Acting Up

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Back in the early heyday of American cinema, when desire for news and entertainment was often sated by regular visits to the theater, films aimed at social reform enjoyed distribution that would make Michael Moore’s mouth water. The National Film Preservation Foundation has assembled a new anthology, Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934, that highlights the boldness of early 20th century cartoons, serial episodes, newsreel stories, advocacy films, and features designed to inform. These films addressed many of the same issues as our latter-day blockbusters, but often with a lucidity that modern movies lack:

  • Fans of Gus Van Sant may now add yet another component to their ongoing dissection of My Own Private Idaho. From the Submerged (1912) is the first known drama about homelessness that featured “slumming parties,” minus the Shakespearean overtones.
  • Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, and the rest of Spike Lee’s immortal oeuvre owe a debt to Ramona (1910), D.W. Griffith’s sympathetic portrait of a romance between a Native American man and a Spanish woman played by Mary Pickford. (That’s right, the same D.W. Griffith who later gave us the cinematic landmark of bigotry, The Birth of a Nation.)
  • In the sternly reproachful Where Are My Children? (1916), District Attorney Richard Walton discovers that he never became a father because his wife had a slew of abortions behind his back. No doubt do-gooder Alison Scott, the lead character in last summer’s hit comedy Knocked Up, represents the inverse of Mrs. Walton’s ways.
  • In Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful silent feature, The Godless Girl (1928), the Christians take on the Atheists and get themselves booked into juvenile prison. There are hints of Grease, mingling with Saved! and Girl, Interrupted, but only in DeMille’s version do the opposing camps go home with crucifixes burned into the palms of their hands.

—Cassie McGettigan

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest