Plenty of films in 2016 tackled racism in some form, whether historically rooted (Loving) or cartoon animal-based (Zootopia). But three movies released this year specifically featured white supremacists: Imperium, about an FBI agent who goes undercover as a white nationalist; Green Room, where a punk band is terrorized by neo-Nazis; and Denial, which retells the real-life case where a Holocaust denier sued a Holocaust scholar for libel.
In Imperium, which is very loosely based on the experiences of real-life FBI agent Michael German, Daniel Radcliffe plays milquetoast counter-terror agent Nate. who isn't taken seriously by his FBI colleagues until he infiltrates white supremacist circles hoping to start a race war. One of Nate's leads involves a Rush Limbaugh-type radio personality who's adopted the comically hyper-masculine name Dallas Wolf. Adored by the kinds of people who call themselves Aryans, Dallas rouses them "to fight for race, soil, and honor," insisting that "'diversity' is a code word, and what it means is white genocide."
Dallas is a conspiracy theorist whose bread and butter is narrowing the divide between news and entertainment—sadly familiar in the era of fake news. Dallas doesn't believe the shit he's peddling, but he's just as dangerous as if he actually were an ideologue. "I tell the jackasses what they want to hear, and they worship me for it," he gloats. His rise, like the popularity of Breitbart and Fox News, speaks to a deep conservative distrust of centrist news sources. As undercover agent Nate says to his fellow skinheads, "God knows you can't get any real news on the yiddivision."
Dallas is just one of the charismatic white supremacists in Imperium; there's middle-aged family guy Gerry, who bonds with Nate over their love of Brahms and their sense of superiority over (in their eyes) the thuggish boors who fill the neo-Nazi ranks. Gerry is gently authoritative, whereas Dallas is a loud blowhard. Both are leaders.
Imperium suffers from feeling like an afterschool special—there's a scene that literally consists of a lecture delivered to school kids. A more nuanced portrayal is Green Room, which is less interested in fascist ideology than in how ideologues are manipulated toward violence.
Green Room follows broke punk band The Ain't Rights as they find themselves playing to a white power crowd in rural Oregon. The situation is analogous to what's being asked of lots of liberals: insert themselves into places they don't belong; try to understand unpalatable views. The Ain't Rights do this in a very limited way. Their approach to playing the world's worst gig is to launch their set with a cover of the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," which doesn't exactly win over hearts and minds.
After witnessing the aftermath of a murder, the band and Imogen Poots' disillusioned neo-Nazi Amber spend much of the movie trapped within the titular green room, which is covered with messages like "ANTI-RACIST=ANTI-WHITE." Meanwhile, club owner Patrick Stewart and his red shoelace-wearing squad prepare their attack.
Amber, the sympathetic racist in Green Room, gets a more prominent role than her ideological counterpart in Imperium. But these two characters have similar trajectories: both talk about having been victimized at some point, turning to white rights as a way to feel powerful. When asked, "How do you fall for this shit?", Amber replies, "Let's just say the people who hurt me weren't white." It's not clear whether her ideology really changes, or if she just realizes how fucked-up this community she's embraced is after her friend takes a knife to the head.
It's not hard to spot superficial similarities between some neo-Nazi and punk subcultures, as presented in Green Room. Both love symbols and certain cultural signifiers (shaved heads or Mohawks and combat boots); both depend on the catharsis of violence or a raucous show; both have a tendency to sideline women; both are anti-establishment. All these components form a destructive community in one case, and a largely progressive one in the other.
A major structural difference is how hierarchical the neo-Nazis are. Like the smooth-talking movement leaders in Imperium, Patrick Stewart's Darcy, a soft-spoken guy who dresses like a substitute teacher, is venerated by the "true believer" foot soldiers. His cult of personality + ideology that scapegoats blackness + militaristic sense of order = the American bent toward fascism that's become all too obvious lately.
A well-spoken racist is also at the core of Denial, although he doesn't see himself as one. David Irving is a real-life history writer who, in 1996, sued historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books for libel. Lipstadt had referred to Irving as a Holocaust denier in her book Denying the Holocaust. Under British law, she was responsible for proving that she hadn't in fact defamed him.
Much of Denial takes place in court, where Irving makes statements like "I'm not a Holocaust historian, I'm a Hitler historian." Even the lawyers opposing him are fascinated by his toxic brew of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. After a day in court, one of them says, "I couldn't take my eyes off him. He is kind of riveting."
This magnetism makes some people question Lipstadt's decision to pursue the case rather than settling. After all, Irving is a classic publicity whore who maybe shouldn't receive what the British would call "the oxygen of publicity." It's an argument that's been made many times recently, by those who consider media attention responsible for Trump's rise.
One defense lawyer points out that Irving "wants it both ways." This self-educated historian, not attached to any university, wants to be both a provocateur and someone who elicits respect. He plays the underdog but also craves credibility. Again, this sounds depressingly familiar.
There's a whiff of classism in these three films' portrayals of neo-Nazi leaders—as if they have to be older, more articulate, and wearing slacks to be taken seriously. In any case, the charismatic white supremacist is a trope that isn't going away soon, either in movies or in politics. These are obvious villains. As the director of Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier, told VICE after its premiere, "Nazis are kind of easy for movie bad guys."
Focusing on the extremes of racism is risky. It might distract us from the more casual forms of racism that are much more common and insidious. But if 2016 has shown us anything, it's the danger of underestimating the appeal of magnetic extremists with a platform. Seeing white supremacists get their comeuppance is satisfying in a way we need right now—even though it's not nearly enough.