I'll be the judge of that.

Watching A Most Violent Year and Selma with Hannah Arendt

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In her celebrated long essay “On Violence,” Hannah Arendt reimagined the role of violence in political society. Like Freud did with his negative relationship between neurosis and perversion, Arendt inverted a commonplace similarity to assert that contrary to how things may seem, violence and power are not the same. In fact, “power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”

Crucially for Arendt, “[violence] can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” It is precisely this philosophical posture that informs J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.

In an astutely controlled and meditative performance, Oscar Isaac plays the character of Abel Morales, an ambitious and incorruptible young entrepreneur absolutely beset by violence. In the midst of 1981, the notorious year from which the film derives its deliberately tactless title, Abel has chosen the worst possible time to take the biggest business risk of his career. As he waits to close on a game-changing property, his trucks are continually hijacked by armed thugs, leading to a mess of professional humiliation, financial loss, and eventually the looming specter of moral compromise.

As the walls close in on him, his family, and (most traumatically) his core beliefs, the viewer is left wondering when and how Abel will crack. Throughout the film, his wife and colleagues seem to be tempting him, begging him, “when, Abel, are you going to stand up and get violent?”

 

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Committed as he is to Arendt’s power-violence antimony, Abel holds the line in a way that easily becomes something to admire and respect, particularly considering the immense pressure exerted by Chandor’s fantastic sense of plot.

But casting Abel as a hero may be premature. As the film’s haunting concluding sequence demonstrates with no ambiguity, he is really not out for anyone but himself. Make no mistake; Abel wants power and a lot of it. He just knows that (physical) violence isn’t the way to get it in America.

The complexity of Abel’s character resides in the fact that his integrity is always strategic, despite what he (and the viewer) keeps telling himself. Playing by the rules is not so much a moral imperative as a pragmatic gambit, in a striking enunciation of the kind of Ayn Randian/Protestant ethic that undergirds all that is so damningly shortsighted about American political culture. The film works to demonstrate the fragility of bedrock notions like fairness, business ethics, and just desserts.

Through Abel, we see moral rectitude rendered as a transparent ego-construction, such that at the end we’re left pondering how viewed from a different angle sometimes righteousness looks suspiciously like depravity.

 

SELMA

As a political philosopher of the twentieth century, Arendt had plenty to say about the American civil rights movement. The errors and merits of her controversial essay “Reflections on Little Rock” are both beyond the scope of this post and my personal sophistication at the moment, but suffice it to say that Arendt was committed to the non-violence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the “by any means necessary” philosophy of leaders like Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela (see here for an interesting discussion).

Thus we draw the unlikely parallel to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, another of the few very good films out this winter. Both films feature David Oyelowo in prominent roles and were shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, but the similarities run deeper. Like Chandor, DuVernay is concerned with depicting the complicated interrelation of power and violence as she explores the all-too-relevant struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In many ways, Selma has a difficult story to tell. We’re given only the smallest slice of a very long, very complicated story, and one gets the sense that first-time screenwriter Paul Webb struggled with how to structure it all (or DuVernay herself, widely rumored to have actually written the movie). DuVernay, for her part, seems to have realized that this movie was not so much about story as setting. As such, the movie does well communicating the electricity of a certain moment in American history, recognizing that it is but one piece of a much larger, less bounded collective experience.

Some of the distinct motivation and cause-and-effect of it all remains hazy, meaningful characterization is scant (but not nonexistent), and the somewhat superficially constructed central conflict between King and Lyndon B. Johnson leaves something to be desired. It’s worth noting that in search of intelligible structure, Webb’s script approaches the allegorical. But ultimately, DuVernay’s film succeeds on the strength of its visual aesthetics and the passion of its cast.

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Surprisingly, the most striking portion of the film is not David Oyelowo’s stirring oratory, though he and Carmen Ejogo (as Coretta Scott King) both deserve a lot of attention for their excellent performances (more attention than they’ve gotten, at least). Rather, DuVernay’s film is at its most effective when it confronts viewers with dynamic and upsetting sequences of police violence, which provide a radical intrusion on the quiet cinematic beauty of the protest marches. These scenes are tough to watch, but DuVernay and Young deliver them with compassion, not shock in mind.

These aesthetic cues enhance the film’s treatment, however cautious and vague, of the way in which Dr. King’s nonviolence was indirectly motivated by the continuing potential for precipitating violence. At one point, when Dr. King is criticized by younger grassroots protestors for rolling into Selma after abandoning protests in Albany, he responds that what the movement needs, plain and simple, is drama –in other words, acts of violence and oppression that will make headlines and put pressure on the White House to take legislative action. When he asks about the political climate in Selma, he frankly states that he wants to be up against another Bull Connor. And it is when he first arrives in Selma and is greeted with a punch to the face by a nameless white asshole that he realizes it is the perfect place for his next march.

So, we see that part of King’s nonviolence was not simply premised on moral boundary, but also on calculated strategy as well. Paradoxically, it was by drawing out the concrete physical violence of white authority, which otherwise remained hidden beneath political rhetoric and thinly-disguised bureaucratic obstructionism, that King could demonstrate the corresponding inverse power of the civil rights movement.

Thus, Selma confirms Arendt’s thesis as well. The police brutality we see is not merely an arm of institutionalized white power; rather, it is a symptom of its encroaching demise.

Both these films help us understand the counterintuitive relationship between power and violence, cast in widely disparate circumstances and with completely different stakes. Ultimately, Chandor and DuVernay treat cruel society with both hope and cynicism, giving viewers two thought-provoking pictures of what it means to hold power -and what losing it looks like.

 

 

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