Films That Challenge the Ideology of the American Dream


In the middle of a raucous presidential campaign comes the release of The Purge: Election Year, which our own Jason Bailey called “a depressingly familiar portrait of race in America.” In other anti-patriotic goings-on, Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death, a deceptively simple takedown of American life, will be screening at Anthology Film Archives on July 4 with the director in attendance. Both films are in good company with our list of movies that challenge the ideologies behind the American dream.

A Raisin in the Sun

Daniel Petrie’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play — the first written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway and first with a black director — follows the trials of a struggling African-American family on the South Side of Chicago. They deal with the death of the family patriarch and determine how to invest the ensuing life insurance payment that can either help them get on their feet or ruin them financially. Almost all of the cast reprise their roles from the original Broadway production for a set of stunning performances, including the great Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

Soldier Blue

From Roger Ebert’s review of the 1970 Ralph Nelson film, inspired by a real-life massacre that took place during the American Indian Wars:

Now more than ever is also the time for violence in movies, a point that hasn’t been lost on the makers of Soldier Blue. Soldier Blue is indeed savage, but it wears its clock of ‘truth’ self-consciously. It is supposed to be a pro-Indian movie, and at the end the camera tells us the story was true, more or less, and that the Army chief of staff himself called the massacre shown in the film one of the most shameful moments in American history. So it was, and of course we’re supposed to make the connection with My Lai and take Soldier Blue as an allegory for Vietnam.

The New York Times said the movie “must be numbered among the most significant, the most brutal and liberating, the most honest American films ever made.

Born in Flames

Lizzie Borden’s feminist opus looks at the social climate in the United States after a socialist government gains power and in the midst of a new revolution organized by an underground group of women in New York City who continue the fight against sexism. “Choice is paramount to everything,” the director told us in an interview earlier this year.

We are What We Are

From the New York Times review of the 2013 horror film about a reclusive family and their terrible secret:

If the director Jim Mickle has a signature style, it’s to approach horror and hideousness with the elegiac rhythms and lyrical imagery of the best westerns, his mournful tone suggesting deep empathy for his disturbed characters. So when he took on Jorge Michel Grau’s marvelous 2011 creep-out, We Are What We Are, he didn’t so much remake as reimagine. Retaining the title but moving the action from Mexico City to the Catskills, Mr. Mickle transforms a politically charged allegory of social decay into a dreamy commentary on the ravages of extreme religious observance.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Don Siegel’s ’50s body-swapping film Invasion of the Body Snatchers trades the story’s Cold War allegory for one about Watergate and post-Vietnam anxiety, while taking the ‘70s-era self-helpers to task with a wry jab.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

A grueling dance marathon becomes a metaphor for the so-called American dream in Sydney Pollack’s controversial film. From TCM about the movie’s source material:

McCoy’s book was best received in Europe, where it was seen as one of the first American novels to reflect the existentialist ideas-viewing life as essentially absurd and purposeless-then gaining ground among philosophers and writers. Credit goes to the filmmakers for following the story’s grim outlook to its logical conclusion, ending it on a note of dismal violence (foreshadowed in stylized flash-forward scenes) that Hollywood has never surpassed for sheer bleakness. Only in the adventurous 1960s era would mainstream production outfits like ABC and Palomar Pictures expect to earn their money back with such a downbeat conclusion.

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama counters greed and capitalism, which disrupts the moral order of a small town that turns into a nightmarish frontier with the arrival of a prospector/confidence man (Daniel Day-Lewis in an unforgettable performance).

Night of the Living Dead

From our review of George Romero’s horror classic:

George Romero’s zombie opus was made on a shoestring budget, but its impact was monumental. It’s a model of effective independent filmmaking at its finest and changed the horror genre forever. Ignoring hoary voodoo clichés, Romero placed his zombies in the American landscape. The premise was simple — seven strangers in a deserted farmhouse fight for their lives, battling the undead — but the material’s intelligent handling and allegorical overtones elevated it beyond B-cinema territory. Romero’s microcosm of characters, who must overcome their differences in order to survive, paralleled with the turbulent 1960’s timeframe, imbues the movie with a nihilistic quality. There have been numerous Romero imitators, but Night of the Living Dead remains the definitive zombie classic.


From Roger Ebert on Todd Solondz’s bleak tale that examines a grotesque microcosm of American life and the hidden horrors of humanity:

Todd Solondz’s Happiness is a film that perplexes its viewers, even those who admire it, because it challenges the ways we attempt to respond to it. Is it a portrait of desperate human sadness? Then why are we laughing? Is it an ironic comedy? Then why its tenderness with these lonely people? Is it about depravity? Yes, but why does it make us suspect, uneasily, that the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision? In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity. Whenever a serial killer or a sex predator is arrested, we turn to the paper to find his neighbors saying that the monster ‘seemed just like anyone else.’ Happiness is a movie about closed doors — apartment doors, bedroom doors and the doors of the unconscious. It moves back and forth between several stories, which often link up. It shows us people who want to be loved and who never will be — because of their emotional incompetence and arrested development. There are lots of people who do find love and fulfillment, but they are not in this movie.