To entertainment and beyond: the moral obligations of movies

Harriet Metcalfe discusses whether films have any moral obligation besides entertainment.

Harriet Metcalfe
20th June 2020
There's few occasions where the world doesn't feel like an absolute shitshow, right? For me, this is the cinema. Where I can, at the very least, forget about the small town outside the escalator and automatic doors.

But cinema, as we all know, is powerful stuff. Films move us, change us, influence us and (whilst it might sound like a colossal overstatement) shape us into the people we are today. More often than not, people only include fictional film in that; documentary or more factual films, are overlooked. I'm not going to preach at you and tell you that you have to watch this documentary on minimalism, or this documentary on Satanism (look, I have varied tastes, but Hail Satan? was very interesting to say the least). Because education is a two way process. Sometimes, films do have an obligation to teach you - but you have to be willing to learn, and educate yourself. Something that, in the current climate, is becoming more and more stark.

My personal view on this is no movie has to educate you - unless it's advertised as doing such, of course. But studios should fund films that do aim higher than entertainment, and I believe they are the ones with the moral obligation to do so. One of the best ways of doing this is funding films from underrepresented voices, such as those of different genders, sexualities, races (for example), than a straight, white cis male. These voices need to be heard on-screen, as well as off-screen. Films such as Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019), for example was not explicitly aiming higher than entertainment value as an adaptation of the classic novel, but perhaps in a more unintentional sense, this was something she did achieve. Many, including myself saw Amy (often the most disliked of the March sisters) in a more empathetic light. Whilst as a kid I'd always aspired to be a version of Jo, I realised that being an Amy wouldn't be half bad either. Gerwig portrayed sisters as forgiving and united, rather than the constantly bickering girls other films might present them as. Sure, this wasn't teaching us anything new - but it terms of representation, it's help to change a bit of the landscape.

Due to the Black Lives Matter protests across the world against police brutality, many people are turning to cinema not for entertainment, but education

If you watch movies for entertainment - don't let anyone undermine that. Film is supposed to be enjoyable! But there's a time and a place, and right now, with the Black Lives Matter protests across the world against police brutality, many people are turning to cinema not for entertainment, but education. There is a substantial gap in the UK education system. An "Impact of Omission" survey polled 32,000 people online, with 35.0% of respondents saying the role of slavery in the British Empire was "mentioned briefly", and 26.3% "not at all". And although it's pretty hard to get new films released at the minute, many people are (and as they should be) turning to Netflix documentaries such as 13th (2016) or the series Who Killed Malcom X? to fill this void the education system has left us with. Films by black filmmakers are also important viewing; I finally saw Barry Jenkin's If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) a few weeks ago, and instantly regretted that I never got to see it in the cinema. The movie industry doesn't have an obligation to throw statistics and facts at us all the time. But what it does have an obligation to do is give rise to those voices that haven't been heard, whether the project be documentary, indie film or action blockbuster - we will inevitably have something to learn from it.

It might seem like there is one "set" way of filmmaking, but in reality, it changes all the time

Studios should fund films that aim higher than entertainment - because it's a sheer opportunity to learn, not just for those in the audience, but studio execs as well. To learn from other voices, other styles, other ways of filmmaking. It might seem like there is one "set" way of filmmaking, but in reality, it changes all the time. Sean Baker filmed Tangerine (2015) on an iPhone camera. Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood (2014) over twelve years, using the same actors instead of hiring new ones. Films such of this might have the purpose of entertainment - but their methods ensure they go beyond that, and revolutionise the behind-the-scenes system off-camera, whilst not necessarily affecting what we see on-screen.

So to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, because why not, "to entertainment and beyond" is where we and studios should be looking. Cinema is a powerful tool - use it wisely.

The Oscar nominated Ava DuVernay documentary analyses the implications of the 13th amendment.
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AUTHOR: Harriet Metcalfe
English Literature BA student. Loves film, TV, books and coffee. Thinks "Thor: The Dark World" gets too much hate. Twitter: @hattiemetcalfe

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