By Grant Wiedenfeld (Chem, Fren, Film'02)
(Oxford University Press, 296 pages; 2022)
Through the heart of Hollywood cinema runs an unexpected current of progressive politics. Sports movies, a genre that has flourished since the mid-seventies, evoke the American dream and therefore represent the nation to itself in idealized form. Once considered mere credos for Reaganism's fantasies of an atomized society, movies from Rocky (1976) to Ali (2001) dream of democratic participation and recognition more than individual success, for in every case, off-field relationships take precedence over on-field competition.
Arranged chronologically, Hollywood Sports Films and the American Dream is a critical study of six major sports films that re-tells the story of multiculturalism's gradual adoption in the latter third of the 20th century and rewrites contemporary understandings of the sports film. For author Grant Wiedenfeld, the mainstream's first minority heroes are paradoxically white ethnic, rural, working-class men, exemplified by Rocky, Slap Shot (1977) and The Natural (1984) and Black, brown, and women characters follow in White Men Can't Jump (1992), A League of Their Own (1992), and Ali. But despite their insistence on community and diversity these popular dramas show limited faith in civic institutions and point to the limits of inclusion and participation in the post-Civil Rights era.
Hannah Arendt, Jeffrey Alexander, and others inform Wiedenfeld's original analysis and commentary on the political significance of popular culture as he insists on the cinema's capabilities as an engine for democracy untethered from more conventional 'democratic' institutions. Reading these familiar movies from another angle paints a fresh picture of how the United States has imagined democracy since its bicentennial and renews the political efficacy of one of the most popular genres in film history.