Empathy and the Cinema of Engagement: Reevaluating the Politics of Film

in Projections
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This article seeks to prompt a reevaluation of the efficacy of mainstream fiction films to convey liberalism's political and ethical values. First, it challenges still-influential Marxist claims about counter-cinema and distanciation, then it deplores the influence of contemporary irony and postmodernism. The article proceeds to enumerate the characteristics of “a cinema of engagement”; for example, moving us to empathy—even empathetic anger—rather than distancing us or making us feel superiority; manifesting a level gaze; analyzing structures of power; basing scripts on real events; employing both the realist and melodramatic modes; and inspiring viewers to work against social injustice. It invokes the theories of liberal philosophers, literary scholars, cognitive scientists, and psychologists, and draws supporting evidence from a close reading of The Insider (1999).