the people movies try to humanize. The 2008 film, “Milk”, the biography of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, shows Milk, his relationships, and his activism, as this movie’s political lean was definitely to the left. In an earlier example, where movies humanize the gay agenda, we see Tom Hank’s performance in the 1993 picture, “Philadelphia”, which depicts a gay man with AIDS, who sues the law firm he worked for firing him. The following year, Tom Hanks humanizes another character in a liberal film, “Forrest Gump”, where he plays a mentally handicapped man who accomplishes a lot. Both these films portray outsiders in a positive light.
Humanizing is something the movies do well. Films often humanize people who deal with discrimination. In a more recent movie, we’ve seen the bestselling novel, “The Help” adapted for the screen. In the film, and the novel, we are asked to have empathy for the African American working class during the civil rights movement. Emma Stone plays a journalist who writes a book about these African American women’s experiences working for white people who are racist against their own employees. Journalism is often celebrated in filmmaking, and the idea of living someone else’s experiences is too. We also see a similar idea in the classic 1947 film, “Gentleman’s Agreement” where Gregory Peck plays a journalist who goes undercover as a Jew, and sees what discrimination is like from that perspective.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” wouldn’t be the only time Gregory Peck plays a character that stands up for the underdog, because of prejudice. His most famous role is lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, based on the bestselling Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. In that film, he plays a lawyer with firm liberal views in the conservative south. Not only does he employ an African American woman to help look after his children, but decides to defend an African American man who has been accused of raping a white woman. He loses the case, but stands firmly by his liberal beliefs. Standing firmly by beliefs is something the movies often celebrate.
Going back to celebrating journalism, we see this in the movie, “Good Night and Good Luck”, George Clooney’s 2005 film about journalist Edward R. Murrow who stands up against McCarthyism. Perhaps the best example of humanizing not just people, but a perspective is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which took a standard military novel and adapted it into a comedic message against war and nuclear arms. All these are examples of liberal thought by humanizing different people and perspective. Film would be boring if it presented a conservative viewpoint, because the conservative viewpoint isn’t about compassion towards the people films try to humanize. Films need your compassion in order to work as a medium, and thus usually tilt to the left. You, as the viewer, need to feel compassion for the characters up on the screen, and often films need a liberal viewpoint to accomplish this.
Movies have a very big tradition of liberal thought. The movies always try to convey a message, and that message often speaks about outsiders. Telling the stories of the disenfranchised is often a more liberal goal than a conservative one. Liberalism always tries to reach out a hand to the forgotten American, and movies try to reach out to the forgotten American too. It’s the movies that often hold up a mirror to society, because mass art isn’t just entertainment – it’s expression. And expression, like art, is about how it makes the audience feel.