One of philosophical themes that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby explores is that of social justice. Luhrmann translates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book to creatively scrutinize the way people with a sense of entitlement consider that they are ‘born to rule’ over others. Throughout the film Luhrmann emphasises inequality and hypocrisy, with wealthy Anglo-Americans relying upon a constant supply of prohibited liquor and the ready workforce of a black underclass while berating ‘dirty bootleggers’ and the ‘coloured empire’.
Although America prides itself on being the New World where the ‘American Dream’ of being able to rise from poverty to power began with the story of Abraham Lincoln, the America depicted in The Great Gatsby is as much about an authority ‘born to rule’ as any traditional aristocratic society. This theory of justice was expounded by Aristotle who stated in Politics: “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…”. The hypocrisy that underlies this thinking is shown through the polo playing character, Tom Buchanan, concentrating on questions of where Jay Gatsby’s money comes from, while not addressing the source of his own fortune. In Leviathan, Hobbes expands on the role of authority in holding society together. Rules of justice must be relentlessly enforced by absolute sovereign power in order to ensure that people are discouraged from breaking them.
Buchanan wants to ensure the supremacy of his power against the usurper Gatsby. The film gathers to its climax with a scene inside the Plaza Hotel between the main characters, beginning with a bellboy violently splitting a large block of ice with an icepick. The scene relies upon a tension of false manners to keep the violence felt between Buchanan and Gatsby at bay, with close-up camera angles, cut by bronze fans, being set upon their overheated faces. Other than their voices, the only sound is the whirring of the fans slicing through the atmosphere. Buchanan is framed in the claustrophobic background of eighteenth century paintings on a deep red and mahogany background symbolising tradition and power , while Gatsby is framed against the open windows and the New York skyline, symbolising the new and free.
Tom’s tirade against Gatsby begins: “You see nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and the next you know we’ll throw everything overboard and we’ll have intermarriage between black and white”. When Gatsby professes his love for Daisy, Tom states: “You’re crazy! … I’ll be damned if I see how you got within a mile of her, unless you brought the groceries to the backdoor.” Gatsby tries to keep his civility in a show of equality with Tom, saying: “The only respectable thing about you is your money. That’s it! I’ve just as much as you and that means we’re equal”. Tom responds: “Oh, no, no! We’re different! I am. They are (he points to Jordan and Carraway ). She is (he points to Daisy). We’re all different from you. You see we were born different. It’s in our blood. You see? Nothing that you do or say or steal, or dream up…” The sound of the fans becomes the beat of blood and the scene erupts with Gatsby seizing Tom. He recovers himself and attempts to pull his coat together, apologising for his bad manners. Tom ridicules him: “That’s right Mr Gatsby. Show us some of those fine Oxford manners.”
Buchanan and Gatsby inhabit the same world yet with completely contrasting perspectives. While Buchanan’s wealth and power rely upon the status quo being upheld, Gatsby relies upon such a construct of power being overcome. In America, where the wealthy 1% still own 36% of America’s total wealth3, Luhrmann has used the vehicle of popular film to highlight the stark contrasts in this power indicator. Considering how much security this power brings to those who hold it, it is no wonder the film was so vehemently criticised by a media that grovels to that power.
REFERENCES: Domhoff, G.W., (2013), Power in America: Wealth, Income and Power, viewed 12/09/2013,
Pomerleau, W.P., (2013), Western Theories of Justice, viewed 08/09/2013,