In the funny-angry rant that is The Emperor’s New Clothes, comedian and activist Russell Brand reminds us that “Hans Christian Andersen didn’t say what happened to the cheats” who pulled a fast one on that emperor with the nonexistent clothes they made for him. But we know what happened to the banksters who crashed the global economy in 2008: Nothing. Well, nothing bad. They’ve continued to pay themselves enormous bonuses and live like the rules don’t apply to them. Because the rules actually don’t apply to them, not like they apply to you and me.
As Brand (Despicable Me 2, Rock of Ages) says as his entertaining tirade opens, this film — written and directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Face of an Angel, The Look of Love) — doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. But it does assemble the facts of our current system of widescale economic injustice in a way that is concise, comprehensible, and newly infuriating: How “free market” ideology has failed by making selfishness and greed the basis for the capitalist economies of the U.K. and the U.S. How our governments prop up corporate profits over human needs by subsidizing low pay with welfare benefits (and then how right-wing politicians encourage us to see our fellow citizens, and not those corporations, as slackers and scroungers). How the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with CEO pay. How CEO salaries are clearly disconnected from performance (even though we’re encouraged to believe those CEOs deserves their outrageous paychecks). And on and on and on, a litany of economic unfairness that we are all desperately familiar with these days.
If you’re not a fan of Brand, this movie won’t change your mind about him: it is positively afire with his outsized personality, though he is at least self-deprecating. But as he travels from his hometown in working-class suburban London — which has always been, he says, “a bit of a dump,” though it’s even more impoverished now than when he was a kid — to the seats of power in London and New York, he brings a caustic passion to his insistence that “things can change, things do change”… but we have to work hard to push back against those in charge. Brand has gained a new notoriety in the U.K. recently for his revelation that he does not vote and does not think it does any good — and seeing how unwilling our leaders are to work for anyone other than the corporations, he makes a provocative point. He avoids that personal opinion here, but he does say — and he’s definitely correct about this — that voting alone isn’t enough. “People power,” by which he means marching in the streets and being publicly, vocally pissed off, is required. There are solutions to our economic problems that are not controversial and were at work during our most prosperous times ever, the 1950s and 60s — high tax rates on the rich and “boring” transparent banking, for example — but they’ll never happen again unless we push for them. Hard.
That’s a far more provocative stance to take, in an era when — as The Emperor’s New Clothes depicts — everyone who isn’t rich is overstressed, overworked (if we’re lucky to have a job), and exhausted. Who has the time or the energy for protest? But find the time we must.