The iconic Woody Guthrie once wrote and performed a song called “Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues” in 1941. The Daily Worker newspaper wrote, following the initial performance of the anti-fascist tune, “In a fit of patriotism and faith in the impact of the song, he painted on his guitar THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” Unfortunately, this song was never recorded, but it made an impact on America and on subsequent folk/protest musicians like the great Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Janis Joplin.
Guthrie was very patriotic in his music-making and, in turn, was quite anti-fascist. His message was not carried out with a megaphone or on Capitol Hill. He did not make stirring documentaries on Netflix or post long, rabid status updates on Facebook. His work was not the work of memes. Guthrie, in his simple hobo way, used what he had — his guitar and his voice. He sang and strummed and crafted some of the most important protest songs we have in our American catalog.
In 2007, Todd Haynes made his most creative and brave arthouse flick. It’s called I’m Not There and it is all about the many faces, ideas, and impressions of Bob Dylan, a devout student of Guthrie. Narrated by Kris Kristofferson, the film features Dylan as folk singer/Pentecostal preacher (Christian Bale), handsome star (Heath Ledger), troubled poet (Ben Whishaw), aging outlaw cowboy (Richard Gere), and eccentric pop troubadour (Cate Blanchett in one of her most spell-binding performances). Perhaps the most interesting incarnation of Dylan is the first one we see, however. The young Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as a young black hobo carrying around a guitar in tattered clothes. His name? Woody Guthrie.
White, Minnesota-born Robert Zimmerman as a young, black hobo? It is easier to manage Haynes’s thought process behind the other five Dylan incarnations. What is the message here? Why is he called Woody Guthrie of all things? The young Woody travels from home to home, being fed by families and then plays his guitar and sings for them in their living rooms. The guitar case reads, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Through the casting of Marcus Carl Franklin, we are reminded of Dylan’s heritage. His music is rooted in black music and hobo music. His music is the music of protest. His music is the music of the poor and marginalized. A black child might seem as helpless as it gets in our racist, adult oriented society, but, the strength and wisdom that young Woody shows us in his travels and in his music-making is deeply inspiring and is the stuff of protest. “This machine kills fascists.”
Two years later, in 2009, ultimate fanboy hack/director Zack Snyder made his only decent film in his adaptation of Alan Moore’s award-winning graphic novel Watchmen. Moore’s story is a shocking one. A team of retired superheroes, formally known as The Watchmen, are wandering through one existential crisis after another during the Reagan Era of the 80’s. All of them survived the Vietnam War. One of them has been recently murdered. There are many striking things about this well-told story, but, I will focus on two. First and foremost, you have the big question of Watchmen: Is humanity worth saving? Masked and deranged superhero Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley) crouches down on a fire ladder overlooking New York City as the rain falls. In the midst of his constantly running inner monologue he says, “[The people] will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ and I will whisper, ‘No.’” This is the great conundrum of the film and a worthwhile question of theodicy. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the giant blue god-like superman, goes so far as to flee the planet Earth and build his own reality on Mars. It takes a lot of begging from his former lover Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) to get him to even reconsider humanity’s worth. Watchmen issues a sobering reminder to Americans: Even our great heroes have abandoned us and left us in the hands of fascist tyrants like Ronald Reagan. There is no doubt that the Reagan Era paved the way for a Donald Trump presidency and the perpetuation of fascist, Orwellian governing practice. Where are our heroes? Barack and Michelle Obama never wore capes, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t heroes.
Secondly, the film opens with one of the best credits sequences in recent history. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it is a timeline of American superheroes and the challenges they have faced.
Dylan’s song is as timeless as a song can be and it is one of the greatest of protest songs we have. It is always relevant. Just look around you. The entire soundtrack of the film utilizes the great protest songs of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Dylan, Janis Joplin, KC and The Sunshine Band, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and more all grace the powerful soundtrack. The beautiful and tragic thing about Snyder’s credits sequence is that it rings too true. Our heroes defend us, but then, we set them on a pedestal and even make them sexy. Eventually, even our perfect, sexy superheroes will turn around and take away the good in our country. Snyder’s reimagining of the Kennedy assassination as being perpetrated byJeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian is quite telling in and of itself. In the Reagan Era, “lesbian whores” were murdered in their beds, but, the heroes were nowhere to be found. What were they doing? They were killing off good men and women or living on Mars. The entirety of Watchmen is a story of protest. The challenge for us, however, is that it not only protests the obvious evils inherent in our society, but it protests our heroes as well and even kills them off. “This machine kills fascists.”
I learned a great deal about the racially charged tragedies of the Reagan Era in the great Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix Original Documentary 13th. Being a documentary, it is rooted in our present reality, so, DuVernay does not take a lot of creative liberties with the story. The story is telling itself and she perfectly captures it. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you don’t have Netflix at this point, you’re probably living in a remote cave in the backwoods of Vermont. If that’s so, carry on! You do you! The rest of us will pay attention. Ava DuVernay is a black woman making great films. That, in and of itself, is the stuff of protest. Step aside Gal Godot! The REAL Wonder Woman is Ava DuVernay. Her film Selma, about Rev. Dr. King and the march to Selma, Alabama, is not only a poetic love letter to the Civil Right Movement but it is a megaphone blasting in our plugged up, safe, white ears.
13th brings together powerful voices like Michelle Alexander, Corey Booker, Van Johnson, Angela Davis, and Cory Greene, among others, to tell the story of the America prison system and how it is that very system defines our American culture. The American prison system is so racist, in fact, that it has continued the enslavement of black and brown-skinnned persons following the days of the American Civil War. In dismissing black folks as “criminals,” the film argues, we Americans have allowed the continued enslavement of our fellow, often innocent, citizens. While we (mostly white) progressives were all rooting for former Secretary Hillary Clinton and her spouse, former President Bill Clinton, during the recent presidential race, we had forgotten what the black community had not: The Clintons, despite their seemingly unbridled support of the black community, were the strongest voices behind the notorious three-strikes law implemented by the federal government in 1995. President Clinton, a progressive Democrat, followed the path laid down by former President Nixon, and played the part of “Law and Order” candidate in the White House. Clinton’s actions would have dire consequences for the black community and perpetuate their enslavement in our prisons. Bill has since apologized for the trouble he caused the black community, but, he has a long way to go to make up for his sins, as does Hillary. The Clintons would have had no fuel for their fire in the 90’s had Ronald Reagan not implemented more “Law and Order” with his declaring a “War on Drugs” in the 1980’s. We learn, from DuVernay’s impeccable work here, that “War on Drugs” actually means War on Black and Brown-Skinned People. The first thing white colleagues of mine said after Philandro Castille was shot by a white cop was, “He was on drugs. So was she.” But it’s shit like this, perpetuated by powerful, racist white men and women, that gets politicians elected. This is why, make no mistake, a fascist, white, wealthy “Law and Order” president is currently in the White House.
DuVernay has joined the ranks of womanist creatives and leaders like Dr. Angela Davis, Nina Simone, Dr. Michelle Alexander, Dr. Wilda Gafney (a seminary professor of mine), Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Sapphire, Ntozake Shange, and Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams. Make no mistake, all of these women, just by waking up in the morning and choosing to write, dance, sing, paint, or film is an act of most powerful resistance and protest. We need Ava DuVernay to wake us the fuck up! As Alice Walker’s newest book of poetry reminds us, “Hard Times Require Furious Dancing.” Thank you, Ava, Alice, Dr. Angela, Nina, Maya, Toni, Sapphire, Dr. Michelle, Dr. Wilda, Ntozake, and Rev. Kyodo. “This machine kills fascists.”
Of course, we know that the greatest songs of protest and resistance come from music of African slaves which, eventually, became Black Spirituals and then jazz, gospel, rap, hip-hop, funk, and R&B. Hell, the album Blue Train by John Coltrane is a work of protest. It doesn’t have to have words to stir the pot, folks.
And who could forget the fabulous, unforgettable, and champion for womanists and the mentally ill Nina Simone?
There is no doubt that Beyonce Knowles is a powerhouse. Her most recent album, 2016’s Lemonade, is a tribute to the experience of black womanhood in America and it is Number One on almost every published Top Albums of 2016 list. Not only that, but our fierce warrior also made a film to accompany the album which critic Matt Zoller Seitz put as his Number Two on his 10 Best Films of 2016 list. Why does black womanhood matter so much? Why the hell do we give a shit? Because, Black Lives Matter. You know it. I know it. Stop dicking around and join the resistance! “This machine kills fascists.”
In 2013, Japanese filmmaker Mami Sunada made a documentary tribute to the living animation legend Hayao Miyazaki. It’s called The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and it’s a fitting title. We are invited to follow the lush and beautiful cinematography as Sunada leads us through the rural majesty of Studio Ghibli. The focus, of course, is on Miyazaki-san. He’s a quiet, cheerful man who always has a cigarette in his mouth and a pencil in his hand. Miyazaki is seventy-nine years old. He makes films “for children” because adults have ruined the world as he knows it. Not only does he make some of the most beautiful and powerful children’s films ever made, he also spends his free time every Sunday walking the shores of the river and picking up garbage. His is the practice of mindfulness. Miyazaki-san is present with his surroundings and what he sees breaks his heart. What does he do? As Mother Teresa once said, he does “Small things with great love.”
Miyazaki’s masterpieces each take a turn sending the children and in turn the adults of the world a message about taking care of our most precious gift: the Earth. In the era of a fascist US president who denies climate change and has the Climate Control page of whitehouse.gov removed the moment he is inaugurated, watching films like Spirited Away (2001) is an act of protest. Miyazaki-san teaches the children of the world that there is value in civil disobedience and he does it by lovingly hand-drawing each frame of every film he makes. For example, in Spirited Away, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest film, there is a scene in which a polluted River Spirit comes to a haunted bathhouse to get clean. The little human girl, Chihiro/Sen, attempts to run the bath for him. The employees of the bathhouse refer to him as a “Stink Spirit.” He is a filthy, globby mess. As he crawls to the nearest herbal bath, Chihiro soaks him in water and attempts to pull a full bicycle out of his side. Once she does this, an entire trail of discarded material objects pours out of his side. It is revealed that the “stink spirit” is actually the local river spirit. When, smiling, the spirit says “Well done” to Chihiro, it is all of the bodies of water in our world thanking the little children everywhere for caring enough to keep the rivers clean. The River Spirit laughs gleefully as he floats away, garbage free, into the night. “This machine kills fascists.”
So, maybe you want to protest right now. Maybe you’re angry. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re angry enough. Maybe you don’t want to join thousands of people as they march shoulder to shoulder through the city of St. Paul. Maybe you’re an introvert. Maybe you are living with a disability. Whatever situation you find yourself in, the great artists, storytellers, and creatives of the world remind you and me every damn day that our voices matter, perhaps now more than ever. Your voice is a machine that kills fascists. It doesn’t matter if you are being paid handsomely to do the art you love. If you love it, do it, and send a message to the world that you won’t stand for President Trump and his fascist, racist regime of ignorant white men of power. Here are some further examples for inspiration. Obviously, there are many more powerful examples, but these will do for now.
The following machines “kill fascists.”:
- The graffiti art of openly gay activist and painter Keith Haring (1958–1990) who would die of AIDS in 1990(1958–1990) — AIDS awareness, World Peace, social justice.
- Milk (2008), a film by Gus van Sant about the life of activist and local city representative, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). — LGBTQQIA rights, social justice.
- Hidden Figures (2016), a film by Theodore Melfi about the three black American women (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae) who helped get astronauts to space. — Black Lives Matter, womanist justice, empowering women, Civil Rights
- Moonlight (2016), a film by Barry Jenkins about a young black man (Shariff Earp) who is trying to figure out the joys and pains of living in his own skin in a rough neighborhood in Miami. — manhood, masculinity, LGBTQQIA awareness, Black Lives Matter
- What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), a Netflix Original Documentary by Liz Garbus about the stunning, powerful, and deeply troubled Nina Simone. — Black Lives Matter, womanist justice, empowering women, Civil Rights, the impact of black music, music as protest, mental illness awareness.
- Lake of Fire (2006), Tony Kaye’s terrifying documentary examining both sides of the abortion debate, featuring Noam Chomsky. — pro-choice, a woman’s body, a woman’s right to choose, religious extremism, social justice.
- Half the Sky (2012) is a passionate call-to-arms, urging us not only to bear witness to the plight of the world’s women, but to help to transform their oppression into opportunity. Our future is in the hands of women everywhere in this documentary film by Maro Chermayeff. — Feminism, empowering women everywhere, shedding light on abuse by men.
- The Mask You Live In (2015), Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary about the dangers of encouraging our young boys to live under the shadow of western masculinity. — manhood, masculinity, healthy emotions, justice for boys.
- Treme (2010–2013), David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s brave story about the communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina and the Bush government’s inactivity in helping them regain their sense of home. An HBO series featuring New Orleans music, food, and heart, it’s a story for the ages. — Black Lives Matter, native lives, social justice, jazz, arts and food culture, poverty issues
- The Films of black painter and filmmaker Steve McQueen, Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013), identify communities impacted by terrorism, “law and order,” sex addiction, and slavery — prison systems, Black Lives Matter, social justice, erasing addiction stigma.
- The Films of Ron Fricke, Baraka (1996) and Samsara (2011), are meditative documentary features that remind us that there is beauty in every land, every culture, and every being. — care for the Earth, interfaith awareness, animal rights, justice for the poor and marginalized.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.