One of the miraculous benefits from storytelling – especially in cinema – is its ability to teach and inform, enabling empathy by making news and history come alive. We share experiences not necessarily from historical perspective, but also as a plea to correct or change direction into the future. By recounting and reenacting acts of bravery and resistance, film can serve as both acknowledgement and inspiration.
The subject matter – that of subjugation, inequality or displacement – is seldom box office gold. You can be certain that the total box office receipts of the twenty most successful films in this genre would be hard-pressed to approach the opening weekend of a MARVEL or DC Comics movie, but these films have always been a cornerstone in the history of cinema as they balance between art and social responsibility. The stories can be fact-based or fictional, rooted in the historical data they illustrate.
Mark Twain once observed that there isn’t an acre of land on the face of the earth that’s in possession of its rightful owners. Barring those shipped over as slaves, nearly every resident of North America can trace their ancestry back to waves of immigration caused by political or religious oppression. Slavery and colonialism build walls of stigmas that are seemingly indestructible, and modern day fundamentalism threatens to swallow cultures in the remotest regions on the globe.
So what happens when the disenfranchised try and jostle themselves into a mainstream that prefers homogeneity? What hardships and prejudices did our own immigrant ancestors face in the 18th and 19th Centuries – and why have we chosen to forget them in the face of new waves of refugees today? And what of those old, ingrained ethnic assumptions – why do they resurface whenever we try to enforce our laws or decide between guilt or innocence?
Here are five illustrations from around the globe that take on the insanity of sameness:
Mudbound – Dee Rees (2017)
This year, Dee Rees has given us a gift we have been waiting for – a balanced and complete illustration of the challenges attached to the discarding of old, hateful ideas about race and poverty. Hearing good script is like listening to music and she has hit us with a symphony. Two families – one poor white, the other black – interact during and after the period of the Second World War. When the war is over, one would assume that all parties would have learned something from each other, but that is not the case. Stellar performances across the board (Mary J Blige – girl, you rock!) and top-notch production values deliver a story all should see. A plus for the film is that it is a Netflix production and easily accessible from home, making it unnecessary to brave the weather to sit on somebody else’s chewing gum while listening to numerous cell phone conversations. Unfortunately, AMPAS has a very old –fashioned view of the TV platform, which could hamstring the films chances at the Oscars. All I can say to that is, screw the Academy – it won’t be the first time they’ve ignored one of the best films of the year and it won’t be the last. See it!
Utvandrarna (The Emigrants)/ Nybyggarna (The New Land) – Jan Troell (1971/2)
Troell’s Swedish venture, along with the sequel, The New Land, covers in great detail the why’s and how’s of one family’s decision to emigrate to North America and the hardships they faced before, during and after the harrowing voyage. A true auteur, Troell is not only the director, but also the writer, principle photographer and editor, and he has a keen eye and ear for both the natural world and the human psyche. This epic sweeps us up and carries us away as we follow the family of Karl and Kristina (the brilliant Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman). I saw both films when they were initially released and waited…and waited..for a home video release. Finally, last year (!) Criterion came through with a fully restored version clocking in at about six hours that is a joy to behold. Set aside a couple of nights and immerse yourself, then lecture me about the “immigration problem”. I dare you.
Timbuktu – Abderrahmane Sissako (2014)
Sissako takes on the scourge of the 21st Century, that of the incomprehensible rise of fundamentalism and its effect – not on the West and all its creature comforts, but on the indigenous population. It was the best reviewed foreign language film of its year and pulls no punches as it examines both the ridiculousness and tragedy that is oppression by way of religious intolerance of an intensity not seen since the Inquisition in medieval Europe and, later, its various empires worldwide. What begins as an argument between a cattle herder and a fisherman quickly becomes mired in the abomination that is Sharia Law as it is interpreted and executed by Jihadi thugs. Sissako juxtaposes normal Mali life with the repressive rules that even those charged with its implementation and enforcement cannot follow – except when it conveniently amps up their power and control of the population. We Westerners drag out our righteous disgust at every terrorist incident that hits Paris, London or New York, yet how many of us consider what life must be like under their oppressive thumb on a daily basis?
Hunger – Steve McQueen (2008)
The final six weeks of IRA internee, Bobby Sands, renowned nine-week hunger strike gets intense treatment in McQueen’s first feature film in which, coincidentally, Michael Fassbender’s star began its ascent with his first leading role. McQueen wisely focused his camera on the minute details of prison life, interrupted regularly by bullying guards and, in the film’s iconic scene, a riveting conversation between Bobby and his priest about his decision to proceed with the hunger strike. McQueen replaces lofty political arguments with details of daily life that result from those politics: guards checking their cars for bombs as part of the morning routine, a riot officer in tears, prison walls smeared with feces, and the regular and deliberate abuse of prisoners. By inserting televised statements by the Iron Lady herself into the midst of the ongoing struggle between prisoners and guards, McQueen gives us the opportunity to form an opinion on whether or not the punishment truly fits the crime. Master class acting by Fassbender and McQueen’s deliberate eye and timing make for an unforgettable film experience.
Tell Them Willie Boy is Here – Abraham Polonsky (1969)
Based on a true story, a Paiute Native American boy (Robert Blake) kills the father of his girlfriend (Katherine Ross) in self-defense and the two of them take off on the run. Assumptions run rampant and a posse, headed-up by Caucasian Sheriff Cooper (Robert Redford). Polonsky, once a victim of persecution during the McCarthy Era, rightly turns his tale into an indictment of the genocide as practiced against Native American culture, reflecting it off the sheriff’s character as he pursues Willie. The closer he gets, the greater his doubts become about the efficacy and fairness of his role, until the two meet at their final encounter, a predetermined conclusion by this point. This was the first film Polonsky was allowed to direct since 1948, twenty years after he was blacklisted for his unrepentant Marxism and his refusal to name names. The film airs on TCM this coming Monday. How is that for timing? Watch it.
As much as we all claim to admire individuality, there isn’t a corner of the world that guarantees successful practice without some adversity from someone whose idea of individuality differs. It’s films like these that provide us with a taste of intolerance in its many forms so that perhaps we might not repeat the sins of the past. Perhaps.