Although Charlie Chaplin honed his craft in the now dust-covered formats of vaudeville and silent film, the world’s first global movie star remains an important voice who speaks to us across time about key questions involving political power, mass culture and our shared humanity.
In his films, Chaplin asked: do ever-expanding media formats empower political elites and allow them to manipulate and thereby dominate ordinary citizens? Does technology rob us of our natural connections to each other as fellow citizens? How can we fight back?
Chaplin’s work did not always offer satisfying answers to these questions, but at least he made sure we laughed along the journey. Unlike many filmmakers of his era, Chaplin often challenged political authority and power, and in particular highlighted the absurdity of following the lead of political blowhards and would-be dictators. To Chaplin, even “The Tramp” knew that human beings were smarter, kinder and better than to do that.
The iconoclastic, controversial and tumultuous life of Chaplin provides an important backdrop for appreciating his work as one of the history’s most effective users of mass media to shape political and cultural messages – messages that speak to his time, and ours.