Last June, amidst the protests that took over the lion’s share of screen time across every news channel in the United States, a number of filmmakers forewent their profits to echo their messages to a larger audience. Selma, Just Mercy, The Hate U Give, 13th and Do the Right Thing are only a handful of the many films that were made available for free to the public through digital streaming outlets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I was among those who logged in to every one of my streaming apps to find these titles and learn more about the topics that I wanted to better empathize with. But halfway through each, I found myself deeply affected, disturbed even, by the images it presented. Discrimination, unjust incarceration and police brutality were often depicted in a way that was so stark, so gritty, so unsettling―and that guilt tugged at my heart for the mere fact that, while the real people mirrored by the fiction suffered, I was sitting comfortably at home.
As a filmmaker, my goal has always been to tell the stories that matter. After all, as 21st century society grows increasingly reliant on their screens for information, film and TV are undoubtedly some of the most potent powers for change. So, as I watched these June offerings, in my mind popped the query:
Is shock value in entertainment media enough to spark meaningful conversations and inspire real change?
“As a filmmaker, my goal has always been to tell the stories that matter”.
Shock value, or the capacity of a medium to incite strong negative emotions, has existed since the birth of the art form of film itself. Take a look at the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train in 1895—in just 50 seconds, the clip, portraying exactly what its title says, managed to scare audiences right out of the theater … and off to their social circles to talk about this magical moving picture.
Today, shock value survives. For instance, contemporary public service announcement (PSAs) denouncing smoking, drunk driving or school shootings often use, shockvertising (advertising that intentionally startles viewers) to make their point. Through frightening images, they pique negative feelings and create cognitive dissonance—a mental tension that begs to be resolved—thus compelling a viewer to take steps to right those emotional wrongs.
Films on social issues therefore have shock value in their cinematic arsenal because appealing to emotions is what movies do best. In the New York Times, psychology professor Jeffrey Zacks discussed how formidable the power of suggestion of films actually is. He references two studies—one that found students were prone to accept misinformation presented to them in film clips more than actual facts from written essays (Butler et al., 2009) and another that concluded that the more engaged students were to film clips, the likelier they would recall the information in them as truth (Marsh, 2012).
Sure, the research focused on whether or not movies can make audiences believe in fabrication; but it also presents a case for why film directors like Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler unabashedly compose shocking images to awaken public awareness to the systemic injustices endured by Black Americans.
But that tactic has a caveat. In it’s aim to provoke such extreme emotions and reveal eye-opening realities, using shock value to inspire change may actually backfire in a couple of ways.
“Films on social issues therefore have shock value in their cinematic arsenal because appealing to emotions is what movies do best”.
For one, like any intense feeling—if you experience it often enough, you can become desensitized. Several studies have looked into how habitual exposure to violence in media can reduce their ability to trigger the strong emotions that shock value precisely aims to incite. It is then valid to consider how an influx of films and TV that appear to be socially conscious but are also overtly shocking and alarmist, intentionally inciting outrage, may inadvertently numb viewers to their powerful messages.
The other pitfall lies in the question: What if people just don’t want to know? Woolley and Risen (2017) suggest that ignorance truly is bliss. Their study found that people tend to prefer staying ignorant about information that can challenge their worldview, in order to avoid negative emotions and—shock value’s secret sauce—the cognitive dissonance that will force them to make inconvenient decisions. So, if folks are opting out of viewing these programmes, their messages simply go unheard.
This comes hand-in-hand with the fact that most of us turn to movies and TV to be entertained. That may be why, in the surge of celebrating Black voices in entertainment, optimistic narratives like The Help, which was recently the most streamed movie on Netflix in June, are faring much better in popularity than ones like When They See Us that pride themselves in being hard to sit through because of their tough truths and harrowing imagery.
The Help is a prime example of how Hollywood filmmakers tend to handle controversial issues like racism: framing those issues into individualist contexts. Think about how Hilly Holbrook personifies prejudice and bigotry, for instance. It’s perhaps the ability to follow the story of Aibileen, Minnie or Skeeter that makes audiences able to empathize better with the narrative and not shy away from its political statements.
Yet sticking to that approach isn’t the cut-and-dry solution. Robert Sklar of the New York Times said that Americans prefer to grapple with heated issues through the lens of an individual rather than that of a larger social group, and moviemakers choosing to appeal to that sentiment might actually contradict change. Because this approach compartmentalizes the societal tragedies into individual experiences, it lets viewers more easily separate reality from the screen fiction and thus, as Sklar wrote, “enables the audience to leave the theater with political attitudes unchanged from when they came in”.
It’s also worth noting that these movies, though their premises appear to censure racism, often promote the, “white savior”, trope. Intentionally or otherwise, the narrative undertones imply that the victorious scenarios result from the efforts of a good Caucasian protagonist, disempowering the racial minorities to whom those stories claim to be giving a voice. In short: The Help, albeit popular, may not be helping anyone.
“While there are stories that need to be shared and audiences that actively seek them—we have to explore and do so with immediacy to reflect current events as they happen”
So, is there hope for change?
Social issue films have a large stake in the entertainment market. “Exploitation films”, that capitalized on American cultural fears, such as drugs, sex, rebellion and xenophobia, first came around in the 1920s. Yet, the style boomed in the 1960s and 1970s due to time’s climate, which included anti-Vietnam War protests, political assassinations, women’s liberation and the HIV/AIDS awareness. As the 2020s opens with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and trans rights activism, as well as the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, it’s no wonder we’re yearning for similar themes.
What we also seem to want on-screen is diversity. UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report in 2019 found that among films released in 2016 and 2017, those primarily starring actors of color earned the highest median global grosses, and those with more racially-homogenous casts were the poorer box office performers. Films about Black stories have also triumphed commercially: Ryan Coogler’s powerful Fruitvale Station grossed US$17.4 million out of a US$900,000 budget; and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight made US$65.3 million worldwide with a US$4 million budget, even nabbing a Best Picture Oscar to boot.
The debate on shock value leaves us still wondering about its true efficacy in media that aims to inspire lasting social change. But what we can deduce is that, while there are stories that need to be shared and audiences that actively seek them—we have to explore and do so with immediacy to reflect current events as they happen—to try new techniques, stretch our creative muscles and figure out how to wield this potent artistic medium to change minds and hearts.
And what comes out of that exploration might just shock us.
Liezl Bitas is a graduate of British School Manila in Manila, Philippines. She is currently majoring Film Production in California State University, Northridge, where she learns to further hone her craft as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Since 2018, she has also been a writer for the university’s online publication, CSUN Today. You can reach her on LinkedIn here.
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