“Spartacus Moments” Part I: What is a Spartacus Moment?

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, September 4, 2018. (Reuters / Joshua Roberts)

Read below for contributor Jarrod Emerson’s take on how politics (particularly Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh) and cinema affect the cultural zeitgeist, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, and its relevance in the Trump era.

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As many of us Americans attempt to make sense of the daily cesspool that is our demagogue-in chief’s actions, the country faces an unprecedented stress test. As if President Trump wasn’t content to treat our institutions and alliances like a raging bull in a china shop, his administration now is doing it’s best to ram through the nominating process a toxic Supreme Court Nominee in Brett Kavanaugh. Numerous communities and the guaranteed rights that they have fought so tenaciously to gain and preserve would likely be in jeopardy. Equally alarming are the administration’s blatant attempts to censor Kavanaugh’s lengthy, revealing paper trail. On top of that, Kavanaugh is now facing very credible accusations of sexual assault. Yet in spite of all of this seeming chaos, hope is not dead. Incredibly a recent trend emerging can be traced back to a decades-old piece of cinema. I refer to the recently coined phrase “Spartacus Moment”—words used by Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker earlier this month. If you’re scratching your head wondering just what the hell Spartacus moment is, let’s get one thing straight: It’s more than a mere pop culture reference. It is a tool for confronting tyranny in the most aggressive way possible.

A “Spartacus Moment” is more than a mere pop culture reference. It is a tool for confronting tyranny. Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar-winning, fact-based, 1960 epic tells the story of the titular slave (Kirk Douglas, also the film’s director), who leads a revolt against slavery in the Roman Empire. As Spartacus builds an army of loyal followers ready to fight and die for their cause, members of the Roman Senate panic, stopping at nothing to squash the growing rebellion. It’s true, I reviewed Spartacus in my Tony Curtis tribute with mixed, underwhelmed feelings. I do not feel the film as a whole endures. That being said, one pivotal moment of the film has rightfully earned its place in cinematic history—and now, political history.

The moment I refer to can be found here. Spartacus and his rebel army have been decimated. Cornered by the ambitious Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier), and his loyal counter forces, the rebel army is issued an ultimatum: Identify Spartacus dead or alive and the rest of the rebellious slaves will be spared death. As Spartacus stands up to identify himself, he’s beaten to the punch by his closest friend and ally Antoninus (Tony Curtis). Antoninus, watching his leader with anticipation, proudly proclaims that he is “Spartacus,” hence offering to sacrifice himself for the cause. In  solidarity, the entire army starts shouting “I am Spartacus!”. As uneven and dated as the rest of the film might be, this moment is still spine-tingling. And now it has paved the way for politicians and civilians alike to stand up and shout: “Fight for Democracy! Together!”

As Congress commenced confirmation hearings for the controversial Supreme Court nominee, it attempted to censor several damning documents that revealed Kavanaugh’s severely partisan stances on issues ranging from racial profiling to reproductive rights. Despite Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s stern warnings to Democrats not to release any files labeled “confidential,” Senator Booker openly defied the order. Following Booker’s announcement that his office would release several so-called confidential documents, Cornyn struck back by threatening to oust Booker from the Senate. Booker, undeterred, fired back proclaiming he welcomed possible consequences of his actions (subtitle: Go ahead, EXPEL me!) Emboldening him, Booker’s colleagues joined in. Starting with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin declared, “I concur with what you are doing. Let’s jump into this pit together. . . ”  

Shortly thereafter, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono also leapt to Booker’s defense, remarking that “I would defy anyone reading this document to conclude that this should be deemed confidential in any way shape or form.” (subtitle: What are you gonna have us ALL EXPELLED, CORNYN?!) And it was here that Senator Booker labeled this powerful moment of solidarity as “… the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus!’ moment. ”  Just as Spartacus’s soldiers rallied around their leader offering to sacrifice themselves for their cause, the Democrats that put their careers on the line in order to expose crucial information to Americans are heros for the Truth— and we need more of them, on both sides of the aisle.

© Jarrod Emerson (9/18/18) FF2 Media

Middle & bottom photos: Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (Credit: Bryna Productions)

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