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It was 1940. Hitler was sweeping across Europe and the world was still largely ignorant of the most gruesome horrors being committed by the Nazis. In a move that remains unimaginably bold even 75 years later, Charles Chaplin, the most recognizable entertainer in the world, took a stand in the form of a big-budget, feature-length film that did more than just criticize Hitler, it set out to humiliate him. Chaplin felt that the worst thing he could do to a true megalomaniac would be to have the world laugh at him. And The Great Dictator did that brilliantly. But Chaplin couldn’t end it there.
Chaplin needed to make his own point about the need for unity and brotherhood in times of overwhelming fear and discord. So, at the conclusion of his film, his character — a Jewish barber with a striking resemblance to the fascist dictator “Adenoid Hynkel” — turns to the audience and delivers a fierce appeal to our humanity that was precisely of its time, while remaining decades ahead of it.
Google the phrase “greatest speech ever made” and see what comes up.
When the film came out, critics pointed out this speech as the film’s great flaw. Variety called it a “peculiar and somewhat disappointing climax.” The New York Times, in an otherwise rave review that proclaimed the movie “perhaps the most significant film ever produced” still dismissed Chaplin’s monologue as “bewildering” and “maudlin.” Turns out they were wrong. How wrong? Just Google the phrase, “the greatest speech ever made” and see what comes up. But it wasn’t just controversial in cinematic terms. This was 1940, and the most famous man on the planet lured millions in to movie theaters to preach the equality of all colors, faiths, and economic stations. This was bravery on a level that has little parallel in 2016, let alone in the turbulent years defined by Jim Crow, Hitler, and Mussolini. And while the emerging technologies he references may sound dated, his warnings about their effects on our humanity are anything but.
The impact of Chaplin’s once-dismissed speech has continued to grow over the decades, reaching more people than even Chaplin could have imagined possible. In the past decade alone, that speech has been released as a single, sampled powerfully by Paolo Nutini, Logic, and Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, has inspired countless memes, and racked up tens-of-millions of views on YouTube. In divisive times, this three-and-a-half minute appeal to our highest values is exactly the message we all need to hear.