Imperium’s Portrayal of White Supremacists

Imperium (2016) follows Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) as he infiltrates a white supremacist group in order to prevent an act of domestic terrorism. I was originally intending to do a review of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Radcliffe is amazing as Foster, and Toni Collette is masterful as his supervising officer, Angela Zamparo.

I decided to forgo a review and focus on the film’s portrayal of white supremacists. I tried to go to IMDB to discuss the film itself, its acting, its ending etc. However, most posters are still hung up on the film’s portrayal of white supremacists. In many ways, they come across as people offended or amused by how white supremacists are represented. Or they are simply annoyed that a film on white supremacy was made.

Imperium interested me when I first heard about the film, due to its exploration of white supremacy through the eyes of an undercover agent. I have previously discussed Imperium on this blog, since the backlash the film received was highly indicative of racism. IMDB was filled with one thread after another criticizing Hollywood for creating more “left wing propaganda” that was attacking white men and making them “feel guilty”.

White supremacists exist, and we shouldn’t be banned from showing them on screen because some insecure people might see it as a personal attack. Of course, these same people will argue that anyone who complains about negative portrayals of minorities in films are “politically correct” or “social justice warriors”. To them, it only matters if American society’s dominant group, straight white men, are depicted negatively. Imperium does not depict all white men in the film as bad guys. After all, Radcliffe’s character and his supervising officer are both white people, but the alt-right doesn’t want to see any white people portrayed negatively. Meanwhile, minorities must simply disregard every single negative portrayal of themselves since it is “just a movie”. These negative portrayals don’t make us “feel guilty” but they do bother us since we see them so often.

One of the alt-right’s most popular arguments is that Imperium should focus on more pressing issues, like Islamic extremism. Firstly, most terrorist acts in the US are committed by non-Muslim Americans. Even if Muslims were the most deadly terrorists in the US, is a film only allowed to show a fictionalized version of society’s most pressing issues? Would these same people criticize films about serial killers because most murders aren’t caused by serial killers?

Of course, there were also IMDB users who openly defend groups like the KKK and the Aryan Nation since there is nothing wrong with having white pride. Even groups that are openly racist reject the label of “racist”, which is why phrases like “I’m not racist but…” are so popular nowadays. I won’t spend anytime trying to enlighten such people.

I read American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate for a university assignment and was interested to see if this film would reflect any of the case studies explored in the book.

One key theme of the book is that white supremacists are no longer just uneducated rednecks. It is comforting to think that white supremacists all live in the back woods, but that is not fact. American Swastika explored white supremacists of varying education levels, classes and careers. Off the top of my head, one of them was a manager at a technical support company. Many of the ones studied were middle-class or upper-middle class, just like the white supremacists we see in the film. Many of the white supremacists in American Swastika were typical suburban families in many ways, which only makes them more unsettling. The whole point of the book is that someone in your neighbourhood, or maybe even your neighbour, could be a white supremacist.

There was one post on IMDB where a user criticized the film for showing a white supremacist barbecue where one of the wives was serving cupcakes decorated with swastikas.

The cupcakes might seem over the top but American Swastika describes birthday parties where parents would decorate their children’s cakes with white supremacist symbols. Homes are a “safe space” where people can invite other like-minded individuals and unabashedly embrace their views. However, it is easier to see the cupcakes and dismiss it as the work of liberals instead of realizing that such gatherings happen every year in the US. This poster obviously didn’t do his own research either. He saw the cupcakes, and assumed that they were a ridiculous Hollywood creation. Since he calls out “liberals” for their supposed mistake, we can assume he is a conservative and probably someone who was watching the movie feeling like he was personally being attacked. Therefore, he was eager to pick apart the film’s premise and portrayal of white supremacists.

White supremacists aren’t such a fanatical “lunatic fringe” any longer. They realize the importance of blending in from day to day, whether it is in the suburbs, or in a diverse urban environment. Imperium portrays them accurately and if this accurate portrayal scares you, good. It’s supposed to.