Early Richard Pryor Film Satirizes Today’s American Politics

The advent of television changed how Americans perceive politicians. Richard Nixon’s appearance during a televised debate with John F. Kennedy worked against him in 1960. And from then on, the element of aesthetics became a legitimate factor in deciding who would become the leader of the free world.

In the 1968 film Wild in the Streets, director Barry Shear took aesthetic popularity to a frightening extreme, wherein 22-year-old rock star Max Frost and his band of young and gifted rabble rousers used their youth appeal to change the country from an uptight, war-driven global power to a drug-addled, free-love utopia. Frost’s success in mobilizing the population of citizens aged 25 and under (“the 52%”) illustrated a plausible reality for an America actually in the midst of the most socio-politically turbulent period of the century.

But Shear and writer Robert Thom did not conclude the story with a call to action for American youth that the plot suggested. Rather, the film’s outcome begs a question about politics and society that continues to resonate today: does any of it really matter? Shear’s impartial allusion to the inevitability of conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie harkens back to Orwellian depictions of that dynamic introduced by Marxist theory. And although Shear did not introduce socialism as the solution to this inherently capitalist conflict, the moral of the tale insists that the system in place is broken.

Was Wild in the Streets prophetic in its account of how limited the distribution of power is in capitalist society, or did he just tell an old story through a then-contemporary lens? Considering how the younger generation from the film, now known as the Baby Boomers, have largely fallen in step with the system they once considered fascist and unacceptable, the former seems to be the more likely answer. And if that’s the case, then it does not speak highly of this coming Presidential Election, any before it, or any election hereafter.

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