Imperium is the story of a young FBI agent, hungry to make his mark, who transforms himself to fit the mold of an intelligent rising star in the White Power Movement. The young agent, Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), works with a veteran agent, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), to strategize his way into the inner circle of a leader in the movement who is planning a large scale anti-government attack. When his first lead dries up, Nate is almost forced to give up on the potentially career defining undercover job; but, before that happens, Nate finds himself in the middle of a very dangerous situation.
Deciding how to tackle this film has been a difficult task for me. I’ve had a strong interest in racially motivated security threat groups since I was a young punk rock kid attending North Jersey meetings of the Anti Racist Action (ARA). Essentially, it’s always been a “know your enemy” type of fascination. This area of interest has actually become an area of study over the years, as something I regularly read and research, including subscriptions to numerous publications. In recent years, a number of podcasts tackling these groups have become part of my daily listening routines, as well as speeches and broadcasts from the “White Nationalist” and “Alt-Right” talking heads themselves.
This film comes along at a time when white supremacy is a topic of utmost importance. With the election of a presidential candidate who was heavily endorsed by the members of the movement and, also, used hate and fear mongering techniques in his campaign rhetoric, the nation has exploded with emboldened racists spreading vile bigotry through graffiti, online posts, and public rants. The underground hate groups and individual hate-filled bigots are becoming more mainstream; they are becoming more socially acceptable than any other time in the post Civil Rights Movement era. The relevance of art about challenging these disgusting ideals in today’s climate in immeasurable.
2016 has featured a few films with the White Power Movement at the forefront. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, a film where a young punk band fights for their lives against a group of violent Neo-Nazis, has received a good deal of attention and buzz. A tight, tense thriller, the film depicts the ideological differences between the kids in the band and the Neo-Nazis in some really interesting ways. While the film mostly uses the White Power Movement as a backdrop which could be altered without destroying the strength of narrative, it does a great job of illustrating ways the movement indoctrinates its members and the movement’s overall disregard for the lives of “the other”.
Imperium is a much different film, but works well as a companion piece and another interesting study in the strengths and weaknesses of the White Power Movement. Where Green Room demonstrates the brutality of the movement with more fervor, this film is demonstrates how leaders of the movement create sympathy and bring new members into the fold. The psychological underpinnings are extremely fascinating.
If you are like me, you’ve probably asked yourself more than a few times how intelligent people can become part of such a movement. Some people explain it away by just assuming that all racists are stupid rednecks with low IQs and high water pants. However, the movement has quite a few brilliant minds at its top end and a good deal of intelligent men and women in the ranks. So, how does this happen?
In Imperium, we see some of the ways this happens. As a primary example of this, we can look at Nate. Nate never buys into the notions and rhetoric of the movement, mind you, but he does begin to feel sympathy to its members, as friends and even, in some ways, as a family. It is for this reason that he’s initially blind to the truth about the attacks he’s undercover in order to stop. It is for this reason it takes him somewhat by surprise when he discovers the real masterminds of this impending attack. Nate snaps out of the trance, of course; however, many people don’t.
A disenfranchised young white man is susceptible to the type of influence exerted by the movement’s leaders because the recruiters are appealing to the areas of their lives where they are facing the greatest hardships. Blame the problems on the black man, the Jews, the illegal aliens; harken back to “good ole days” when these people had less influence and the white man had pure blood. It’s far easier to get sucked in that you’d initially think when you consider the charismatic leaders appealing to your needs and desires, while removing any fault of your problems from you.
There’s a specific young man in the film with whom Nate takes special interest. In the end, Nate helps him leave the movement. However, he hints at a rough home life and serious poverty in his life. Think about his vulnerability. He lacks family support and the movement has offered him that, operating much in the way that gangs can become family to impoverished urban kids with a lack of family support. No money? No problem, the movement will take care of him, he doesn’t ever have to worry about money again. Thankfully, this young man in the film has Nate to guide him away, understanding that he’s buying into the movement strictly because of his hardships. In many cases, however, once the young people are brought into the movement, the indoctrination becomes hard to unlearn.
Indoctrination is an important part of the sociological and psychological foundations of this film. Indoctrination is also an important subject to dive into when discussing this election cycle and the backlash occurring right now because of the election results. Donald Trump regularly disqualified himself for any role as a public servant throughout this election cycle with his own harmful and incendiary words, but it never mattered much because there was a stronger force opposing this. That force was done through use of careful rhetoric. It began with attacks on the Obama administration for years leading up to this cycle. It continued with attacks on the fitness for duty of Hillary Clinton on her “weakness” for allowing her husband to cheat on her, the email scandal, her health, and a less overt but more nefarious inference that she is unqualified simply because she’s a woman. Trump’s camp was able to use Hillary’s own party against her in piggybacking on any criticism presented by Bernie Sanders and turning it into a full fledged attack. Trump’s speeches used many of the techniques I mentioned above, appealing to the plights of common folk and making sure that those folks know that those struggles are the fault of not only his opponent, but also Mexicans and Muslims aka “the other”. This created an unlikely coalition of people who didn’t necessarily even agree with his message on the onset, but the combined propaganda of “Make America Great Again” and blame shifting to “the other”. Once one begins to buy in, the rhetoric of the campaign becomes the rhetoric of the supporter. It spreads like wildfire.
The film is really strong in showing how the movement makes this same appeal to the youth in search of a life better than their own. The motto of the movement could easily be the same as campaign slogan… “Make America Great Again”. Propaganda, indoctrination, blame shifting, creating a common enemy (“the other”), these are all part of how the White Power Movement recruits. It’s important to understand that this is often more covert and cloaked than it is simple and easy to identify. The wise, well regarded elder in the movement cooks Nate dinner, discusses their shared love of classical music, and appeals to Nate’s interests. He subtly slips in some rhetoric, but it’s not the focus. The focus is Nate and building relationships. It’s a strategy that works. And, throughout the “getting to know you” portion of their relationship, the use of the recruitment strategies ramps up and does so naturally, rather than in a forced manner.
I don’t mean to say that Trump is a Neo-Nazi, nor that the strategies commonly used by the movement and demonstrated a good deal in this film are exclusive to white supremacists. However, there have been startling similarities between his campaign and the strategies of the movement, notably the subset of the movement calling itself “Alt-Right”. Listening to Richard Spencer speak on a podcast the other day, it became very obvious how much was shared by the campaign rhetoric and his specific brand of white nationalist “activism”. While he and other “Alt-Right” heads have been trying to dissociate themselves from Trump, as to not damage his ability to retain power, there is far too much overlap to ignore.
The White Power Movement may or may not have grown in numbers during this election cycle, but it’s certain that those in the movement feel far less fear in expressing their views in the climate created by the Trump camp. Essentially, the idea appears to be that if the President-elect can blame Muslims and Mexicans for our problems, so can everyone else; and, no need to stop there, let’s throw every minority in that blame bucket. Trump wants to export all illegal aliens; and, no need to stop there, let’s ship everyone back to their “homeland”. There is a dangerous level of nationalism in the Trump campaign promises, which is a direct correlation to the movement, often self identified as White Nationalists.
When watching films like this one in a post-Trump world, its hard not to think about these things. The film is, first and foremost, an entertaining thriller with good acting and an interesting conceit. Yet, there’s so much in the layers of the film to wrestle with. So, forgive my rambling, I could go on forever about this topic, perhaps one day I can retool these thoughts and begin to build one of the many books I want to write. Until then, though, please consider how art like this can help us to look at the world and how we can use what we learn to better the situation for the people in our world.
Buy a copy of Imperium on Blu-ray at Amazon.