What was once a radical statement by French philosopher John Rousseau has now found its way to the most bizarre corners of the interwebs. For Rousseau, the phrase is a literal depiction of the famine peasants faced during the French revolution: “when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich”. In true millennial style, Twitter users have refashioned the phrase by injecting a healthy dose of dark humour with a selection of memes and catchy tweets. Seeing as American billionaires are now 20% richer than they were at the onset of the pandemic despite unemployment figures skyrocketing, the phrase feels urgent.
To contrast the backdrop of impending doom all around us, I’ve found some gems hidden in plain sight that not only offer us a source of entertainment but may help us make sense of these trying times. In no particular order, let's dig in':
Step one: If they give you a script, rewrite your own story instead.
Sorry To Bother You (2018)
Director Boots Riley described Sorry to Bother You as a case-study of “how our system works, and how it changes us”. Riley’s impressive critique of capitalism as the post-modern villain posits that contractual slavery is not a relic of the past but is omnipresent. This is achieved through the creation of Worry Free, a company that offers poor folks food and guaranteed shelter in exchange for a lifetime of servitude, a parody of Amazon’s living and working conditions. Lakeith Stanfield plays Cassius, who lives with his girlfriend in his Uncle’s garage in the suburbs of Detroit. Struggling to make ends meet, Cassius toys with the idea of joining Worry Free, but ultimately lands a job at a telemarketing firm and becomes another slave to the system. “Stick to the script!” is the number one rule his supervisor emphasises to him. Deviation from the norm will not be tolerated.
The more Cassius adopts a white voice to entice his customers, the more he excels at his job. The tension is heightened when union protests at the firm coincide with his promotion. The struggles to reconcile one’s political opinions with his quest for upward mobility isn’t easy but it’s a choice Cassius must make. Oh, and did I mention it’s deliciously hilarious?
Step two: Don’t seek shelter in a system that wasn’t designed to protect you.
Parasite was a breath of fresh air at the Oscars when it cemented its place in history as the first “foreign” film to win Best Picture. This film shifts margin to centre by “expressing a sentiment specific to Korean culture”. Through satire, Boon Jong Ho illustrates that “essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism”.
The parasites in question are the Kim’s and their two children, a poor family living in a claustrophobic basement-level apartment in a working class district in Seoul. Through the use of elaborate lies and calculated schemes, the Kim family manages to trick the privileged Park family into employing all of them. At first, the grass is indeed greener on the other side, and this film seems like your typical rich-dad-poor-dad story. Despite living in the illusion of luxury by invading their host’s homes, Ki-Taek’s journey finds himself back at square one. No matter how hard one works to climb the social ladder, capitalism’s pyramid scheme works because someone must always be at the bottom.
Step three: If freedom is elsewhere, imagine what it looks like for you.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
To quote my favourite action-superhero film of all time, The Dark Knight, Arthur (Batman’s butler and confidant) once speculated that “some men just want to watch the world burn” as a response to Gotham's descent into anarchy. In Fury Road, the film is set in a dystopian future in the way-beyond, where all cities and civilisations have been burned to ash. Engulfed by the imagery of raging fires against the landscape of the scorching Namibian desert confirms this theory rings true.
In the latest installation to the franchise, George Miller decided to stun fans by crafting a movie where Max is a sidekick to the badass, machine-gun wielding heroine Furiosa. The conflict in the film arises when Furiosa kidnaps and rescues five former sex slaves from the wrath of a warlord who hoards all the currency in this desert which is water and gasoline. “Who killed the world?” the women demand. The motifs not only reject the idea of patriarchy as the ruling class in future civilisations but suggest that men are the very thing that civilization is trying to survive. After forging an alliance with Mad Max, Furiosa is in the quest for the “green place”, a hidden citadel fostered by a matriarchy where water and vegetation are bountiful. By mirroring Feminist ideals, Miller’s message is that communal justice is the solution to surpassing individualism. By redistributing resources there are greener pastures beyond the horizon.
Step four: Only free individuals can change the world.
The Matrix (1999)
Perhaps it was the time when Donald Trump survived impeachment in 2019 despite mountains of evidence against him. Or maybe it was that instance when Boris Johnson suggested ‘herd immunity’ as the solution to tackling COVID-19 that made you question if we are literally living in a simulation? Revisiting the Matrix 20 years after its original release eerily suggests that this explanation isn’t so far-fetched.
The film centres a young computer hacker “Neo” who learns that the human race’s idea of reality is a nightmare generated by artificial intelligence which symbolically adopts the appearance of corporate businessmen. The government has created this system to do it’s bidding while using human beings as hosts by harvesting their body fuel and energy. By using this allegory of the matrix, the overarching message unpacks Plato’s philosophy that ignorance can't be bliss. We live in an increasingly digital era where hackers like Anonymous resurface by weaponising technology to challenge the world’s governments. This inspires the notion that we have the choice to awaken our senses in order to shape our future or return to a distorted reality where we buy into the farce that our current system works in favour of us.
The simulation is glitching and there’s no turning back. Will you take the red pill or the blue one?