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Dog Day Afternoon and the origins of the moralistic identity agenda

Al Pacino is a bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon. Photo: still from the film.

Currently, few academic groups and political parties in Brazil expose the intrinsic contradictions of the so-called identity culture.

However, criticism of this political strategy is not new and has existed since the 1970s, especially in more progressive academic circles linked to materialist cultural criticism and cultural studies.

A very pertinent example that helps to clarify the issue is the work of the American theorist Fredric Jameson.

In his 1977 article Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film, he analyzes the film directed by Sidney Lumet, produced two years earlier, as a contradictory representation of the historical material.

The film tells the story of a bank robbery. Events that happened some years before in New York inspired the script. In form, it follows the classic Hollywood narrative and was the vehicle for a movie star who was in his prime at the time, Al Pacino, who plays the protagonist Sonny, a typical anti-hero.

However, as Jameson points out in his article when working with everyday materials, the film cannot totally escape the inherent contradictions of social materiality and the political key of its historical moment.

For him, “the identification of the film with the political content of everyday life (...) contributes to the emergence of deep formal contradictions, which the audience cannot fail to notice, whether or not they have the conceptual tools to understand what they are. contradictions mean”.

In the story, Sonny and a cohort take over a bank branch where employees (all women), a middle-aged manager, and an elderly black security guard work.

Everything seems to happen quickly, but the assailant's amateurism causes the city's police apparatus and US federal policy (the FBI) ​​to encircle the agency.

What follows is a long negotiation for the release of the hostages that becomes a huge media spectacle broadcast live by TV stations, closely followed by popular people who, unexpectedly, side with Sonny.

Soon, we received the information that he decided to carry out the robbery as a way to get the necessary money so that his wife, a transsexual, could undergo sex-change surgery.

Therefore, the film puts all the elements that today we could call minority identity in its agenda. Our contemporary point of view can not miss the representations of race, gender, and sexual identity.

However, Jameson's critique highlights the elements of class that the Hollywood form cannot hide.

The impersonal bank branch, owned by a financial conglomerate, is a historical marker that invades the seedy neighborhood and stands in opposition to the local barbershop, taken over by the police apparatus during the siege.

The agency materializes the capitalist change in the form of mass consumption and the financialization of everyday life. Bank employees reveal the financial company option for cheap labor. And the elderly black safeguard, mistaken for one of the assailants by the police, is underemployed.

The television spectacle represented in the film anticipates our own experience with social media today. It is possible to infer that social networks are the way they are because they repeat the spectacle culture that already existed.

More importantly, the representation of diverse identity groups does not empty a common problem: the class issue. This factor unites them since the structural changes that capitalism imposes affect everyone equally.

On this subject, Jameson states that “what is clearer today is that the claims of justice and equality proclaimed by these groups are not (unlike social class politics) intrinsically subversive. (...) The values ​​of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the egalitarianism of the student movement are remarkably cooptable because they are already – as ideals – inscribed in the ideological core of capitalism itself. In addition, we must consider the possibility that these ideals are part of the internal logic of the system, which has a crucial interest in social equality, insofar as it needs it to transform as many subjects or citizens as possible into consumers.”

Currently, the identity policy claimed by Brazilian groups contains the same defects as the American one, which it only imitates. It is not by chance that large capitalist groups make egalitarian inclusion a social responsibility strategy.

It is a bourgeois and capitalist policy, (not leftist and socialist). It serves the interests of the ruling class by fragmenting social groups formed by wage earners and workers. It is a policy of promoting conflicts and disunity among members of the same class.

Furthermore, its current form in Brazil is, above all, an out-of-place idea, to quote Roberto Schwarz. It recalls a type of conservative moralism that refuses to see the reality of the miserable people who walk our streets and works only for the privileged inclusion of a few individuals in the system that oppresses everyone, without exception.

Socialism will bring the solidary subjectivity necessary to the end of historical prejudices.


Jameson, Fredric. “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film.” College English 38, no. 8 (1977): 843–59.


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