“Eat the Rich” has been a phrase frequently thrown around in film journalism for the past year; the catalyst presumably being the release of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Bong remarked on the worldwide success of his film, and its resonance in western society, by the nature of us all essentially living “in the same country called capitalism.” The critique of capitalism and the class based system in Parasite seems to have sparked interest in more films that reach this sociological calibre. Marxist film theory would suggest today’s audience have become disillusioned with the fantasy of film and are tempted by Bong’s use of détournement; making the radical concept of dismantling capitalism now wedged into the mainstream consciousness. A Marxist screen perspective would look at how the medium of film is frequently used in détournement; critiquing the capitalist system of global society and the filmmaking industry, in a fictionalised reflection on the silver screen.
Despite what can be considered a phrase that has remained firmly in pop culture since the early 21st century, the colloquial saying is rarely defined: “Eat the Rich” can be defined as a summated desire for reckoning to be brought upon the capitalist system and individuals of elite socioeconomic status. It’s increased popularity in 2020 can be perceived as having occurred, simultaneously, with the anger ignited over the elite in the current pandemic. The public adorning a more critical eye upon the behaviour of celebrities; such as the subsequent outrage of the ‘Imagine’ video and celebrities complaining about being stuck inside their vast estates. Opening their mouths rather than their wallets, despite being in the economic position to help support vulnerable working-class people suffering because of COVID-19. This cathartic pleasure for the economically marginalised to see justice in film has resulted in numerous ‘Top 10 Eat the Rich film’ articles spurting out over the past year – to feed this newfound desire for Marxist thematic films. Yet, the phrase’s popularity has rapidly resulted in hollowness. Now devoid of meaning, by reducing the capitalist critique in these films to a buzzword, one would expect to see “Eat the Rich” embroidered on an Urban Outfitters t-shirt in the coming months.
The phrase’s popularity to describe films works at its detriment too, with a majority being unable to clearly define what exactly an “Eat the Rich” film is, or what makes a film fit into such a category. In an attempt to define the frameworks of an “Eat the Rich ” film; they are thematically concerned with the injustices of the class system and how the governing of society maintains white imperialist values and perpetuates oppression for low income and ethnic minorities. Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is an example by portraying individuals low in socioeconomic status, the ‘tethered’ in the scenario, enacting revenge on the very capitalist system that allows this disparity between people to happen. It is impossible to not talk about race and capitalism, as capitalism functions on the exploitation of people of colour. In my position as a white woman, I could not discuss the nuances of race and capitalism in the films of 2019 and 2020 as accurately as Black film critics. Therefore, I urge you to read some recent articles and essays, written by Black film critics, that are referenced at the end of this article.
“Eat the Rich” films are not always cathartic revenge narratives. There is satisfaction in empathizing with the characters and their lack of power in the face of capitalism. This is found with the recent films of Parasite and Bacurau. Brazil’s Bacurau goes under the radar in “Eat the Rich” list-making as it’s not just critiquing capitalism, but the specific components of it. Symbolising the impacts of colonisation and war by focusing on the people of Bacurau, as they face a group of Europeans and Americans; who have been sent to the village to kill the residents and score ‘points’ from their killings.
In the confusion of what such a film is, feminist discourse on films that focus on women enacting revenge on the elite and then taking their place has been interpreted as “Eat the Rich” however, this shows that there are blurred lines between an “Eat the Rich” film and a “Girl Boss” film. In short, the term “Girl Boss” is disguised as empowerment for women but women in elite positions are, which is perfectly explained in Haaniyah Angus’ piece, ‘How to Be or Not to be a Girl Boss’, “blinded by their whiteness and see no other issues in the world than their financial success”. They may say “fucking rich people” as Ready or Not’s Grace says, but any criticisms of the capitalist system are less than skin deep in favour of a mirage of female empowerment. Of course there is nothing wrong with a film being “Girl Boss,” but the mislabelling of a film as being a critique of the elite by stating a woman in power would change the system perpetuates the false notion that capitalism can be an ethical system.
Knives Out is another 2019 film that is repeatedly found in aforementioned lists; where a woman achieves justice by subverting the hierarchy of the bourgeoisie and inheriting their wealth. In the final sequence of Knives Out, Marta (Ana deArmas); inherits the wealth of the Thrombey family and looks down upon the family from the balcony of the million-dollar home, drinking from a ‘My house, My rules’ coffee cup. In another “Girl Boss” scenario, Marta becoming a wealthy woman is not a feminist or anti-capitalist take. As Angus put, becoming “as successful as a capitalist doesn’t dismantle the system that has caused decades of wealth disparity. It simply reinforces the hegemonic belief that being rich is the only way we can survive.” The belief that being rich is a reward reflects in the character of Marta being framed in the film’s narrative as “deserving”, under the myth of the “ethical billionaire”, in comparison to the Thrombey family. Marta is now on the inside of a system that oppressed her, she is simply replacing the elite and the capitalist system that enabled the Thrombey family to hold this wealth – remains intact. This is not a feminist overthrow of patriarchy, she becomes the very rich that you claim to eat.
If one were to subjugate recent films to this labelling categorisation – or you simply want to make an adequate letterboxd film list without receiving hate comments – Parasite, Bacurau and Us clearly fit the framework in both their criticisms of Government and Capitalism; not merely elite individuals, but the system that perpetuates the dog-eat-dog mentality in society.
Films are not a meaningless medium, they can initiate change with bringing a large audience to the realisation of systemic injustices in society outside the silver screen fictionalised world. This recent labelling phenomena for these 2019 and 2020 films shows public interest in films that are thematically concerned with the working class overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Yet, this constant misconception on what justice looks like in Capitalism in film, perpetuates the audience to not read too deeply into the capitalist systems in place in real life society.
So when you next have a socially distanced movie night and want to feel camaraderie in seeing the rich overthrown, recommend “Eat the Rich” films, not “Eat specific rich people” films.
Articles on Black Women and Men’s representation in the Contemporary Capitalist Culture, On Screen: