In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin not only had to run against Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the Democrats’ usual allies in the news media, they faced an onslaught from entertainment media as well. Everyone remembers Saturday Night Live’s skewering portrayals of Palin and McCain and President Bush, but we shouldn’t forget the constant stream of ridicule from Leno and Letterman, Stewart and Colbert, and the Obama boosterism of Oprah and The View. Movies like Lions for Lambs and Rendition reinforced liberal narratives about Iraq, torture, and America’s loss of moral standing. And did anyone in Hollywood actually think Oliver Stone’s movie W would make money when it came out just before the election?
For liberals engaged in shaping our culture, making money often seems to be an ancillary pursuit. They’ve understood for decades something conservatives have only recently grasped: Politics is downstream from culture.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that in films and on television, trial lawyers are cast as virtuous crusaders while American soldiers are bloodthirsty villains or hapless victims. University professors are almost always noble and underpaid, corporate CEOs corrupt and overpaid. Wealth is only inherited, never created, and people are poor only because they were born that way, never because of bad decisions or behavior. Conservative politicians are usually unbearable hypocrites, people of faith are for comic relief, and our environment is under constant assault by capitalism’s wantonly wasteful ways.
It’s somewhat remarkable that despite decades of liberal dominance of movies, TV shows, plays, and popular music so many Americans remain as politically conservative as they are. But conservatives should not cede to liberals the precincts of popular culture any more than they should cede to them the precincts of politics.
Fortunately, an effort by conservatives to engage in “culture making” is moving from the edges of the industry to the mainstream, threatening the left’s grip on Hollywood. The more successful this effort is, the more American popular culture will extol the values that have made our country great. Eventually, it may become just as cool to believe in the principles of free enterprise, the need for strong national security, the merits of traditional families, and the value of religious faith as it is to sneer at capitalism, demean the military, denigrate parents, and deride religion.
A growing cadre of conservatives in the culture (not necessarily the same as “cultural conservatives”) are finding one another and offering mutual support. Right-leaning actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, songwriters, playwrights, set designers, and others in the entertainment industry are providing one another the comfort of strength in numbers.
Some notable stars have acknowledged their conservatism over the years, usually at the stage of their careers when they can withstand the inevitable ostracism from the liberals at the top of the Hollywood pecking order. (Outrage in the media over the widely recognized political blacklisting in Hollywood has been conspicuously absent.) People like Bo Derek, Jon Voight, Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer, and Janine Turner are among those whose more conservative views are widely known.
I remember a conversation with Bo Derek in which she said she frequently had cameramen, assistant directors, less well-known actors, and others furtively whisper to her that they shared her views and were glad she was speaking out. This kind of whispering among those in the entertainment industry who don’t espouse the liberal line has gotten a little louder. A recent gathering of conservatives and centrists in the entertainment industry numbered more than 1,000 people.
Some are willing to put themselves on the line politically, adding their names in support of conservative candidates and causes. But the greater impact may be from their efforts to shape the culture in ways that reject the nihilism so favored by the Hollywood elite in favor of more traditional American values.
Movies that reflect mainstream values have a history of doing very well financially, the most recent example being The Blind Side, a faith-infused film that crushed at the box office this winter. The Pursuit of Happyness, the 2006 movie starring Will Smith, was the true story of a single father completely dedicated to a young son who succeeded by becoming, of all things, a stock broker. (Interestingly, Smith’s movies often contain a strong undercurrent of positive values.) The popular Jerry Maguire may be one of the greatest exaltations of marriage ever produced. Juno was a wonderful movie, its success magnified by word-of-mouth and postings on Facebook by pro-lifers.
Ralph Winter, who produced Wolverine and the X Men series, has joined with Terry Botwick, who helped launch the Family Channel, to form 1019 Productions. The firm will seek to bring to theaters entertaining movies that make money, but also make a positive impact on our society.
Although not explicitly conservative, a relatively new effort called The Wedgwood Circle Institute brings investors together to fund “cultural artifacts” that are “true, good and beautiful for the common good.” Wedgwood Circle has religious roots, but its efforts are geared toward general audiences. Its projects are intended to have broad appeal and carry basically conservative messages of faith, family, and personal sacrifice.
Movies targeted to Christian audiences also tend to do well. Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, has made a series of successful movies rooted in Christian faith, including Facing the Giants and Fireproof, a movie about the importance of commitment in marriage that was the highest grossing independent film of 2008.
Religious or not, the emerging conservative culture makers seek to make commercially profitable entertainment, building on past successes. Steve McEveety produced with Mel Gibson the classic paean to human freedom Braveheart and the smashingly successful The Passion of the Christ (surely the only blockbuster ever made in ancient Aramaic).
MPower Pictures, founded by McEveety and others, is now working to bring to film the New York Times bestseller Left to Tell, the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Tutsi who survived the Rwandan genocide by being hidden in the tiny bathroom of a Hutu pastor with seven other women. The harrowing drama of her survival, her faith throughout her captivity, and her forgiveness of her family’s killers is intended to be inspiring to general audiences. Janine Turner of Northern Exposure fame (along with my wife, Cathy, a veteran of decades in politics) is working with the producers.
Conservatives can curse the darkness or light culture candles. Thousands of conservatives rightly donate to candidates and political action committees, think tanks and other market-oriented and right-leaning groups, but investing in quality films, television shows, plays, and music can have an impact at least as great as a trainload of white papers.
Ed Gillespie is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and founder of Ed Gillespie Strategies in Alexandria, Virginia.