Let’s begin with a story. Recently, I’ve been struggling to articulate some of the problems with left-leaning North American rhetoric — a side of the political equation I favour, but with deep caveats about some of its historiography and targets. This week, on my Patreon, I posted a nine-month follow-up to a difficult matter in the world of SF&F: a story involving portrayals of gender that inspired tremendous alarm. (I wrote about it here at the time, and for The Verge.) My general argument in the above Patreon piece is that our neoliberal economy — an economy that favours the commodification and marketing of lived experience — underpins our inability to argue well, to seek better forms of dissent, and to achieve a fuller sense of inclusion in our communities.
The real problem, that is, lies a great deal deeper than that found in singular stories or issues of representation. But oddly enough, it was a recent re-watching of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) that gave me the language I’ve been looking for: a way to talk about the problems of justice that humanism cannot afford to overlook.
But first, a little more background on representation’s failings…
It’s a complicated business to have grown up in an era of significant media representation for a wide range of persons… and then to see that representation diminished during turn-of-the-century U.S. history (i.e. September 11 and its aftermath), and then to see the next generation try to re-invent the wheel: to catch Western media culture up to where it was before, then take it further, all while acting as if that preceding wealth of representation never existed at all.
Today, for many demographics (some of which I belong to and some of which I do not) the advocacy argument goes: “We need to see ourselves positively represented on TV, in books, and in Corporate if we’re to achieve a better world!”
The trouble is, I remember seeing such representation already. While the Star Trek franchise is trying to hype up the “first” nonbinary character in Star Trek: Discovery… I grew up with Jadzia Dax on Deep Space Nine. Likewise, Sandra Bullock as “Ryan,” a woman with major daddy issues in Gravity, can’t hold a light to the naturalized placement of Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ripley (scripted gender-neutral before casting!) for 1979’s Alien, or even to the two female leads in the time-travelling children’s show “The Girl from Tomorrow” (1991-2). In other words, there was a wealth of music, children’s TV, and action films with wide-ranging casts/characters in my early childhood, and during those years I grew up feeling like just one part of a very big and dynamic world.
And yet, none of it did anywhere near as much as we like to pretend is possible with “representation” alone.
The Problem Runs Much Deeper
Starting in the ’70s, the War on Drugs established a whole new generation of shattered families and demographic trauma with arrest-rates, conviction-rates, and sentencing-disparities that Nixon’s domestic policy chief later openly admitted was intended to target black persons.
And the indifference to black lives and outcomes only deepened with respect to official action. The year before I was born, the Philadelphia police carried out an airstrike on 6221 Osage Avenue. Their target? MOVE, a group unified in black liberationist and environmental advocacy. The police killed 11 people, including five children, and made homeless some 250 people in the neighbourhood, which lost 63 homes overnight to the ensuing fires. I cannot even fathom the outrage most of us would have, if the government literally chose to bomb our own neighbourhoods.
Many of today’s hardships were experienced back then, too — such as in 1992, when the Los Angeles riots broke out after four white police officers were caught on camera beating Rodney King, and acquitted.
And yet, during that period, were we lacking in positive representation? Hardly. We had Sanford and Son (1972-77), Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-85), Good Times (1974-79), The Jeffersons (1975-85), What’s Happening!! (1976-79), Diff’rent Strokes (1978-85), The Cosby Show (1983-92), 227 (1985-90), A Different World (1987-93 — a spinoff of The Cosby Show), and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96). Middle-, working-, and upper-class values shone through, while everyday situations and critical social issues were placed front-and-centre.
I find it pretty painful, then, to hear the rallying cry of many in today’s advocacy circles, “If only they saw us, really saw us, as everyday people with everyday hopes and dreams!”… when history makes it plain that an era can be filled with popular representation and ongoing oppression.
To be clear: Yes, we can and should be reading, hearing, and viewing the world in our media.
But we also cannot measure our progress toward more humanistic policy by annual diversity stats. Not with these hard-won historical lessons at hand.
So — what can we do? Where can we find better illustrations of the problem before us today?
Would it surprise if I suggested an era just a little before that of our current media empire?
Lessons from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Sergio Leone, an Italian director who did not speak English, wrote and directed some of the best American Westerns. That, unto itself, should give one pause. Granted, I love the earlier Budd Boetticher productions (Randolph Scott!) and many of the John Fords are classics — but Leone, with the help of composer Ennio Morricone, captured the emotional landscape of the American West in a nuanced manner that allows for very few equivalents in the genre.
I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised, then, upon my re-watch of this 1966 classic, to remember just how intricate, wise, and humanist Leone’s films can be.
At its simplest, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows three men in pursuit of a treasure worth $200,000. The film is exquisitely shot — and not just in terms of its extreme wide-shots of breathtaking landscapes, or with respect to its meticulous set- and costume-design, but also in its extensive reliance on close-ups, a style made possible by the immense talent of actors who could imbue every crease in their hard-bitten mugs with a world of emotion.
And yet, none of these elements are really what make the film stand out.
No, the real power of this film is in the scripting — and for two reasons that illustrate where the battle for a more humanistic world truly lies.
Reason The First: Nuanced Human Beings
All throughout this film, we’re given complex portrayals in even minor and secondary male* characters.
(*Yes, there are only a few women in the film: a sex worker briefly beaten on screen — by a double, because the main character refused to strike a woman himself; an unspeaking wife; and some stern, judgmental townswomen watching executions. Never said the film didn’t have its blind spots!)
However, what matters even more, in terms of filmic portrayals, is that the most important character in this film is not Clint Eastwood as “The Good.” Nor is it Lee Van Cleef as “The Bad.” It’s Eli Wallach as “The Ugly” — or “Tuco”, as he’s often called on screen. You’d never know, to watch the film, that Wallach is white-Jewish and not the Mexican he portrays, but even this notion of “being Mexican” is of no great importance to the filmic universe. What matters most is the character of the man himself.
Who is Tuco? Why is he “The Ugly”? Well, because he’s crafty, but also talkative to the point of getting himself into rough spots. He’s left a trail of destruction in his wake and gleefully seeks revenge upon those who have done him wrong. He has an excellent ear and eye for good firearms, but spends more time making money by putting himself into harm’s way* — and, concurrently, by putting his life in the hands of “The Good,” which speaks to a surprising level of trust in the world despite all its cruelties. Similarly, he has a remorseful attitude at junctures, but even this is muddled: it might not be remorse itself, so much as a longing to be reassured and returned to the good graces of fellow men.
(*Wallach, too, nearly died at least three times on set: once by hanging, once by near-decapitation, and once by drinking acid from a lemon-soda bottle left on set during the gold-digging scene. The scene where he’s racing frantically through the cemetery is also based, unfortunately, on Wallach being pursued by an angry dog that had wandered onto the location. What a business, being on the set of a Western!)
In other words, he’s a mess.
And so, it’s quite striking that, rather than playing “comic relief” as a sidekick, Tuco is where we, as viewers, are most centrally expected to set our focus. Even at the very end of the film, when we are desperately aching for “The Good” to live up to his namesake in one critical last act, the camera is on Tuco: Tuco the Complex. Tuco the Ugly. We’re with him, waiting to see if that very strange thread of faith in fellow human beings that he somehow still clings to, irrespective of how much harm he himself has done to others, will pay off.
It’s a wrenching moment, but only one of many that this 3-hour-long film offers by putting aside all expectation that any human being can be fit neatly into specific boxes. Or should be made to! We’re not learning about Mexican culture through Tuco (and thank goodness for that, some might say, considering the actor!); we’re learning about how a single human being, as distinctly complex as every other, navigates the circumstances laid out for him by his environment.
Which leads to the other reason that this film shows so much perspicacity with respect to the real problems that confront all human beings yearning to live free.
Reason The Second: The Backdrop of an Ugly War
This film might have been over far sooner if not for the backdrop of the American Civil War — but no such luck! While these three men are wrestling with their personal destinies and striving to find enough personal wealth to live in peace, the houses in which they are feuding sometimes literally cave in from cannon fire. Moreover, as these three weave through the barrens of this world, Union and Confederate lines and uniforms shape many roadblocks along their way.
Strikingly, though, it’s very clear that the three men themselves feel removed from the war. The war is something proceeding at the periphery of their thoughts, feelings, and political motivations — if indeed they can even muster more abstracted political motivations, while trying simply to survive. The very idea of a country, of a collaboration of shared interests in which they might find personal security, opportunity, and rest, is not even within the scope of their imaginations.
And yet, one of the most critical war scenes in this film involves a tour of a Union company waged in twice-daily slaughter with a Confederate company on the other side of a river. At the crux of this scene is an icon — a bridge — that represents the abstracted interests of powers far above and beyond the fates of individual soldiers. The Union captain who shows two of them around camp knows that the real weapon of war is alcohol — because he who has enough alcohol to send his men into certain death is who will surely win the war — and likewise has no illusions that those who want the bridge preserved care nothing for how much is sacrificed to preserve it.
In other words: There is absolutely no glorious war in this film at all. There are only men in (and outside of) uniforms, hoping to survive in systems and circumstances imposed upon them at every turn.
And yet, amid this standoff with the bridge, “The Good” and “The Ugly” need to cross the river to secure their treasure.
Consequently, then, something very odd happens in this film: an unjust system ends up destroyed in an ultimately self-serving act — as a byproduct, even, of two men seeking their own fortune.
It’s a curious approach to justice, no? But there’s something to be said, at least, for its honesty — because all the broader declarations of moral virtue often chauvinistically tethered to war aren’t necessarily achieving any better ends.
Towards a More Humanist Approach to Advocacy
I wish we remembered our history better. I wish we were better at not trying to re-invent the wheel every generation when it comes to how we advocate for change. Why? Because the assumption that preceding thinkers, creators, activists, and community leaders were intrinsically less perceptive and less able to handle nuance is a dangerous arrogance. We atheists certainly see it in how many Christians and Muslims talk about how impossible certain knowledge would have been to people from other eras (that is, save through divine intervention). However, many left-leaning secular folk indulge in the same, self-congratulatory narrowness with our own social rhetoric.
What films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly offer, then, is an opportunity to reflect on how individual outcomes are more often shaped by broader systemic and institutional factors — and how well we’ve known this lesson for, oh, decades upon decades now: generation after generation of us under, confronting, and naming our own yokes.
Also, such historical films invite us to consider whether we’re merely playing into contemporary neoliberal interests by orienting our activism around how “equally” everyone is permitted to commodify and market their lived experiences. Yes, representation matters — but building a more just world requires much more; and so we need to look closely, and critically, at whether or not we’re achieving our desired ends with the strategies we’ve chosen to employ.
After all, history has already shown us that we can see someone’s humanity on screen — for decades — without doing enough to fight for the same in the surrounding world. So what are we missing? What really needs to be torn down?
There’s a reason that Tuco is the best possible focus for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Tuco is us.
Tuco is messy, excessive, highly adept at certain fields, borderline incompetent at others, and yet… still yearning, in those scant few moments when he can take a breath between periods of simply trying to survive — even though, most days, he can’t so much as name what he’s really yearning for.
Moreover, just as Tuco spends a lot of his screentime with a noose around his neck, hoping that someone will be decent enough to shoot him down, so too are we all often precariously situated: relying, that is, on one another to look past not just gender, racialized ethnicity, class, creed, orientation, and ability… but also, sometimes, past the ugliest contents of our hearts; to hold fast, instead, to even the tiniest grain of shared humanity that remains.
So choose your “shooter” wisely, friends — because when it comes to advancing these most urgent matters of human dignity, security, and agency… it matters precious little what clothes we’re wearing to our executions.
We’re all just counting on one another to strike true.