We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a left-wing parable, directed by a right-wing American director, about how a sharecropper's son, a barroom brawler, is converted into a union organizer. The message is boldly displayed, but told with characters of such sympathy and images of such beauty that audiences leave the theater feeling more pity than anger or resolve. It's a message movie, but not a recruiting poster.
The ideological journey of the hero, Tom Joad, can be seen by the two killings he is responsible for. The first one takes place in a saloon before the action begins, and Tom describes it to a former preacher: "We was drunk. He got a knife in me and I laid him out with a shovel. Knocked his head plum to squash." After serving four years, Tom is paroled and returns to his family farm in Oklahoma, only to learn the Joads have been "tractored off the land" and are joining the desperate migration to California. Near the end of the film, after seeing deputies and thugs beat and shoot at strikers, he is once again attacked, this time by a "tin badge" with a club. He snatches away the club, and kills him. The lesson is clear: Tom has learned who his real enemies are, and is working now with more deserving targets.
The movie was based on John Steinbeck's novel, arguably the most effective social document of the 1930s, and it was directed by a filmmaker who had done more than any other to document the Westward movement of American settlement. John Ford was the director of "The Iron Horse" (1924), about the dream of a railroad to the West, and made many other films about the white migration into Indian lands, including his Cavalry trilogy ("Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande"). "The Grapes of Wrath" tells the sad end of the dream. The small shareholders who staked their claims 50 years earlier are forced off their land by bankers and big landholders. "Who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?" asks Muley, a neighbor of the Joads who refuses to sell. "It ain't anybody," says a land agent. "It's a company."
The movie finds a larger socialist lesson in this, when Tom tells Ma: "One guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'." Of course Tom didn't know the end of the story, about how the Okies would go to work in war industries and their children would prosper more in California than they would have in Oklahoma, and their grandchildren would star in Beach Boys songs. It is easy to forget that for many, "The Grapes of Wrath" had a happy, unwritten, fourth act.