How Our Nation's Most Brilliant Silent Film Star Provides Us with the Words to Bring Down an Autocratic Presidency

There was a time, almost one hundred years ago, when the world was faced with the looming fear that Adolph Hitler and his brown shirted thugs, threatened to upend the world’s hope for democratic governments to shape the future of society.

In a recent article on Medium, The Greatest Movie Speech: What a silent film star chose to say when he had to speak, I was moved by the story of the famed silent film star, Charlie Chaplin, who risked his entire acting and directing career to write, what would ultimately become, one of the first talking movies, The Great Dictator, a movie that has eerie prescience for our times.

Hitler had just underwritten a movie, The Triumph of Will, which touted the wonders to be brought to the common man and woman as a result of the Third Reich. Chaplin decided to make a parody of Nazi politics that would directly speak to the plight of its victims, those who had been hoodwinked by the dogmas espoused by Hitler that would shortly throw the world into World War II.

For Chaplin, the film was very personal. Chaplin saw that fascism tricked the poor into believing that nationalism and racism – and imprisoning or killing all those who were not Aryans as he and his cohorts defined that term – was the answer to their problems. Chaplin sympathized with the poor because his life reflected the tremendous hardships he had faced throughout his life.

Born in London in 1889 to small-time music hall performers his parents became estranged and Chaplin was forced into a paupers’ school before being sent, at the age of seven, to an institution for the destitute. His mother battled with mental illness all her life and his father had little contact with Chaplin and his brother.

By the beginning of the 1930s, Chaplin had mastered the silent art form of pantomime and was uncertain that he could act in the new discovery of “talking” films. But he saw how Hitler had so adversely influenced so much of the poor of Europe and how fascism was tearing away the fabric of so many lives. Realizing that he could no longer stay silent, Chaplin decided that his response to fascism was going to be his first “talkie”. Most importantly, he made the decision that he must make the film so that “Hitler must be laughed at.”

The Great Dictator is about a nameless “Jewish Barber” who was also a World War I hero. It also featured a racist dictator Adenoid Hynkel who takes over the central European nation called Tomania. The Barber character mimics Chaplin’s famous Tramp character but is written so that his appearance is nearly identical to that of the dictator (both are played by Chaplin).

What is most important for all of us today is to see how Chaplin portrays how the world must respond to a dictator who cares not about the poor, the jobless and the homeless whom he purports to represent. In the film, Chaplin enables the poor Barber, a lookalike for the dictator, gets in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands making an important speech – as the dictator – to be broadcast around the world. He knows he has only one chance to make the speech of a lifetime that can possibly reverse the plight of the souls ravaged by the nefarious acts of the dictator.

Chaplin’s speech forcefully condemns the idea of fascism and nationalism and the tyranny of man that will follow if it is allowed to persist. By attacking such autocratic ideas Chaplin’s Barber proposes a brotherhood of humanity that will lift the cloud of despotism and restore kindness and humility to government and man alike.

Be prepared to be greatly moved by this speech. Click below to watch.

It is long past the time for our nation to rise as one nation determined to show resistance to Trump’s pattern of lies and deceits which seek to destroy the democracy under which our nation has lived for over two hundred years. It is long past the time for all Republicans to remain hiding in the shadows afraid of a Trump tweet  while refraining from speaking against the white nationalist, misogynistic and intolerant rants that have come from the mouths of the Pences, the Pompeos and the Giulianis these past two years. And it is long past the time for our media to treat the daily hate mongering as acceptable “news” to be reported on as truths coming from the mouths of individuals who, in our daily lives, would be treated like the low lives they embody.

We must now be prepared to step up and begin the fight of our lives to take outright resistance against a government that does not speak for those who, for too long, have been forced to the back rows of our society. 

Does Chaplin speak for all of us? Or, are we to remain silent in the face of this generation’s dictator-to-be who urges autocracy and white nationalism as the new rule of law? Only we know how this will play out. Remaining silent while sending along our “hopes and prayers” can no longer be an option in the face of such democratic antagonists.