1980s Movies that Shaped our Humanity

The 80s movies that left the biggest impression on me as a kid weren’t necessarily from the most popular or iconic films. And they aren’t referenced in Ready Player One. The cinematic moments that had the most profound impact on my childhood were unapologetically sappy and sentimental. In this video, I discuss 5 of my favorite lesser known movies from the 1980s that foster empathy and solidarity.

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Full text transcript below

I often discuss the negative impacts that pop culture media can have on people’s attitudes and opinions. But if entertainment can propagate harmful ideas, then it stands to reason that it can also have positive effects on our lives. So in this video, I’m want to focus on media that fosters empathy and solidarity. Admittedly that’s a pretty broad category so to narrow it down, I’ll be highlighting a handful of my favorite movies from my most formative years: the 1980s.

Looking at Hollywood today, it’s pretty clear that the 1980s are back in a big way. The current nostalgia craze is largely driven by Hollywood’s obsession with remakes, reboots, sequels, and loving homages to popular 80s franchises. The apex of this wave of nostalgia comes in the form of the novel turned blockbuster Ready Player One. Ernest Cline’s book, and by extension the film, is built around a long list of superficial and rather ostentatious references to geeky pop culture entertainment.

As a boy who grew up in the 1980s, most of the media that’s name-dropped in Ready Player One I remember well: The Goonies, Gremlins, Weird Science, Tron, Back to the Future, I watched them all. But thinking back to my childhood, the cinematic moments that had the most profound impact on me and my emotional development weren’t necessarily from the most popular or iconic movies. The movie scenes that left the biggest impression on my young mind were unapologetically sappy and sentimental. They’re the moments that still put a lump in my throat, the ones that make my eyes water and my heart swell.

Movie critic Roger Ebert once said that movies are empathy generating machines. By which he meant that we, as viewers, identify with the characters on the screen and that helps us understand experiences and perspectives other than our own. Movies can also affirm the human spirit by showing us examples of what empathy and solidarity look like.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings or emotions of others. It’s important to note that empathy isn’t just feeling bad for the misfortunes of other people. Empathy is about feeling what others are feeling. Solidarity is when people of diverse backgrounds find common cause and then work together to achieve social change. You can think of solidarity as empathy put into collective action.

So with those two definitions in mind, here’s my personal list of five lesser-known movies from the 1980s that helped shape our humanity.

The Journey of Natty Gann chronicles the adventures of a young woman and her canine companion as they hop freight trains from Chicago to Washington state in a quest to find her father. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, this is a quiet film with beautiful cinematography that shows us the world through the eyes of characters living in poverty.

The filmmakers deliberately place us, as the audience, firmly on the side of the downtrodden as we see police evicting impoverished families and company bosses treating workers with heartless indifference. But while this depression era world is harsh, it’s not defined by cynicism. Acts of kindness and solidarity between economically oppressed people are highlighted throughout the movie.

The Journey of Natty Gann is also reminiscent of the classic “A boy and his dog” adventure story genre, except here the “boy” is a girl and the “dog” is a wolf. It’s especially important for young women to be represented as leads in their own adventure stories. And I’d argue it’s just as important for young male audiences to see these kinds of representations. Boys need to learn to identify with female characters and see women and girls as fully human equals with their own stories.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set 1000 years after humans have destroyed civilization and the planet in a great apocalyptic war. We follow the adventures of a young woman named Nausicaä, Princess of one of the few remaining human kingdoms, as she struggles to understand and heal a world overrun by mutant creatures and toxic forests. The story centers on Nausicaä’s struggle to restore equilibrium to the environment and to end violent conflicts between human tribes and the giant insects of the jungle.

In-group depictions of empathy for friends, teammates, and family members are relatively common in pop culture media. Stories built around expressions of out-group empathy, that is empathy for strangers or outsiders to your own group are more unusual. And expressions of empathy for one’s enemies are especially rare.

Empathy for one’s enemy is the guiding principle of this film. Nausicaä remains acutely aware of the danger posed by gigantic bug-like creatures but she nonetheless extends her empathy to these mutant beasts. And it’s that act of empathy that ultimately saves humanity.

Amazing Grace and Chuck is about a smalltown boy who refuses to keep playing little league baseball because of the existence of nuclear weapons. His protest inspires the professional basketball star Amazing Grace to join his strike and together they organize a global movement for nuclear disarmament.

Hollywood very rarely gets political activism right. The depiction of activism in most movies is limited to raising awareness or personal acts of defiance. Amazing Grace and Chuck, on the other hand, manages to show how social change actually happens.

Social change is brought about when organizers raise social costs higher and higher until it becomes more advantageous for the powers-that-be to give in to people’s demands than to keep opposing their cause.

In the movie, we see this play out when so many athletes join Chick’s strike that it forces all professional sporting leagues to cancel their seasons. These protests raise social costs to the point where the public, the media, and world leaders have to pay attention and then begrudgingly take action.

In the end, the world is radically changed but unlike most Hollywood movies this social transformation is not brought about by defeating bad guys or through the actions of benevolent leaders. This social change comes from the bottom up; it comes from people organizing and standing in solidarity together.

Harry and the Hendersons is about a typical white American family who accidentally hit bigfoot with their station wagon. The family’s relationship with this gentle giant, who they name Harry, ultimately changes their lives forever. This one really is better than a campy bigfoot movie has any right to be. Over the course of the film, the empathy that Harry demonstrates towards other living creatures, inspires the family to rethink their worldview, especially in regards to hunting and guns.

The father, played by John Lithgow, undergoes an especially striking transformation, from avid hunter and firearms dealer into someone who (over the objection of his own father) learns to value non-violence and embrace his creative side.

Depictions of men and boys who reject guns and violence as markers of manhood are critically important in our current culture. As this movie illustrates there’s no reason Hollywood can’t present empathy as a defining feature of masculinity.

*Batteries Not Included centers on the tenants of an old New York City apartment building who are resisting a real estate tycoon’s efforts to evict them in order to build a skyscraper. The residents are a band of down on their luck but kind-hearted misfits who find unlikely allies in a group of mechanical aliens who’ve are looking for a place to recharge.

The group of humans embrace their strange extraterrestrial visitors, and they all work together to help their new friends by providing fuel and energy for the alien’s reproductive process. In return, the mechanical lifeforms help the residents by repairing the damage done to their building by the tycoon’s henchmen. This story is one built around solidarity on all sides. The human tenants and the alien creatures come from very different backgrounds and have very different needs but they still feel for each other and work to provide mutual aid and support.

Going back and re-watching these unapologetically sincere and sentimental movies feels like an antidote to the superficial or ironic appeals to nostalgia that saturates much of Hollywood today. I should say that none of the movies on my list are without their flaws, like a lot of pop culture in the 1980s, some include racial stereotypes and the stories mostly focus on the experiences of white people. Still, the core themes of empathy and solidarity had a profound impact on me and my values growing up. My list is, of course, a personal one and therefore specific to my identity and upbringing. Depending on your age, your gender, and your cultural background, your own list of movies will likely look quite a bit different.

If I were making a list like this one but for media from this decade, there are a handful of excellent movies that I’d definitely include. I’ve made video essays discussing a few of them like Wall-E and Fantastic Beasts which you can find elsewhere on this channel. But entertainment built around empathy and solidarity is still relatively uncommon in 2018. Which is too bad, because we really need more movies that embrace their role as empathy generating machines.

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