What to the Cinema is the Fourth of July?
In the first of his Independence Day speeches, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” delivered in Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass expressed the sentiment that July 4 may be a reason for celebration for white Americans, but not for people who look like him. One of the “Great American Civil Rights Speeches” collected and edited by Josh Gottheimer in the book, Ripples of Hope, the common reader at Southern Illinois University for the 2014-2015 school year, Douglass therein invokes the crucial idea that not only are holidays not out of bounds for political discussion, they may instead be among the most political of American ritual systems. Our families come together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the like, and enact a precise performance of both who we wish to be, and more apropos, who we most certainly are, for good or for ill.
As a machine that records human rituals, the cinema is an engine for commemorating our holiday celebrations. Even though it was released in summer, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1948), set on Christmas Eve, has become a ubiquitous image bank for Americans during the month of December. Similarly, Three Days of the Condor (1975) ends with our hero Robert Redford posed in front of The New York Times in the background and a Salvation Army bell ringer in the mid-ground. Redford’s character is about to expose the corruption of the American government, while his antagonist, Cliff Robertson questions whether the newspaper will have the courage to print the unsavory truth, decimating the myth of American exceptionalism. Robertson in the foreground calls into question whether the redemptive narrative of Christ’s birth in the mid-ground can survive the journey to the printing presses inside the Times building in the background.
Another post-Watergate film from 1975, Jaws seems absurdly far afield from Frederick Douglass’ heartbreaking speech from well over a century before. What has Jaws to do with a great orator from the 19th century? The answer is that they share the Fourth of July as a motor for irony, charting the distance between the America we hope for and the nation we wake up to every morning. Douglass intones, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (47).
For its part, Jaws mourns the post-Watergate failure of America. After having followed the medical examiner’s advice and listed opening scene bather Chrissy’s death as a shark attack, Brody is cornered by the mayor of Amity Island. Having now bought the doctor’s contrition, the mayor demands that Brody alter the death certificate: “If you scream barracuda, everyone says, huh? If you scream shark, you’ve got yourself a panic on the Fourth of July.” Brody concedes to the governmental corruption, resulting in the death of a little boy by yet another shark attack. Using the language of a World War II movie, Brody assembles a rag tag group of soldiers to forego their holiday and instead hunt and kill the deadly fish.
Douglass ends his speech with an analogous animal metaphor: “Be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever… Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth… Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion.”
The politics of this sea monster have a deep history, certainly tracing back to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. By evoking the Enlightenment’s celebration of reason over barbarity, Douglass argues for the abolition of slavery, a maniacal distortion of the American ideal. The betrayal of these ideals in the 1970s took a different form, one engaged by Peter Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s remarkably resonant American film. The Watergate scandal found its way into the Atlantic Ocean.
As different as these two objects are, Douglass’ speech and Spielberg’s film, they both rely on a metaphorical understanding that American holidays are not always what they seem. Sometimes a political Leviathan threatens to engulf our nation, and all we have to protect us are the voices of our people, from great orators to police chiefs who live on islands yet are afraid of the water.