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Let’s backtrack through 2016. The Oscar nominations dropped on January 14 (god, it seems so long ago, lifetimes really), and the backlash was swift and sharp – among the twenty acting nominees announced that morning, exactly zero were people of color. Social media responded quickly, with April Reign creating the immediately ubiquitous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, and the subsequent controversy came to dominate those final weeks of award season, a conversation that went well beyond those twenty names, as observers inside and outside the industry noted it was less a matter of widespread snubs than that there were so few films and performances to choose from in the first place. It wasn’t just that Oscar is so white – it’s that Hollywood is so white. And that’s a systemic issue, one that requires long-term solutions.
Yet sometimes a dire situation can produce an outcome of awareness, and, to some extent, that’s what happened here. I’m not talking about the immediate, “they just feel bad about #OscarsSoWhite” sneering that we heard in the wake of that controversy. And I’m not even talking about the abundance of films telling stories by and about African-Americans this fall; this medium moves at a snail’s pace, and the majority of these films were already in various stages of production when the conversation escalated last winter. The fact that so many arrived at the same time is mostly serendipity – but that serendipity is itself a good sign, particularly when the films themselves are both high-quality and thought-provoking. And considering the events of the “real world” this fall, more pressing concerns come to the fore: how can art influence, educate, and embolden a country that, with the flick of a voting booth lever, chooses to throw entire segments of its population under the bus?
In writing about the best of these films, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, I noted the striking commonality within them, how many seem to work in concert with each other, touching on similar themes from adjacent or even opposite angles. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, for example, focuses on the experiences and evolution of a young man who is poor, black, and gay – a trifecta of circumstances often ignored outright in popular fiction individually, to say nothing of when they’re combined. (The othering of the film on those grounds was more than a little embarrassing.) But it’s a story told from the inside out, regarding those circumstances as a matter of fact, and working forward from assumptions and ideas that Jenkins takes no pains to spell out for a wide audience. The film’s specificity is part of what makes it so special, the sense that these are lives led every day, even if they rarely make it to our screens.
Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America is a less serious film than Moonlight, with lower stakes, but there’s a commonality of experience between the films – that of being a young black outsider, struggling to make one’s way and find a place in a world that won’t make one for you. Morris’s circumstances are more about geography than sexuality; he’s an American in Germany (due to his single dad’s profession, soccer coach), surrounded by a culture he does not know and a language he struggles to speak. Then again, one doesn’t exactly have to go to Germany to get that sensation.
Other films visit the past to better understand the present. Both Hidden Figures and The Birth of a Nation are flawed films (in different ways; Figures is hindered by its simplicity, while Birth’s troubles mostly lay off-screen) but vitally important ones, telling stories of black history – of the black women who were vital to the space race and of Nat Turner’s slave revolt – barely touched on in school texts or historical cinema. And, like the best of history, they galvanize us: to learn, teach, and shine in the case of the former, to protest and fight in the latter. Both adhere, perhaps rather too strictly, to the formulas of the historical docudrama, but those conventions are hard to shake. The fact that both Hidden Figures and The Birth of a Nation hewed to those conventions so closely helps explain how these two films were (respectively) financed and acquired by a major media entity – Fox, to be precise, a factoid all the more remarkable when contemplating the exhausting racism of their “news” arm. Both thus represent baby steps; more subversive and radical works are hopefully to come.
Loving and Fences tell similar tales of the past, but working from a more personal perspective. Loving concerns Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple at the center of the case in which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled laws banning interracial marriage as unconstitutional. It’s the kind of story one could easily imagine as a big, bad prestige picture, with dramatic speeches and soaring strings, but writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps it simple and intimate. The most interesting thing to him, in any given scene, is the affection between his protagonists, and it’s ultimately less a movie about their historical importance than their individual relationship.
Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences is set in roughly the same period, though in a more metropolitan setting. It too finds much of its personality in the relationship between Troy and Rose Maxson, the married couple at its center, and then its drama in the betrayal of that relationship. But in both films, these marriages are irrevocably altered by the social and historical circumstances around them – the Lovings by the racism of laws literally forbidding their union, the Maxsons by a lifetime at the receiving end of prejudice that places a psychological burden on Troy, one that he takes out on his wife both directly and indirectly. One can read what he does to her as character flaws, but those flaws are clearly the result of a lifetime of bitterness and disappointment at opportunities not afforded him due to the color of his skin.
In other words, these stories are about context. And this year’s best documentaries were heavy on context, drawing clear lines between white supremacy, police brutality, police militarization, mass incarceration, and protest movements. In its brief but potent running time, Craig Atkinson’s powerful documentary Do Not Resist considers the political and historical circumstances that have turned America’s police forces into heavily weaponized military units, and considers what that unchecked power has done to the cities they patrol. And the unchecked power of police is one of the recurring themes of the massive, meticulous O.J.: Made in America, which considers the late-20th century’s most notorious media circus within the background t it was so rarely placed in as it happened, yet it must be understood within: the Los Angeles Police Department’s long history of abuse and mistreatment of the city’s black citizenry. Given the luxury of a 7½ hour running time, director Ezra Edelman is able to devote nearly as much of the first three hours to the history of the LAPD as he does to that of O.J. Simpson, the marquee subject. But it feels like neither a stretch or an indulgence. This stuff goes back generations.
And that goes double for Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which considers the history of African-American incarceration and incapacity all the way to the slave era, and the 13th amendment that ended it – with a catch. Coming when it did, towards the end of this contentious, toxic campaign, DuVernay’s film felt like an elixir for the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations that dominated it. It does what great works of history and commentary are supposed to do: it shines all available light into its prism, helping us understand the connections between seemingly disparate elements of contemporary life. For a viewer who only knows Black Lives Matter or Trayvon Martin through the information they’ve been fed on Fox or even CNN, it can change an entire worldview. (The trick, of course, is getting them to sit down and watch it.)
The timing of such things is entirely accidental, but it’s striking that 13th landed before election day, and the film it engages in most direct dialogue with, I Am Not Your Negro, lands after. 13th is an introduction to these ideas, while Negro is a further exploration of them, via the writings of James Baldwin and his unfinished history of the civil rights struggle. But more than that, in Baldwin, Negro provides a moral compass to guide us through the morass of the years to come. He wrote passionately about race, class, society, and protest in the years of our greatest contemporary social upheaval, and as the films shows, his writings have only grown more pertinent. His words were a beacon in that period; one comes away from the film feeling that they will only become more so in the years to come.
And, for that matter, so can these films – as examples of the kind of popular art that can provide refuge, guidance, and inspiration in troubled times. A small smattering of films addressing these issues and telling these stories do not, by any means, amount to the victory lap that some are already calling them; the work is not done, far from it. For all the new African-American films of late, there’s still a frightful shortage of stories by and about similarly underrepresented and threatened Americans: Latinx, Asian, Muslim, queer, the list goes on. And we’re still seeing, mostly, a certain kind of black film, set more frequently in a hopefully conquerable past than in a complicated present that will presumably become even more difficult to navigate in the next few years. Finally, these films are, too often, still in the hands of white directors — sympathetic ones, yes, but still often limited by the range of their own personal encounters with these issues.
These films may tell disparate stories in divergent styles, using contrasting tools and with varying degrees of success. But taken together, they do send one united message: we are here, and we have stories to tell. And those stories are essential, now more than ever.