Sunday, July 27, 2014

American Empire on Screen

By David Luhrssen
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“Is the U.S. is an empire?” Camilla Fojas asks in her book, Islands of Empire: Pop Culture and U.S. Power (University of Texas Press). She answers with Miami Vice, the film and the TV series that depicted the U.S. as the policeman of the Caribbean in the War on Drugs—a Pax Americana Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower never imagined. And then Fojas goes deeper: she reminds us that Miami fell into U.S. hands during a century-long imperial expansion at the expense of Spanish-speaking America that culminated with the Spanish-American War.

As Fojas writes, the U.S. seizure of an island empire in the Caribbean and Pacific at the end of the 19th century was often credited as a mission of civilization—a crusade for democracy not unlike the arguments put forth for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Islands of Empire is primarily an examination of how U.S. imperial ambitions have played out in popular culture, especially movies and TV. “The story lines of Hollywood are fundamental to the structure of feeling of empire, in which an imperial sensibility is dramatized and displayed across topical landscapes.”

Not surprisingly, the Elvis movie Blue Hawaii (1961) occupies many pages as Fojas sets the fantasy aloha against the historical reality of an American coup against an independent kingdom. Blue Hawaii was part of a cycle of movies and television set on the islands in the aftermath of statehood, which coincided with America’s loss of that other tropical paradise-tourist destination-sugar plantation, Cuba. Hawaii, of all of America’s former or present colonies, “was exceptional in its fulfillment of the imperial narrative about mature capitalist development.” Elvis, along with Gidget and a host of surfer girl-boys, represented an ostensibly rebellious youth culture infused with what became a core American value in the late 20th century—the pursuit of happiness through consumption.

With Islands of Empire, Fojas, a professor of Latino and Latin American Studies at Chicago’s DePaul University, shines a light through the screens of illusion that continue to form our mental picture of America’s role in world affairs.

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