Popular GW Course Examines Political Visions in Movies

Elisabeth Anker’s students relate political readings to films.

October 25, 2023

Professor Elisabeth Anker in her office

Elisabeth Anker’s office décor features movie posters and an image of the cover of her latest book, “Ugly Freedoms” (Duke University Press, 2022). (William Atkins/GW Today)

Politics with your popcorn? Movies say more about politics than some people might guess, often in the underlying assumptions revealed on the screen as much as in the story’s plot points. Students in the George Washington University’s popular Politics and Film course, taught by Elisabeth Anker, professor of American studies and political science in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, are surprised to learn how much political significance films can carry.

Enrollment in the large lecture class is capped at 150 students, down from the previous limit of 250, which Anker said was too many.

Sophomore Bianca Caves, a political science major, is one of several students who said they have been surprised to learn how applicable the political theories of historical figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, as well as contemporary writers such as Rebecca Solnit and Naomi Klein, are to the movies the class watches—even when the films are older or don’t seem overtly political.

“We watched ‘Thelma and Louise’ a few weeks ago, and that’s not a movie that I would ever have thought of as being inherently political,” Caves said. “But when you watch the film with the context of the readings we’re doing about democracy and about groups lacking political representation, it makes sense in a way that I would never have personally connected.”

Another sophomore in the class agreed. Biology major Taylor Elley also cited “Thelma and Louise” to make the point.

“I think most people assume ‘Thelma and Louse’ is kind of a fun little road trip film,” Elley said. “I talked to my parents before watching it, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s funny, you’re going to have a great time.’ But watching it in class and analyzing its political undertones made me kind of sad, because the whole point of the movie, if you analyze it from a political lens, is that there are so many boundaries for women within political life and society in general.”

Even older films like “12 Angry Men,” a jury room drama starring Henry Fonda from 1957, still speak to contemporary issues, said Sam Nubile, a sophomore double majoring in political science and criminal justice.

“I was kind of skeptical as to whether or not older films really met the needs of modern politics, and kind of shocked to find out that they do,” Nubile said. “We watched ‘12 Angry Men’ from the 1950s, and it still relates today. We're exercising power just by being on a jury, but at the same time, composition of juries may not be indicative of the general population. Issues from the 1950s and ’60s still exist.”

Increasing student awareness of how popular culture relates to politics is one of Anker’s goals in teaching the class.

“The cultural products that we consume on a daily basis for pleasure actually tell us very deep and important things about who and what we are politically,” Anker said. “I want students to become critical purveyors of these cultural products, and also critical citizens. Every time a politician tells us a story about politics, whether students think they agree with them or not, I want students to have the tools to be able to engage critically with that story and think about the values underpinning each claim. Do they envision politics as something different? And if so, what are the tools they could find to put forth different ways of thinking about and practicing politics?”

Each Monday evening, the class watches a movie, such as “Milk,” “Selma” or “The Dark Knight: Batman.” In a separate class session prior to the film, Anker presents a lecture on the assigned writings and touches on how the film relates to the reading. The students later meet in a weekly discussion section.

In a recent class meeting, Anker discussed the view of individualism expressed in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” in order to prepare students for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight: Batman.”

Tocqueville’s critique of individualism, she said, is not an attack on individual rights. But he perceived that individualism could come at the cost of a strong sense of community. In democratic America, Tocqueville warned, atomization and the relative lack of community ties can lead to an inflated sense of self-reliance and induce people to turn their backs on society. Yet freedom means citizens relying on one another—even on people with whom they disagree—to solve society’s problems. As people pay more and more attention to their own needs, neglecting the wider society, their power is stripped away.

What can stop this cycle? Tocqueville’s recommended remedies were association with others, a free press and direct political participation.

“College campuses are some of the most robust spaces in the world for community and political association,” Anker said. “Groups for every kind of political issue can be found on most campuses.”

In a question period at the end of Anker’s lecture on Tocqueville, a student noted that people with no political involvement sometimes seem happier than politically engaged people.

“The work of politics is talk and debate,” Anker said. “And that is not easy. It’s one of the hardest things you can do. But the rewards are great. Tocqueville says participation makes people happy by empowering them.”

Preparing the class to think about “The Dark Knight: Batman,” Anker noted that any superhero film is a meditation on political power. “The Dark Knight,” she said, specifically addresses the problem of individualism.

Anker presents a range of films in the class, from recent Hollywood blockbusters to old-school melodramas and beyond—even including a documentary or two.

“I never screen films that I don’t like,” Anker said. “I love all of them for different reasons. I love the way that they ask us to think about what democracy is, what freedom is. And none of them give us the clearest answer, which is part of what I love. All of them offer multiple readings, which is part of what I want students to do—not to assume there are easy answers, but to think harder about what equality means, what democracy means and how we make sure that everybody is free.”

Some of the many other films on the syllabus are “Selma,” paired with readings by Martin Luther King Jr.; “No End in Sight,” a documentary about the U.S. occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush; and “The Big Short,” for a discussion of the lead-up to the economic crisis of 2008, as well as a look at the responses to it.

“Always, I want students to enjoy the screenings,” Anker said. “We always watch them on a gigantic screen, the way films are meant to be seen, where the images overpower you and the sound overwhelms you. It's meant to be sensorially overwhelming as a product. It also becomes a way of being in community with everybody else in the class. When you watch something together and you’re laughing together and you’re crying together, there’s a connection there.”