Diversity Waits on a Green Light

7 minute read

The world of film resists change, mostly because movies–even independent ones–take so long to conceive, plan and finance, let alone actually make. Plus, the majority of people who decide which movies get made and how are still white men, who are often slow to greenlight anything that might challenge them. No matter how you feel about either preserving the sovereignty of white dudes or shoving them aside, they’re here to stay, at least for one more year.

Yet 2017’s movies will seem radically different because we are radically different. Whether our worst fears will play out or not, plenty of us worry that we’re entering a period of cultural regression–and just when we thought things were getting good too. If early 2016 was dominated by the #OscarsSoWhite debate, by the fall, those of us who care about the variety and substance of movies gave ourselves permission to breathe a sigh of relief. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight showed us men of color who, instead of just fulfilling all our cherished notions of who men of color are, were living lives we couldn’t previously have imagined seeing onscreen. The picture told us something we didn’t already know, about people we’d never seen before–probably because we just weren’t looking hard enough. Other movies–like Jeff Nichols’ Loving, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation–made 2016 seem more progressive, in terms of the types of stories we saw onscreen, than we might have expected in January.

Not that everything was rosy: Asian and Latino actors and filmmakers weren’t particularly well represented. And while a remake of bro-fave Ghostbusters featured women in the starring roles, that film opened the noisiest and dumbest battle of all, a showdown that reminded us just how ingrained sexism really is. At least our cartoons were steeped in civic principles: Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s animated parable Zootopia described an animal Gotham where predators and their prey live peaceably, until nefarious government forces step in to instill fear.

On to 2017. While audiences clamoring for more movies made by and about white dudes are probably going to be in luck, what can the rest of us look forward to? Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom (Feb. 17) dramatizes the real-life, apartheid-defying marriage between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the man who would become the first President of Botswana, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white London office worker. More than 20 years after his death, Tupac Shakur will finally get his biopic, All Eyez on Me (June 16). We’ll see what director Patty Jenkins has done with Wonder Woman (June 2), starring the formidable Gal Gadot. Ava DuVernay is hard at work on her adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time (it won’t be released until 2018, but it’s one more thing to look forward to). And Sofia Coppola, anti-comic-book-superhero filmmaker extraordinaire, gives us a Civil War–era western, The Beguiled (June 23), starring Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell. Note that this is a remake of a 1971 picture directed by Don Siegel, among the manliest of manly directors, and starring Clint Eastwood, among the manliest of manly stars.

There’s more: the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 19–29) will host premieres of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets?, a documentary about the Ferguson, Mo., uprising after the killing of Michael Brown, and The Force, Peter Nicks’ documentary about the Oakland, Calif., police department. Other features slated to play at Sundance include Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights, based on the true story of a Brooklyn man falsely convicted of murder, and the fraternity-hazing drama Burning Sands, starring Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes and directed by Gerard McMurray, an associate producer of Ryan Coogler’s 2013 Fruitvale Station.

For now, though, those movies are just titles with names attached. How will we feel, at the end of 2017, after we’ve seen them? The final months of 2016 have been a viper’s nest of anxiety, accusations and posturing, with comers from all sides. Suddenly, there’s a rift between white working-class Americans and those they view as condescending coastal liberals–or rather, a rift has been steadily growing, and too many were too slow to see it. This divide hasn’t hit the world of movies, at least not in any immediately visible way. But the specter of white supremacy has to be on filmmakers’ minds. How destructive a force will it be? That’s a question no one can answer right now.

The way forward, and perhaps the only way to avoid madness, is to think less about people who would like to obstruct progress and more about pushing forward. In late January 2016, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made an official move to diversify: its goal was to double the number of women and minorities in its ranks by 2020. What’s more, the Academy’s board instituted changes to the criteria used to determine members’ voting eligibility, requiring each member’s status to be reviewed every 10 years. In other words, if you’re an old-timer who hasn’t been active in the industry for decades, you’ll have to meet certain standards to maintain voting rights.

The Academy, too long a petrified forest with numbingly predictable tastes, needed to be modernized, diversified and electrified, and maybe these changes will help when it comes to honoring good work in the industry. But what about the movies themselves? Is there any way they can unify our cleft nation, or are we doomed to a future of filmgoing tastes divided between so-called cultural elitism and populism? Are we looking at a future of living inside one roiling, angry comments section?

Maybe it’s useful, or at least comforting, to remember that movies aren’t always what we want them to be, when we need them to be. Today Sidney Lumet’s 1957 drama 12 Angry Men, in which a jury holdout, played by Henry Fonda, tries to persuade his fellow jurors, all white, of an 18-year-old Puerto Rican boy’s innocence in the killing of his father, is considered a classic of cherished liberal ideals. But as Pauline Kael pointed out in an essay written over 50 years ago, “Ask an educated American what he thought of 12 Angry Men and more likely than not he will reply, ‘That movie made some good points’ or ‘It got some important ideas across.’ His assumption,” Kael writes, “is that it carried these ideas, which also happen to be his ideas, to the masses. Actually, it didn’t: this tense, ingenious juryroom melodrama was a flop with the mass audience, a success only at revivals in art houses.”

Movies have lives beyond anything we can imagine for them upon their release. That’s true whether they’re flops or hits, whether they reach the mainstream immediately or eventually or never. The movie landscape of 2016 was better than many of us expected it to be, but there’s a danger in viewing the past year’s movies–as terrific as so many of them were–as any sort of sign of great progress. We can always do better. Complacency and self-congratulation are so 2016. Last year, and the year before, and maybe even every year before that, we thought we were stepping up to the plate. Let’s see what happens now that we really have a plate to step up to.

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