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Beside classrooms, Americans have learned about democracy at the movies


During NPR's 50th anniversary year, we're doing some stories under the banner, We Hold These Truths, about American democracy. How have Americans learned about democracy? Well, how do we learn about most anything? At the movies. Today we speak with Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale Law School, bestselling author, novelist, columnist and an insightful commentator on popular culture.

Stephen, so good to have you back with us.

STEPHEN L CARTER: It's always a pleasure, Scott. Thank you for the invitation.

SIMON: You've given us a wonderful list, and we'll post all of it online. But let me ask you about a few of your selections. The first one needs no introduction other than a note of music.


SIMON: George Lucas's 1977 "Star Wars" before it became a franchise - John Williams there. In some ways, is "Star Wars" the story of a struggle for democracy?

CARTER: "Star Wars" is, in part, a story of struggle for democracy. And more than that, it's a story about how people who participate view democracy. If you think about "Star Wars," we know from the beginning that there is this vast, powerful, bureaucratic empire that runs everything, and there are these plucky individualists who want to be left alone to go their own way. And from the beginning, our sympathies, of course, is with the plucky individualists because the empire, personified in Darth Vader, is so utterly, utterly evil.

But what's interesting about that, to me, is that the Manichaean stakes that you see there are what we always think are at stakes in our politics. That is, people on the left, people on the right, they always believe we are the plucky individualists. They're the vast, grinding bureaucratic machine that if we don't raise another dollar or hold another rally, are going to grind us into dirt. All of us believe we're the underdogs.

SIMON: 1992 Western - or revisionist Western, you list - Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" - Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. An aging gunslinger, tries to retire and realizes it's not so easy. What did you see in this film?

CARTER: You have this little town where this woman is badly brutalized. And so the woman and other women there are really upset, and they post a $1,000 reward to get a gunslinger. And, of course, after several fits and starts, the gunslinger they get is Clint Eastwood, who's been retired, who's there to do justice, to bring these cowboys to justice. But after he kills one of the cowboys, this whole posse is formed to go after him. The women who sought justice, they were prostitutes. They were abused. Their quest for justice was entirely correct. They should have sought justice. But the result of the quest was out of control.

And it's an important lesson here for democracy, I think, that the Constitution and the laws are vitally important to the question of how we do business. No matter how deeply we care about our cause, the question is, at what point has our dedication to righting the cause led to something that's - a movement that's out of control, that can no longer be stopped and that is going to do terrible things? That's the question the movie poses.

SIMON: The line I remember all the time is, we all have it coming.

CARTER: We all have it coming.

SIMON: Robert Benton's 1984 film "Places In The Heart" with Sally Field, Danny Glover and John Malkovich - a Depression-era story of a woman taking over the family farm.

CARTER: Set in a small town - that's already part of the great American myth. But then you see the events in the town. So there's a Black man who accidentally kills the white sheriff. The Black man is lynched. And as far as the town is concerned, justice has been done. Meanwhile, the sheriff's widow is left on her own. The question is how she's going to keep the farm. Danny Glover appears as a kind of itinerant worker and is able to help her to pick all the cotton and keep the farm, even as violence and other forces swirl around, including a visit from the Ku Klux Klan. But what's striking about the film, when I speak about American myths, is there is this ending that is clearly meant to be a little bit of fantasy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing).

CARTER: There's a scene in the church - no, I'm not spoiling it for anyone - at the very end when we see this church that we know is an all-white church and we know from earlier scenes is sparsely attended. But in this scene, as communion is passed up and down the aisles, the aisles slowly fill in. All of a sudden, spaces that were empty in the long shots are full in the close-ups. And one by one, just about everyone who's been in the movie winds up in the pews, all share in communion. This beautiful but heart-wrenching scene is a kind of dream that people have of what America could be if we could only live in peace. What's striking about the film and what makes it also a tragedy is that Benton makes no effort to tell us how we come to that ending.

SIMON: Interesting. 1983 - I was about to call it a John Landis film - is on your list. It's actually an Eddie Murphy film directed by John Landis, "Trading Places." Two men - rich, poor - switch lives. What do they discover about class, capital and democracy?

CARTER: The reason they switch places - that is, this kid who's born to wealth, a Dan Aykroyd character whose name is Louis Winthrope III, and Billy Ray Valentine, a Black guy who lives by his wits on the street. They switch places because the Duke brothers, played brilliantly, you know, by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, who are fabulously wealthy, make this bet. What they're betting on is - they're trying to figure out whether success is a matter of nature or nurture. And one of them says it's nature. And one of them says it's nurture. That is, Don Ameche says it's all in the genes, and Bellamy says it's all the advantages you have.

And so they say they're going to switch the two of them. And they arrange things so that Billy Ray Valentine, the streetwise character played by Murphy, ends up helping to run their investment house, and Dan Aykroyd's character gets in trouble for drugs. He's disgraced. He's forced to live on the street. And the question is, will he turn to a life of crime, and how well will Billy Ray Valentine run the investment house? And, of course, the movie take sides because Valentine actually runs the place brilliantly. He's really good once he realizes that it's just a bookmaking operation, after all.


EDDIE MURPHY: (As Billy Ray Valentine) So they're sitting there, and they're panicking. And they're screaming sell, sell, because they don't want to lose all their money, right? They're out there panicking right now. I can feel it. They are out there. They're panicking. Look at them.

RALPH BELLAMY: (As Randolph Duke) He's right, Mortimer. My God. Look at it.

CARTER: And Dan Aykroyd, Louis Winthorpe III, does fall into a life of crime. It's nurture. It's effort. It's environment, that those are the things that lead to success as opposed to the genes. It's important to the mythos of American democracy that it's effort and environment instead of genes that lead to success because even now, with all the problems we had, we deeply need to believe that anybody in principle, given the right advantages, can make it to the top.

SIMON: Stephen L. Carter, Yale Law, whose novels include "The Emperor Of Ocean Park," "The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln" and "Back Channel." Thanks so much. Talk to you soon, I hope.

CARTER: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.