My Week In Netflix: Denial and The Stanford Prison Experiment
Denial (2016) is a film I was frustrated to miss at the cinema. Starring the ever-brilliant Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, it covers the real-life events of Holocaust-denier David Irving and his lawsuit against academic Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused Irving of wilful distortion of history.
The film – and the real-life events – are important in showing one of the first international cases in the 21st century of 'Fake News' as presented to undermine a mainstream truth. The tension is monumental: lose the case, and Lipstadt's defeat would signal Holocaust denial as a respectable position. This would have had repercussions far beyond academia: the Holocaust is arguably the pivotal moment in Western history where racism was forever tarred as the act and belief system of moral deprivation. Undermine the Holocaust, and the potential horrors of racial extermination are re-cast as exaggeration and fantasy.
The outcome of the trial, and of course the film, is a happy one, with Irving's career left in tatters. But the film was thought-provoking to me for other reasons too. It made me think about this pivotal position of the Holocaust - is it really the nadir of human civilization, to degrees worse than other genocides and atrocities? What is it that places the holocaust above historical events like the wiping out of the Native Americans - where possibly 100 million died through a combination of disease and deliberate destruction and murder. What of the horrific event of slavery, with at least 13 million commodified, chained up and dragged upon ships, and for those surviving the journey, compelled into incarcerated labour and its abusive punishment systems for the rest of their lives. Are these things not as bad? I'm sure there are complex discussions to be had, but two factors emerge for me: the fact that the Native Americans and Africans were people of colour, and Othered as not as connectable as white European Jews, and the fact that the USA is built partly upon both horrific narratives, of colonialist genocide and slavery. History, to put it cheaply, is always written by the winners. Following this thought, if Germany had won WWII, would we be talking about the Holocaust in the same way we talk about cowboys and 'injuns'?
Another real-life story is explored in The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015), where a group of volunteers is divided into prisoners and guards, and live out a prison experiment among each other. I'd seen an earlier version of this story, with the arguably superior The Experiment (2010) starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker. In the 2015 update, the inmate/guard cast lacks the charisma and power of a Whitaker or Brody, with the narrative shift focusing far more on the person in charge, played with angst-driven desperation by Billy Crudup.
Not unconnected to the Holocaust theme, The Stanford Prison Experiment highlights the levels of inhumanity an average person in the street can descend to, simply through the bequeathing of near-unlimited power over others. In the experiment, the temporary, volunteer guards – one in particular – quickly establish a sadistic order over the temporary, volunteer inmates. Sleep deprivation, punishments and dehumanizing abuse become a new constant: the inmates are incessantly patrolled and ordered into line, from where the guards enforce repeated tasks that can never satisfy them. An experiment which was intended to last two weeks is stopped after six days, due to the abuse meted out to the inmates, several of whom are driven to breaking point.It's worth watching such films in this current climate, with our Western, media-driven veneration of the military and the police, as well as the cross-party policy of mass incarceration. We seldom want to know just barbaric our police officers and soldiers and prison guards are capable of being, especially towards those already dehumanized in our society. Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit (2017) is one excellent portrayal of the racism of otherwise fairly well-meaning officers during the Detroit riots of 1967. From white, middle-class perspectives especially, we are perhaps too afraid to look under the surface at the behaviour of those who enforce law and order, here or abroad. But what's significant is just how similar the scenes of The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) replicate those of Abu Ghraib during the second Iraq War. Abu Ghraib was presented as the misconduct of a few bad apples. Psychologically, it was instead a thing inevitable: given absolute authority over others within a confined space, and with unconscious forces wielding unrealized influence, our potential for cruelty knows no bounds. From seeing recurring news reports of cruelty and discrimination against people of colour by the police, prisons and armed forces, these are dynamics we clearly still haven't grasped, or perhaps would rather not have to.