“The most important element in controlling our own institutions would be to organize them into co-operatives, which would end all forms of exploitation.”
—Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
As an iconoclast, I’m drawn to movies that question dominant narratives. I even wrote about it in an essay called "Make The Red Flags." There are movies like the ones I mention that shout their message. Then there are others that prefer a more clandestine approach—a red flag clothed in a white flag.
That’s the movie AIR.
If AIR were made by an indie filmmaker, it would have a production budget of $3-5 million, music rights notwithstanding.
The budget of AIR was $90 million.
But wait. It gets even stranger.
AIR sold to Amazon for $120 million. This is important! But we’ll come back to it later.
You should watch AIR before reading this.
OK, now that you’ve watched AIR, you know the plot is about how Nike beat out other shoe companies to sign Michael Jordan. From that plot-based understanding, it’d be natural to assume the climax is the iconic speech Sonny (Matt Damon) gives about greatness.
But it’s not.
That's just the set-up for the real climax—the thing around which the entire movie hinges. After Sonny’s speech, there’s a dialogue between Mrs. Jordan (Viola Davis) and Sonny. That’s the climax.
To understand why, it’s important to know that AIR was made through Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck's new production company, Artists Equity. It’s a revolution on the scale of United Artists, back when Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded UA 1919.
Because Artists Equity is a revolution, and because AIR is the first volley of that revolution, AIR is about something much bigger than Nike signing Jordan.
For the past ~50 years the power of storytelling in Hollywood has been usurped from artists who have something to say, and it’s been ceded to bankers or merchant kings who think almost exclusively in dollar signs. Without a lot of really intentional work, this mentality generally results in several things happening:
- Storytelling becomes cog-making: making money through sales.
- In order to appeal to most people, the potency of what can be said (read: truth to power) gets radically diminished.
- Because the aforementioned “power” is the very people with money who finance the truth, the message of Art gets co-opted to become the message of those in power (see: Leni Riefenstahl).
This co-opting of the message is already a problem in the United States. It is sometimes direct propaganda, but just as often, it comes as endless mere entertainment.
Movies or shows that entertain, but say nothing, grip us in the moment and then the moment passes, and the movie or show is forgotten. When that’s all there is to do, Artists still keep doing our thing because we have to eat. But, Artists naturally have contempt for this.
AIR fights against this. It's an attempt to shift the power from bankers and return it to Artists. If it works, it reroutes us off the aforementioned road to mediocrity/capitalistic/jingoist propaganda.
Back to Sonny’s speech before the climactic dialogue.
Sonny speaks passionately about how the best we can hope for is to be near greatness. Sonny sees greatness in Michael Jordan and wants to be near it enough that he risks his career just to have the chance. In his pitch to Michael, Sonny says, “The rest of us just want to touch that greatness. We need you in these shoes not so that you have meaning in your life, but so that we have meaning in ours.”
Hollywood execs are Sonny. Many people outside of filmmaking feel that way, too, so they’ll invest.
Even though the execs and the investors want that nearness, they hold their money in clenched fists (benevolent impresarios notwithstanding). They want to be near greatness but don’t want to share any of their money with the Artists who actually are great. That control is an emergent property of an underlying fear. As long as the Artists have to come to the investors to make their Art, the Artists are dependent, which means the investor continues to fulfill their desire for nearness.
In this instance, money isn’t just money, it’s an expression of power.
People in Hollywood talk about equality, about justice. But the numbers tell the real story. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are buzzwords and make for great PR headlines. But little change has actually taken place.
Back to AIR.
When Sonny first meets Mrs. Jordan, she says, “… I believe the saying that if you say what you want, that’s fine and good—but doing something about it? That’s what really counts.”
After Sonny’s iconic speech, Mrs. Jordan makes her pitch that Michael should get a gross percentage of all Nike shoes sold with his name on them.
Sonny fires back saying that’s not how it’s done. It would disrupt the whole shoe industry (as though that’s a big deal).
Mrs. Jordan retorts.
Eventually Sonny says, “I actually agree with you. But that’s just not how it goes in this life. People like your son, people who work for a living? They don’t let us own anything! We take the best we can get.”
Sonny argues that all workers are exploited, but that’s the system. Sonny wakes up to a lingering feeling he’s probably had for a while, but this is the first time he’s articulated it.
The Anti-woke movement isn’t about racism at its core. Racism is a means to an end, and the end is power in the form of money. It’s about capitalism.
The powerful people of the world (read: billionaires) know that if we recognize that there are way more of us than there are of them, we’ll unite and demand equity/equality/justice. So they employ a method popularized during the Roman Empire divide et impera, “divide and conquer.”
And it works.
We know it works because, tragically, Leonard Cohen’s words still resonate with truth, “The rich get richer, and the poor stay poor.”
After Sonny acknowledges that he’s also being disenfranchised, he feels futility. But, he also takes that message to his boss, Phil Knight (C.E.O. of Nike, played by Ben Affleck). There’s a moment of tension, then Knight agrees that Michael Jordan should get an equity stake. It’s a risk, but Knight admits that’s how he built the company.
Hollywood can tend towards mediocrity, but if it hopes to survive as an industry, it must correct itself and be in meaningful dialogue with culture. Because “That’s how [they] built the company.”
AIR and Artists Equity are about getting money back into the hands of the people who actually achieve greatness.
That’s why it’s got a budget of $90 million. Not because that’s what it costs to make the movie, but because the Artists involved know the business in the era of streaming. They know the concept of backend is rapidly fading, and they want their share of the profits. That’s why they sold it for the seemingly disproportionate sum of $120 million, making 33% on top of their production thriving wage salaries.
Again, money isn’t about money, it’s the manifestation of power.
AIR and Artists Equity, the WGA strike, and the probable strike of the other Hollywood unions are all about wresting power from the financiers and distributors and putting it back in the hands of the people actually responsible for making greatness.
This wresting of power is required if the U.S. is to continue having a viable industry producing movies and shows. It’s about empowering the Artists to be able to make the movies and shows that help us all make sense of the world. It’s about making Cinema, not merely distraction entertainment. It’s about empowering people to speak truth to power.
If it works, it’s about seizing the means of production and turning it to empower everyone.
I don’t know if Artists Equity is just going to be a vehicle for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and the few they choose to bring with them. If it works, we might all wake up and recognize we have way more in common than we do that separates us.
And if it can do that, if it even has a chance to do that, I’m a huge fan!
Because that’s the kind of world I’m working towards.
That’s the kind of world I want to live in.
*Feature photo: Matt Damon and Viola Davis in the film “Air” (MGM)