Kenneth Dowler On Corporate Crime at the Movies

“Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.” That’s FBI agent Brian Shepard in the 2009 movie The Informant.

And Kenneth Dowler and Daniel Antonowicz use that quote to open their fascinating new book –  Corporate Wrongdoing on Film: The ‘Public Be Damned’ (Routledge, 2022).

Dowler and Antonowicz are professors in the Criminology Department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

Dowler is a movie buff. He’s been watching movies his whole life. And he has seen many movies about corporate crime and wrongdoing during his life. But in researching the book, he watched many more.

Overall, how would you rate Hollywood and how they depict corporate crime?

“Generally speaking, the issue is really ignored,” Dowler told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “There are some fantastic films that come along, films like Erin Brockovich, Dark Waters, A Civil Action. These are the ones we all remember. But if you look at the top ten, you are looking at superhero movies and movies that would not get the public to think about corporate crime.”

“They basically suggest that you can’t make an entertaining movie about corporate crime. But with the right director and writer, you can make these movies come alive on screen. These movies can be very compelling. The Big Short deals with a complex set of facts, but they did a good job of making it accessible.”

  You say that only a handful of corporate crime movies finish in the top 50 in the box office – Erin Brockovich, The China Syndrome, Norma Rae, Silkwood, Civil Action. Dark Waters finished at 116. 

You write that the public is more interested in spending their dollars gazing at superheroes as opposed to narratives about corporate crime.

There can be superheroes fighting corporate crime. And often they do. Is the public not interested, or is Hollywood not interested?

“Hollywood is made of large corporations. They had an agenda. They play off this idea that maybe people are not that interested in corporate crime. But then a movie like Erin Brockovich comes along and that grabs their attention.” 

“Look at harms to workers. The film industry has been anti-union and anti-labor. And there are not that many films that depict union issues overall. But also Hollywood likes simple narratives.”

Just a quick search on Hollywood and corporations and the first article that pops up is from the Toronto Globe and Mail titled – Why Hollywood Hates Capitalism by Rick Groen. The business think tanks are constantly going after Hollywood for portraying business in a bad light.

“We did talk about that a little bit. Hollywood is liberal on some issues. But the reality is that the vast majority of depictions of crime – it’s street crime not corporate crime. You have very few depictions of corporations committing these crimes. There are a couple of movies from the 1950s – Patterns and Executive Suite. I read some articles where these pro-business professors watching these movies were seeing something completely different than when I watched the film.” 

“I would say that Hollywood is more on the conservative side. The blockbuster movies like Jaws were just trying to keep the public going to the movies, eating their popcorn and not thinking about corporate crime or social justice. Hollywood can play a real role in keeping the public subdued.”

You tell the story about the making of the movie Citizen Kane and the backlash against it in the McCarthy era.

“During the making of Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst was upset about the way he was depicted in the movie. And he ended up trying to ban that movie from appearing in the theaters. He even tried to bribe the head of the studio that was putting it out.”

“Again, they were able to get the movie out. And it didn’t garner much of an audience. In fact, when they won the Oscar for the movie, the audience booed Orson Welles for the depiction.”

You write the following:

“Heart’s newspapers targeted Welles as a communist sympathizer and questioned his patriotism. Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios even offered RKO Studio president George Schaefer $842,000 to destroy the negative and all the prints of Citizen Kane. After refusing to distribute the film, Schaefer threatened to sue the Fox, Paramount and Loews theater chains. In the end, the chains conceded and permitted a few showings, allowing the film to break even financially. Despite the difficulties, the film was nominated for nine Oscars, winning only one for best screenplay, with Welles being roundly booed during the ceremony.”

Dowler says “there was a concerted effort to make sure that movie did not come out.”

“Another movie was a 1940 film called Boom Town. At the end of that movie, there was a monologue by Spencer Tracy about the antitrust laws. Mayer had been beating up these antitrust laws for years. And he hated the idea of antitrust. This movie came out and gave this monologue about American capitalism and how these antitrust laws are not in the spirit of capitalism.” 

“Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, you could not have progressive ideas in film because of the possibility of censorship. Even the best films, like the Grapes of Wrath, are a bit muted in their presentation. They know they will not be shown in theaters if they are unrestrained.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic. I learned from your book that the FBI considered the movie communist propaganda and kept the movie on its list of communist movies. There was even a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing on It’s a Wonderful Life. What impact did the HUAC have on Hollywood?

“It had a huge impact at the time. Many people were blacklisted. In the book, I talk about the movie The Salt of the Earth. It was a movie that was banned for some 30 to 40 years. The movie was about a mining strike. Many of the people who were blacklisted were involved in the production of that movie.” 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, you did not see movies that critique capitalism. So it did have a lasting impact. Even if there are movies that critique capitalism, there is usually a happy ending. The idea is that America and capitalism will continue to be successful. The narrative is that even though there are problems, it is still the best system in the world.”

“Today, there are more opportunities for different points of view.” 

What are some of your favorite corporate crime movies?

“If I had to pick one it would be Dark Waters. It had everything you wanted in a movie. It fits all the hallmarks of corporate crime.” 

“Bread and Roses by Ken Lynch. It was a 2000 movie. That movie was very powerful. It was about a union organization for maids in Los Angeles. It’s about how these individuals are mistreated. The theme of the movie is that these janitorial staff are not treated as human beings.”

“Bitter Harvest is a hard movie to find. I had to track that one down on a DVD. Bitter Harvest is a 1981 made for television movie starring Ron Howard. It’s a movie about a farmer whose livestock was contaminated with PBB. A large percentage of the population in Michigan have this forever chemical in their system because they mixed up the fertilizer with a flame retardant chemical. The movie didn’t put the spotlight on the corporation’s role, but it did show how dangerous it can be when these corporations engage in these reckless actions.”

“Minamata is another good one. I really liked that movie.”

Minamata was trashed by reviewers. Why did you like it?

“I’m not sure why it was trashed. Johnny Depp’s acting sometimes can be a little over the top. But I liked the way they depicted the victims. There was a famous photo of one of the victim’s of the mercury poisoning. I liked the way they showed the victims and the grassroots response to confronting the corporation. They showed the victims as real human beings and the disastrous consequences of the corporation’s actions. It was a very human movie.”

“Some reviewers were focused on Johnny Depp. I was focused on the victims and the children in the hospitals. And this is a story that needs to be told. People need to know the consequences of the corporate actions and how the corporation covered it up and denied it.” 

“Sometimes you read the movie reviews and think – maybe this movie is not going to be that good. I had that reaction too. I thought going into some of these movies – this is going to be horrible. And then you watch the movie and you say – this is actually a very good film and it illustrates many of the things we need to know about corporate crime and wrongdoing.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Kenneth Dowler, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 22(12), May 30, 2022, print edition only.]

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