Isolationism returns to Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

President Donald Trump was elected on the platform based around ‘America First.’ The slogan has a long ancestry in United States politics. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding had used it for their campaigns. Trump was certainly echoing a message of the America First Committee, which was a major isolationist group arguing against US entry into the Second World War.[1] Isolationism has arisen again in American political life. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to bring back American troops from overseas postings in the Middle East and elsewhere. President Biden recently ordered the evacuation of troops from Afghanistan, and Trump constantly talked about removing armed forces from Syria.

Black Panther was seen as isolationist film by some conservative critics. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

In this era of pullback, one film certainly has shown its isolationist leanings.  Deliberately or not, Black Panther (2018) reflected the views of the Trump Administration. A reviewer for alt-right Breibart even declared strong similarities with Donald Trump and the central character.[2] As Daniel W. Drezner of the Washington Post noted, Black Panther was set in Wakanda, which “is a technologically sophisticated country that has pursued a grand strategy of isolationism. It purposefully shields knowledge about its power and capabilities from the outside world, exploiting stereotypes and prejudices about sub-Saharan Africa to sustain its subterfuge. At the start of the film, many of Wakanda’s power brokers are fine with this, though some have their doubts.”[3] It is one of the few examples of films promoting United States isolationism, directly or indirectly. The film can certainly be read in other ways, but it does have an isolationist message.[4]

Isolationism has not been a favoured topic for Hollywood. In the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War, some filmmakers tackled the stark reality of war in What Price Glory (1926) and The Big Parade (1927). The films bolstered isolationist sentiments in the United States.

Isolationists were more focused on stopping films than creating them. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the film industry often had to follow an isolationist line. The Production Code Administration’s head, Joseph Breen, focused on stopping motion pictures that could create animosity toward Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Breen believed Jewish industry leaders would exploit Nazi treatment of Jews to create communist propaganda and blocked subject matter that might give offense to Berlin and Rome.[5] For example, Breen pressured MGM to drop Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 and stripped Robert Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight of all references to Mussolini’s Italy.[6] Breen’s intervention also stopped the production of RKO studio film The Mad Dog of Europe.[7] Up until 1939, the American film industry ignored the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.

Robert Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight of all references to Mussolini’s Italy when it became a film. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Isolationists lost ground in the Second World War, with Japan and Nazi Germany being the focus of Hollywood’s cinematic fury. The development of the United Nations in the post-war period set the cause back even further. The United States became a world power, and the Soviet Union then provided an enemy for the cold war period from 1947 to 1990. If you look at films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), you see American gunfighters intervene to save a Mexican town. In film after film, Americans are the heroes who save lesser nations or peoples. It is an image of the United States as a type of world policeman freeing the world from tyranny.

When the USSR collapsed, the United States found itself without a clearly defined opponent, Islamic fundamentalism then filled the vacuum after the New York and Washington attacks on 9/11. China is often depicted as a rival superpower, but its army has not invaded a single country since its troops entered Vietnam in 1979, and disputes tend to be about trade or soft diplomacy.  By the time Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated sharply, following its occupation of the Crimea. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. One book has argued that Russia is Hollywood’s new obsession.

The revival of isolationism in American political life runs counter to this long-term trend of its cinema promoting interventionist actions. In this era, where the United States seems to be torn between being a world power and putting up walls to keep people out, it remains to be seen if films such as Black Panther represent the beginning of cinema promoting American isolationism. It will be interesting to see if other films take up the theme.


[1] Wikipedia reference accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee accessed on 3 September 2021.

[2] John Nolte, “Black Panther Review: The Movie’s Hero is Trump, the Villain is Black Lives Matter,” accessed at https://www.breitbart.com/entertainment/2018/02/16/black-panther-review-great-actors-make-failure-launch/ on 3 September 2021.

[3] Daniel, W. Dezner, ‘The foreign policy of ‘Black Panther,’ Washington Post, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/02/28/a-very-important-post-about-the-foreign-policy-of-black-panther/ on 3 September 2021.

[4] Among others see Varda, Scott J, and Leslie A Hahner. “Black Panther and the Alt-Right: Networks of Racial Ideology.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 37, no. 2, 2020, 133–147.

[5] Joseph Breen to Daniel Lord, S. J., 5 December 1937, Daniel Lord papers, Jesuit Missouri Province Archives referenced in Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, Collier Macmillan, New York, London, 1987, 22.

[6] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, Collier Macmillan, New York, London, 1987, 22 – 23.

[7] Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism, New York University Press, New York, 1999, 20-21.

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