(Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut)

“Complicity Studies: Thinking Through Movies”

When Scarlett Johansson satirized Ivanka Trump peddling “Complicit” – a perfume, “a fragrance all her own” – in a fictional-TV commercial on Saturday Night Live in March 2017, word searches of “complicity” spiked on Dictionary.com more than 10,000%. “She’s beautiful. She’s powerful. She’s complicit,” the female voiceover gushed as SNL’s phony-Ivanka promenaded through a cocktail party watching herself being watched. The skit mocked the real Ivanka’s commercial and political efforts to fumigate complicity as fashionable, potent, and classy rather than immoral, craven, and criminal, as fragrant rather than foul. Searches for the word spiked over 11,000% the following month when CBS This Morning interviewed Ivanka about the skit and she confessed: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.” Dictionary.com anointed it “Word of the Year” for 2017, not only because of reader interest, but because it conveyed what millions of Americans were thinking about enablers of Trump and Trumpism. 

The equation of the word “complicity” with “accomplice” dates from the 17th century. In the 19th century, for a time, “complicity” and “complexity” became synonymous. The study of complicity is complex. Persons, institutions, ways of seeing, structures of feeling, glamour, entertainment, and, for that matter, academic critique can be complicit with the reproduction of social contradictions that systemically hurt people.   

American movies, long before SNL, advanced complicity studies. Broadly, I am curious about what movies can teach us about the Americanization of complicity. To sketch some of what can be learned, I will read a few scenes from movies about the Great Recession, a global panic precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis and stock market crash of 2007-2010, an economic and political fraud that crushed millions: Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, Michael Moore); Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson); Assault on Wall Street (2013, Uwe Boll); and The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay). They offer insights into three types of complicity.

Moore’s Capitalism and Ferguson’s Inside Job probe what I term structural complicity: when dominant hegemonic and institutional structures interpellate Americans to imagine their complicity not as criminal, unethical, or wrong but simply as common sense, business as usual, or respectable self-interest. To indict this, Moore repurposes the “crime scene” tape sheriffs use to evict owners of homes foreclosed by banks and wraps it around the entrances to the big Wall Street banks and brokerages that profited from the subprime mortgage scam and taxpayer bank bailout. He reframes banks and brokerages as organized crime syndicates and Wall Street as America’s most dangerous crime scene. The final sequence shows him wrapping crime scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), whose second and third floors are covered (up) by an oversize American flag. Moore’s low-angle shots of the vast “stars and stripes” train us to look up to see how the Americanization of complicity operates.  He suggests that America’s insufficiently-democratic capitalist “democracy” functions as a mask for plutocracy and corpocracy. “Wall Street,” one congresswoman he interviews complains, “is in charge.”

 A year later, Ferguson also counsels us to look up to see top-down power.  The oversize American flag masking the upper floors of the NYSE reappears in a close-up a moment before we see the movie’s title. He includes many aerial shots of Manhattan’s corporate skyscrapers. High up it is impossible for financial hustlers to see the people below – humble home owners and investors – that they have conned. The attorney for Lehman Brothers tells us about the CEO’s private elevator that rocketed him to the 31st floor and the bank’s half-dozen private planes. Ferguson, like Moore, proposes that “democracy” has become – as one expert he interviewed put it – “a Wall Street government.”  He also demonstrates the collusion of many academic economists who have been paid handsomely by banks and corporations to help the “financial industry shape public debate and public policy.” The economists he speaks to do not feel complicit – like criminals, accomplices – because they do not think of their endorsements of de-regulation as harmful. In effect, Ferguson wraps Moore’s “crime scene” tape around not only “democracy” but universities. Both movies mount critiques of systemic contradictions and complicity, but are vague on what to do. Moore’s solution seems to be: form social movements, and move toward a more socialist redistribution of wealth and resources (as the closing credits roll we hear an Americanized Sinatraesque version of “The Internationale”). Ferguson’s liberal solution appears to be: tight government regulation. 

Assault on Wall Street provides a close-up of Jim and Rosie Baxford, two victims of the Great Recession’s bankers and brokers. The couple is unable to afford cancer treatments for Rosie because their broker has mis-invested – for his firm’s profit– their life savings. Finally, she kills herself so as not to burden Jim. The grief-stricken Jim, a security guard and veteran, adopts a different and more individualized bottom-up response to Wall Street’s malfeasance than what Moore and Ferguson advise: Wall Street killed my wife, so I’ll kill Wall Street.  

Assault features systemic perspectives in sync with the systemic critiques in Capitalism and Inside Job. There are, in fact, about a half-dozen shots showing the oversized American flag draping the upper floors of the NYSE’s façade. Jim looks up to find the perpetrators. 

He equips himself with guns, not crime scene tape. Assault devolves into a bloody revenge flick against top-down rapacity. But it also offers insight into what we see in SNL’s Ivanka parody: complicit Americans can trumpet complicity as an American achievement. When, for instance, Jim finally confronts the corrupt CEO of his brokerage, the Trump-like CEO brags about having stolen Jim’s investments:


You know there’s not a person on this earth that’s worth over a hundred million dollars that came by that money honestly.  Why don’t you take a look at the old money, the

Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Morgans, the Hearsts, the Rockefellers . . . . [They] killed

the Native population and imported slaves, and sold guns to both the North and the South

during the Civil War and controlled the politicians, and they’re heroes, they’re American

heroes. . . . We teach our children, what?  Honesty and hard work are the keys to success?

. . . . My children aren’t going to go to some war.  They’re going to go to Yale, they’re

going to go to Harvard, and it’s going to be the dumb, stupid white trash kids and the black ghetto kids that are . . . gonna fight America’s senseless wars, and they’re gonna protect American security and business, and it’s gonna be my business that’s gonna get richer and richer, and my bonuses are gonna get bigger and bigger, and it’s the same old story, it’s the bankers and the owners and the advisors who get rich.  And it’s the little people who buy their stocks that always lose in the end . . . people like you. 


This is a brazen Americanization of class-interest and self-interest. Complicity and bribery, for him, are what make America “great.” If you’re not complicit, you’re a sucker (“white trash,” “little people”). The movie, if only by implication, raises questions about a hegemonic structure capable of making the “little people” complicit with their own exploitation, subjugation, and disposability.  Jim learns more about (to quote the real Ivanka) “what it means to be complicit.” 

The Big Short, for me, features the most provocative representation of complicity. In this movie we see investment brokers who figure out the subprime-mortgage scam-in-progress and, in the end, take financial advantage of it. Some of them feel good about feeling bad about being complicit. Feeling bad does not stop them from getting richer. Investment banker Mark Baum, for instance, agonizes about this on his penthouse patio overlooking Central Park. “Five trillion dollars in pension money, real estate value, 401k savings, and bonds had disappeared. Eight million people lost their jobs. Six million lost their homes. And that was just in the USA.” He makes dire predictions. “Average people are going to have to be the ones to pay for all this, because they always, always do.” Top-down, he foresees, will prevail. “There’s going to be a bailout. . . . They knew the taxpayers would bail them out.” Worse, the bottom – not the top – will be blamed. “In a few years people are gonna be doing what they always do when the economy tanks; they will be blaming immigrants and poor people.” But then Jared Vennett – who for a huge fee had advised Baum to profit from this (which Baum did) by “shorting” bad CDOs with good ratings – informs us that Baum’s projections were all wrong. Triumphant music accompanies his voiceover with the news: “In the years that followed, hundreds of bankers and ratings agency employees went to jail. The FCC was completely overhauled and Congress had no choice but to break up the big banks and regulate the mortgage and the revenue industry.” In America crime doesn’t pay. Except . . . that it does. “Just kidding,” Vennett adds. Wall Street is too powerful to be held accountable as organized crime. “Immigrants and poor people, and this time even teachers” were blamed. “Only one single banker went to jail,” an Arab American from Credit Suisse, Vennett reports, “poor schmuck.” America itself, the movie implies, is the big short. Baum can’t beat them, so he feels (sort of) good about feeling badabout joining them. Crime scene tape doesn’t stop him from moving past it and walking beneath the American flag into the New York Stock Exchange to take care of business. How many members of America’s “liberal arts”-educated professional-managerial class and ruling class perform Baum-like hand-wringing as they reproduce the power structure that secures their power?

The Big Short makes me think about the effects – and limits – of complicity critiques in scholarship and the classroom. If the objective is to know more about what one is involved in, can this amount to feeling good about feeling bad, and continuing to do (what Assault’s CEO called) the same old “same old”?  It’s common nowadays for scholars in their work and students in class to announce their own “positionality.” If this recognition entails reading oneself systemically, this can be a vital structural self-awareness. Yet is this the end goal of the critical project? Complicity critiques can help us see social contradictions and our roles in perpetuating them, and that’s indispensable, but can complicity critiques more problematically stand in place of producing knowledge about how to change what’s wrong (say, by organizing) or producing knowledge about the kind of world we want to create? In thinking about (again, to quote Ivanka) “what it means to be complicit,” are scholars complicit if we don’t expand complicity studies beyond complicity studies? Should we think more about integrating complicity studies and something that might be termed social transformation studies?