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 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 on 3 September 2021.

[3] Daniel, W. Dezner, ‘The foreign policy of ‘Black Panther,’ Washington Post, accessed at 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.

Selling your artistic soul: Halston or Sparks

Kevin Brianton. Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

Halston (Netflix) looks to be an ultramodern series as it delves into the high-powered world of New York fashion. However, it has mythical echoes that link back for centuries. Roy Halston Frowick was an American fashion designer who courted fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s. His design’s brand name was Halston, and it was noted for its minimal or clean look. Halston charts his rise and fall as a celebrated designer after he rose to fame when Jackie Kennedy wore one of his hats for the JFK Presidential inauguration in 1961.

Halston is based on a biography of the life and work of the fashion designer by Stephen Gaines called Simply Halston.[1] Halston would work closely with the New York rich list and Hollywood and Broadway celebrities to further cement his reputation. In 1973, Halston sold his high-profile design company to Norton Simon Industries, and the business relationship began well when he created a successful fragrance.

The company then produced a wide range of merchandise bearing the brand name. However, Halston began to use drugs, and his work slipped over the years. Norton Simon was taken over, and the Halston division was re-sold. His new corporate masters grew tired of his erratic work habits and lack of concern for profits. He was eventually banished as a designer from the company that bore his name. Halston remained a wealthy man, but he lost control of his designs – and his name – in the process.

Halston poster (Netflix)

In one key scene in Halston, the designer decides to sign over his firm to a corporate backer. It made great financial sense, as he sold his name for a “hundred million dollars.” He could not buy it back again. Change the word “name” to “soul,” and it is clear that Halston has an old-fashioned morality tale at its core. These stories began in the seventh century when Saint Theophilus the Penitent or Theophilus of Adana took the deadly bargain to become a bishop.

These stories have re-emerged at different times through the centuries. The idea of a person choosing to sell their soul for material reward has also been written at various times by Marlowe, Goethe, Wilde and many others.[2] The same idea occasionally appeared in American cinema. Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. It can also be seen in films such as Faust (1929), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), which all had the theme of a man selling his soul for some form of reward.

A world away from the international fashion scene in New York is a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which had its cinematic release in January 2021. The documentary film focuses on Ron and Russell Mael, who formed the band Sparks. It is a different success story, as, in contrast to Halston, the Mael Brothers are unlikely ever to sell out. They approach their music with great glee and a wicked sense of humor. Their “very best of sparks” album has a mere 56 songs.

The documentary is directed by Edgar Wright, who is also an unashamed fan of the musicians. The film focuses on the two brothers who formed the Los Angeles-based band when they were young, and the musicians continued making albums and going on tours for the next 50 years. The brothers were the core of this even though their bands formed and reformed several times over the years.

Over five decades, Sparks have constantly been reinventing themselves with a stream of musical ideas. To achieve this level of success and creativity over a long period, the brothers showed a strong and unrelenting work ethic. An interviewee says the brothers worked six or seven days a week for a few years to produce music for little or no return. Even when going well, the vast majority of their work – a total of 25 albums over 50 years – had only limited success. Every so often, they produced an album or a single that had a stronger resonance in the marketplace, but it is clear that the music is their main concern.

It would be naïve to say that the brothers ignore the business side of the equation – they are not artists suffering in a garret. The brothers appear to have a successful lifestyle – but it is certainly not on the same extravagant level as Halston with his New York apartments and first-class flights to Europe. The pair concentrate on the music they have created, and the band has developed tremendous respect throughout the music industry. In comparison to Halston, the brothers show that artistic success does not need to be self-destructive. The only drug issue for the brothers appears to be coffee. According to one interviewee, they go to the same coffee shop each day as a regular break from work – and they work almost every day.

On almost every level, the two works show different approaches to fame and success. In the 21st century, people may not sell their souls, but they can lose their integrity. Ron and Russell Mael appear to be characters from a Horatio Alger novel who get to the top by hard work, perseverance and talent, while Halston is depcited as more of a self-destructive genius. Even so, the artists have some similarities as they all come from relatively humble origins and worked their way up employingtheir abilites. These works provide two takes on the American dream and what compromises you should make to succeed.

[1] Stephen Gaines, Simply Halston, Independently published, 19 May 2021.

[2] Hedges, Inez. Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. Accessed July 13, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.