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The Angry Young Man Trope, Explained

Who gets to be angry? The “angry young man” trope came onto the scene as a working-class anti-hero but has recently morphed into a social villain. In the 50s to the 70s, British angry young men like Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter (Richard Burton), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), and Clockwork Orange’s Alex (Malcolm McDowell) challenged the upper-class focus of cinema. Over the years iconic angry young men around the globe played by Robert De Niro, Amitabh Bachchan, Spike Lee, Edward Norton, and more became voices of disruptive political protest — some listened to and validated more than others. Recently, the figure has evolved into a controversial villain, as seen in Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) and Star Wars’ Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). More women and people of color are finally seeing their anger expressed onscreen and received with legitimacy, notable examples including Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Dear White People’s Reggie (Marque Richardson). Here’s our Take on the Angry Young Men (and increasingly women) of film and TV, and the politics of anger as protest.

TRANSCRIPT

Angry young men don’t have the best reputation these days. When we think of the phrase, we think of male violence, masculinity in crisis, a generation of men unable (or unwilling) to be emotionally mature.

Yet if we look back, the “angry young man” trope onscreen originated as something very different: this character came onto the scene in the so-called “kitchen sink dramas” of the ‘50s and ‘60s British New Wave as a working-class anti-hero, who challenged the established orders of society. Outside of Britain, the character also took off as an agent of disruptive political protest. Over the years, angry young men of color onscreen also increasingly vented their (even more justified) rage against systemic oppression — yet these characters’ anger frequently hasn’t been viewed with the same legitimacy or acceptance.

Recently, the angry white man onscreen has evolved into something closer to a villain — as seen in 2019’s Joker and Star Wars’ Kylo Ren — but the immense popularity of both these characters and their films proved that this trope still attracts a lot of attention and identification, as well as controversy, in our culture.

So looking over the decades, who are the angry young men we listen to, and who are the ones we challenge? Is all anger equally valid, or equally heard? Here’s our take on the Angry Young Men (and increasingly women) past and future.

Chapter One — Political Protest

The angry young man as anti-hero first emerged on the stage and on the page — with many viewing Kingsley Amis’ 1954 novel Lucky Jim and John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger as the start of the movement. Both helped establish the Angry Young Man genre as defined by gritty realism and a focus on dissatisfied working-class characters. Before these films came along, British cinema was preoccupied with the middle and upper classes, as evidenced in the highly successful comedies that came out of Ealing Studios. So when Young British directors of the Free Cinema movement — Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and Tony Richardson — all adapted angry young man novels into their feature film debuts, the very act of portraying the reality of working-class life was a kind of political protest, raging against the elitism of the dominant narratives of the day.

Jimmy Porter: “Nigel and Alison, they’re what they sound like, sycophantic, phlegmatic, and pusillanimous!” - Look Back in Anger

When working-class characters had featured in British films before this point, they were frequently one-dimensional props serving or interacting with the upper classes. But the more authentic working-class portrayals of the Angry Young Men movement painted a different picture: far from being disheveled, down-and-out beggars, these characters do have disposable income; it’s just that the money from their hard work doesn’t translate into social mobility. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s anti-hero Arthur Seaton (played by a young Albert Finney) wears nice clothes, goes to bars, has a fashionable haircut. But he’s not motivated by the promise of working his way up the ladder, and openly criticizes the older generation for chasing that goal. As a result, his anger is nihilistic, disaffected, directionless — he’s violently unsatisfied with his lot and his options in life. And his anger ends up being, ultimately, tragic, as in the film’s climax he appears about to settle down and follow the same domestic path as his parents, whom he’d previously described as “dead from the neck up.”

Even when the angry young men’s characters weren’t themselves political, their lack of social engagement was itself political. As writer Leslie Paul — whose 1951 autobiography was titled Angry Young Man — put it: “The angry young men of the ‘50s belonged to a generation seemingly devoid of political interests, and the moment of their rise coincided with the deepest trough of political and spiritual apathy Britain has passed through since the end of the war.”

To this early Angry Young Man, maybe even more important than the class divide was the generational one. Travis, the anti-hero of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 movie If… isn’t coded as working-class, but his anger stems from rage against the older generation’s establishment. Travis’ rebellion against the violent, rigid, and abusive class system of his school environment is symbolic of the greater atmosphere of revolution in the world at the time, as evidenced in protests against the Vietnam War, the birth of the anti-nuclear movement, and the student riots in Paris in May 1968.

Mick Travis: “There’s no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.” - If…

Certain social realist films veered away from, or supplemented, the harsh realism of the early kitchen-sink style with a more surreal and strange streak. These dreamlike touches which can be found in more modern examples of the genre, too suggest that — in a world that traps its citizens — the only true escape possible may be a mental one.

Outside of the social realist genre, Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange — in which he cast Malcolm McDowell directly off the back of the young actor’s performance in If… — also centered on disturbing, violent, directionless male anger, coming up against an establishment that seeks to deprive its youth of all individuality and agency. Meanwhile, the trope took on a new life beyond the shores of the UK. In the 1970s, Amitabh Bachchan was dubbed India’s “angry young man” for his roles in Bollywood films such as Zanjeer, Deewaar, and Kaalia. Again, the character held a mirror to wider society, reflecting a tumultuous period for India, which was coming out of the 1971 war with Pakistan and in the midst of a Government policy of population control that led to more than six million (mostly poor) men being coerced into sterilization.

Around the same time in America, blaxploitation cinema, with films like Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song and Black Caesar, showed young black male anger as a response to the systematic oppression these young people were facing on a daily basis.

The angry young man character had taken root in cultures around the world. In France in 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz’ film La Haine, which focused on three youths in the suburbs of Paris, was seen as so important that then French Prime Minister Alain Juppe set up a private screening for his government to, in the words of The Independent at the time, “see what it was up against.” In Britain, modern films in the social realist tradition to this day use updates to the Angry Young Man (and sometimes the Angry Young Woman) to articulate political or social problems.

As global as he became, though, the Angry Young Man has varied a great deal in his different iterations — and there have been crucial differences in how he’s received.

Chapter Two — Who Gets To Be Angry?

While white male anger has been treated in so many of these films as noble protest, there’s a long history of black men being stereotyped as aggressive and violent. This racist caricaturing has its roots in white society using these false characterizations to justify slavery. As sociologist Abby L. Ferber writes: “Black men were defined as beasts who had to be controlled and tamed to be put into service.” So when black male anger was shown on screen as a response to racism — despite this being a far more legitimate reason to get mad than any of the white angry young men ever had — this was criticized in a way that white anger never was.

Buggin’ Out: “So, since we spend much money here, we do have some say.”

Sal: “You looking for trouble? Are you a troublemaker, is that what you are?” - Do The Right Thing

Take Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing, which ends with a harrowing scene of police brutality followed by the central character, Mookie, throwing a trash can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Despite the fact that Mookie has just witnessed the murder of his friend, and Sal and his sons are racist to their majority-black clientele throughout the film, the conversation around this ending is often framed as a debate of the question: was Mookie right to start a riot? Isn’t it unfair that Sal loses his premises?

Meanwhile, initial reviews of the film even insinuated that the scene would start riots in the black community. Newsweek’s Jack Kroll called it “dynamite under every seat.” New York Magazine’s Joe Klein wrote “if black kids act on what they see, Lee may have destroyed his career.” David Denby, also writing in New York Magazine, said Spike Lee would “like to be counted in the black community as an angry man, a man ready, despite his success, to smash things.” Lee has called those reviews “uncut, unfiltered racism,” saying “to think that black moviegoers don’t have the intelligence to discern what is on-screen and that they would duplicate what Mookie was doing, was ludicrous,” but this response shows that when anger is placed into the hands of young black men on screen, it’s traditionally been seen as dangerous, even irresponsible.

The 2015 NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton depicts just how much heat the group took after releasing the song “Fuck The Police.” Straight Outta Compton also offers a kind of origin story for the song, juxtaposing its creation with the group members being harassed by LAPD outside of their studio. Once again, the social anger of the song is illustrated as a direct and justified response to injustice, but their artistic response of self-expression is viewed by their society as criminal and used to punish them.

Police officer: “You got something to say, boy?”

Jerry Heller: “Cube, get inside, let’s get back to work.”

Police officer: “You heard what your master said, get inside, boy.” - Straight Outta Compton

This is not just true of men, either. Black women have long been plagued by the Sapphire — or Angry Black Woman — stereotype. While the stereotype gets called out and resisted, this “misogynoir” still appears frequently in pop culture.

And what of women in general? What happens when they get angry? Arguably the most iconic rebel women in cinema are Thelma and Louise, and while the film is remembered almost as an escapist fantasy of female friendship, the anger that binds these two women together is rooted in a tragic acceptance of rape culture.

Louise Sawyer: [Screaming] “Just about a hundred goddamn people saw you dancing cheek to cheek with him all night… who’s gonna believe that?! We don’t live in that kind of a world, Thelma!” - Thelma and Louise

Their anger doesn’t free them; it traps them, and in the end, the only way they can liberate themselves is through death. In Erin Brockovich, Erin may eventually come out of the film as the winner, but the fact that she’s a volatile, tempestuous character is constantly used by others as an attempt to discredit her. Andrea Arnold, continuing the British social realist tradition for contemporary audiences, features young working-class female characters whose dissatisfaction reflects an unfair society that’s neglected them.

Tall Dancing Girl: “Talk about ugly, you skanky little pikey.”

Mia Williams: [Screaming] “What you gonna do about it?!” - Fisk Tank


Chapter Three — From Anti-hero To Villain

As society has evolved, the angry young man trope has evolved with it. And those dissatisfied white males who were once admirable political antiheroes, have morphed into social villains.

One of the biggest films of 2019 was a social realist-style character study about a working-class man whose anger at society manifests itself in violent ways. And the explosive controversy surrounding the film testified to the fact that the angry young man continues to be as politically charged a figure as ever, and scary to many people, especially if he aligns with the wrong politics. The slew of think pieces debating whether the film was dangerous before it even came out read a little like those early reviews of Do The Right Thing, but in this case, it was the film’s alt-right fan base critics feared.

The angry young man is inevitably read as a mirror of his time’s broader social climate, and Joker wasn’t the first time when the figure was linked to an unsympathetic or alarming politics. Joker consciously models itself on early Martin Scorsese films starring Robert DeNiro, including Taxi Driver, whose racist, sexist, disturbed Travis Bickle embodied the dark side of the ‘70s American angry young white man — psychologically damaged by Vietnam, alienated by the harsh realities of city life. The climax of 1968’s If…, featuring a mass-shooting of the school’s elite, read in its time as a symbolic expression of youthful revolt, yet it would hardly play that way now, amidst our conversations of toxic masculinity and the all-too-real tragedies of far too many school shootings. In 1988, American History X told a shocking tale of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but in the context of the time, it was viewed as an investigation into a disturbing but small subculture. As Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “I don’t think anyone watching American History X in the nineties thought its white supremacist characters would ever become mainstream. Today, some of [these views] are being echoed from the White House.” So it’s easy to imagine that, if American History X were released today, our climate would lead to the film being viewed very differently.

Dennis Vinyard: “It’s everywhere I look now.”

Derek Vinyard: “What?”

Dennis Vinyard: “This affirmative black-tion.” - American History X

The same can be said of other movies who portrayed anger that felt appealing at the time. Still, American History X‘s ultimate message of how easily the anger of lost, misguided youths can be co-opted and exploited by nefarious powers remains as apt as ever today.

And the charismatic villain version of the “angry young man” is so of our times that he’s even at the center of our biggest blockbusters. When Star Wars returned with The Force Awakens in 2015, one of the more surprising characters viewers were drawn to was the antagonist, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren — proving that, on some level, many of us continue to relate to this brand of raw, youthful rage and its resentment toward the older generation.

Perhaps the most charismatic mainstream villain of our times, though, is a black man with very good reasons to be angry: Black Panther‘s Erik Killmonger. Killmonger’s childhood hardship, and his philosophy that all black people around the world must be taken care of, make him in many ways more sympathetic even than the film’s hero. Despite the righteousness of his cause and his rage, though, Killmonger’s anger still consumes him, eating him from the inside so that he’s incapable of being a leader who makes constructive change in the world.

Killmonger: “I learn from my enemies. Beat them at they own game.”

T’Challa: “You have become them!” - Black Panther


Conclusion

Billy Joel might have said it best when he sang:

Billy Joel: “There’s a place in the world for the angry young man, with his working-class ties and his radical plans.” - “Angry Young Man”

So where is the place for the angry young man and his radical plans in the 21st century? Anger is a response to feeling powerless, an attempt to seize control when you have none. Thus the anger of the disenfranchised and unheard will always be a crucial political force to be harnessed for change — as well as a volatile agent of chaos that’s ripe for misuse and misdirection.

Throughout the decades, the angry young man has remained a constant, but his significance has evolved as his landscape has shifted. What began as the emblem of a working-class hero fighting for space in the mainstream became an intolerant group desperately trying to hold onto its privileged position. Today, instead, the most politically powerful anger is coming from oppressed minorities who have long been told to suppress their rage.

After all, there are plenty of things to still be angry about. The reason the angry young man trope still resonates so widely is because we all know that, sometimes, it’s good to get angry. It’s the right thing to do.

Reggie Green: “A bullet that can puncture my skin, take all my dreams away, a bullet that can silence the words that I speak to my mother just because I’m other.” - Dear White People 1x06

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