Ahead of the biggest showbiz event of the year, we explore the human rights themes of three Oscar-nominated films – and find activism inspiration in some unlikely places.
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Vice stars an almost-unrecognizable Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president whose influence on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq continues to have global repercussions. Cheney became notorious for his vocal support for torture, extraordinary rendition and the prolonged arbitrary detention of hundreds of men at Guantanamo Bay – basically all the most egregious human rights violations of the Bush era.
In Vice, we see Cheney and his colleagues discussing stress positions, confined spaces and waterboarding, all forms of torture used by the US in the context of its so-called “war-on-terror”. Torture is strictly prohibited under international (and US domestic) law, but in Vice Cheney describes this as “open to interpretation”. It’s a chilling look at the catastrophic consequences that arise when a few people in power sidestep the law and totally disregard human rights.
The so-called “war on terror” and the US-led invasion of Iraq continues to have far-reaching consequences. Amnesty International recently documented how the invasion and its aftermath flooded the country with weapons, hundreds of thousands of which went missing and ended up in the hands of groups like IS. Iraqis live with the daily threat of deadly violence. And Guantánamo remains open – last year Amnesty highlighted the case of Toffiq al-Bihani, who has been held in Guantánamo without charge or trial since early 2003. Vice’s comedic ambition means it never seriously tackles the questions raised by some of its subject matter, but the film does serve as a stark reminder that no Bush administration officials have been brought to justice for torture and war crimes.
Black Panther is one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time. As well as being the first Hollywood superhero movie to feature a predominantly black cast, including huge stars like Lupita Nyong’o and Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther is significant for the way it deals with themes like racism, oppression and colonialism.
It tells the story of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is home to a rare and remarkable substance called vibranium which its rulers use to create superior technology. To avoid the attention of would-be colonisers, Wakanda deploys a hi-tech cloaking device which makes it look poor – using Western ignorance and prejudice about Africa to protect itself.
When Wakanda’s King T’Challa goes to the UN to tell other nations that he wants to share his country’s technology and resources with the world, a white man in a suit responds condescendingly: “What can Wakanda give the world?” This reflects the biases about African countries that are still ubiquitous – remember when President Trump called African countries “shithole” nations?
With police violence claiming hundreds of black lives in the USA every year, Black Panther offers an alternative Hollywood vision of black life, free from oppression and tired stereotypes. Wakanda may be a fictional place, but offscreen there is no shortage of black activists who take heroic actions every day to stand up for human rights. From Amnesty Ambassador of Conscience Colin Kaepernick, honoured for his peaceful protests at NFL games, to the brave young people fighting racism in Brazil, Amnesty is proud to work with a host of real-life superheroes.
Isle of Dogs
Wes Anderson’s latest film shows, through beautiful animation, how leaders can drum up hatred and fear of a minority to serve their own ends. In Isle of Dogs, the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a miserable rubbish-filled location where they are forced to fight for control of food, territory, and resources. Many of them get sick and die.
The Mayor’s cruel decision is a response to an outbreak of canine flu, which he uses to demonize the entire dog population. When a professor finds a cure for the disease, Kobayashi places him under house arrest and eventually kills him.
Hatemongering, repression of dissent, persecution of political rivals… Isle of Dogs is a canine representation of the disturbing prevalence of leaders who exploit xenophobia and fear and cause so much suffering around the world.
Kobayashi would fit in well with leaders like Trump, Putin, Duterte and Bolsonaro, who have all risen to power using the politics of demonization. And the landscape of trash that the dogs inhabit looks especially ominous at a time when the planet is under unprecedented threat from pollution and climate change.
But it’s not all bad news – at the end of the film Kobayashi is jailed, thanks to the tireless work of two dog-loving activists called Atari and Tracey. Sometimes we find inspiration in unlikely places. For some real life examples of how activism changes lives, head to Amnesty’s Impact page.