Speaking at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival Saturday, Tim Robbins expressed outrage and shame at U.S. immigration policies and the Supreme Court’s new ruling allowing President Trump’s travel ban on some predominantly Muslim countries to stand. “That Supreme Court decision will be remembered as a disgrace,” he told journalists, building on comments at the fest opening that had galvanized the black tie audience.
Robbins recently staged with The Actors’ Gang theater ensemble in L.A. a play called “The New Colossus,” inspired by hundreds of immigrants’ stories and by the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty professing to welcome the world’s teeming masses.
At Karlovy Vary he is screening a film he wrote and directed that celebrates working-class artists, “Cradle Will Rock,” and another that sends up dishonest, populist political candidates, “Bob Roberts.” He admitted he is still surprised at how accurate the latter film from 1992 turned out to be.
A polemic about a sleazy conservative candidate who is “a big fan of beauty pageants and was also formerly in a military school and avoided service,” the film proved to be chillingly prophetic, Robbins said.
“I had no idea we would ever elect Bob Roberts as president of the United States.”
Asked whether his outspoken beliefs on progressive causes have harmed his career, the actor-director admitted he wasn’t sure. But, he added, if he didn’t speak up when he encountered injustice, “I don’t know that I would like myself very much. To know something and to not say anything, to me, is a betrayal of what a democracy is.”
Seeming to take pride in having once been banned from the Oscars ceremony for condemning, along with then partner Susan Sarandon, the Guantanamo detentions of HIV-positive Haitian refugees in 1993, Robbins said he worries that filmmakers too often avoid dealing with controversial subjects for fear of endangering their careers.
Robbins is currently in development on an original script that explores “faith versus hypocrisy,” he said, among three figures who either believe they personify the second coming of Christ or are mistaken for the messiah.
“So you can imagine how producers would be hesitating,” he said with a grin.
The market dominance of more profitable action film fare represents the spread of “dangerous” messages for young audiences, he said, citing the popularity of films in which a lone hero takes the law into their own hands.
What’s more, Robbins argued, such fantasies divert audiences from thinking about real issues.
“We’re so guided by distraction now. They have this condescending attitude. Like everyone has ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] – explosion, fight, murder…yay! Naked, yay!”
Films such as Ava DuVernay’s docu on the roots of Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Constitution, “13th,” and “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s account of the life and work of James Baldwin, offer far more meaning, Robbins said.
“The best films are about truth – something about the human condition, vulnerability, inner strength that we want to tell a story about. We should respect our audiences more.”
Powerful, honest films, Robbins argued, can awaken audiences to important issues – something he learned after “Dead Man Walking,” which he directed in 1995, helped draw crowds of thousands to the lectures of Sister Helen Prejean, a death penalty opponent played by Sarandon. The film was able to drive debate, he said, by the granting to universities the rights to perform the story on stage as long as they agreed to teach students about capital punishment and study Prejean’s book. “Ten years later we had been in 260 universities across the United States.”
Studio politics can be just as detrimental, Robbins said, recalling how his 1999 ode to folk music artists “Cradle Will Rock” was given zero promotion despite glowing reviews, audience response and an all-star cast.
“They dumped that movie. And that was heartbreaking, quite frankly, because it was a passion project for me and I knew that film was great.”