Loving, opening Nov. 4, is a movie about the couple whose marriage eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and overturned laws against interracial marriage. Ever since it appeared at the Cannes Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, it’s been one of those films that’s talked about as a contender for Academy Awards. That’s partly because of its quality, and partly because of 2016 Oscar nominees like Spotlight, the Academy Award winner about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals of the early 2000s. Or Selma, about the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Or The Danish Girl, about an early recipient of gender reassignment surgery. Or The Big Short, about the causes of the recent financial crisis. The “message movie,” where commercial filmmakers try to combine mainstream storytelling with socially constructive ideas, is back in a big way.
“There’s never been a better time for socially conscious filmmaking,” says Ryan Krivoshey, who co-founded the company Grasshopper and Marks to encourage the making and distribution of such films. It’s almost become common to see major movies that try to come to grips with the biggest problems in history.
Dexter J. Gabriel, assistant professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Connecticut, who has written and taught about slavery in popular culture, says, “We’ve seen an increase in major Hollywood films that revolve around slavery in the past few years, including Belle, 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation. Television has also seen an increase, with a remake of Roots and the series Underground.” Only a few years ago, he adds, “Major films on slavery were so few they tended to come about in eight to nine year intervals.”
Not only are there more socially conscious films out there, but production companies exist that are devoted to them. Spotlight was co-produced by Participant Media, founded by Canadian entrepreneur Jeff Skoll to make “entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” And some of these movies are fought over by distributors: Fox Searchlight paid US$17.5 million for The Birth of a Nation, where director-star Nate Parker tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave revolt.
There’s even a basic formula for the modern message movie. Usually the producers take an incident from the past—anything from the 19th century to the recent past portrayed in Spotlight—and try to draw some kind of parallel between past and present, or show that there is still work to be done to make things better. This is often accompanied by interviews where filmmakers talk about their broader purpose in taking on the project: “Equality is something that as a society we constantly have to redefine for ourselves,” Loving director Jeff Nichols told the press on the red carpet at TIFF. “And I think Loving is a great example to take into that conversation for decades to come.”
The message movie, sometimes called the “social problem film,” has been a part of Hollywood going back to movies like 1932’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. But in the last couple of decades, Hollywood filmmakers and Academy Award voters seemed to tire of this kind of movie. Instead, the moviemakers who often got praise were the ones who either avoided political issues, or approached them in a way that couldn’t be neatly categorized as liberal or conservative. The model for critically acclaimed films was something like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where issues of race and sexuality were mostly props for a story about other movies, or the mostly message-free ﬁlms of Wes Anderson.
Today, though, there’s less excitement over movies that try to avoid political issues, and even some hostility to filmmakers who profess not to care about them. This year, Joel and Ethan Coen, two of America’s most honoured filmmakers, found themselves facing some controversy for the lack of people of colour in their films and the supposed frivolousness of their latest movie (Hail, Caesar!, about Hollywood in the 1950s). Even Quentin Tarantino, once the king of valuing style over content, seems to have realized that you need a social conscience today. His last two movies, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were both at least partly denunciations of racism, in a more direct way than earlier movies like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.
This is quite a turnaround from the days when many critics were actively suspicious of, or even hostile to, socially conscious movies. Two of the most influential U.S. critics, The New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael and the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, disagreed on a lot of things, but both were merciless opponents of well-meaning movies with good liberal messages, instead celebrating directors like Martin Scorsese, who preferred to focus on the personal problems of their characters, and make political points only obliquely. More recently, there was massive critical backlash when Paul Haggis’s drama Crash won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Picture—the Canadian filmmaker’s statement about race relations in the U.S. is commonly cited as one of the worst movies every to win the award. It wasn’t impossible for a message movie to get good reviews, but it would rarely get points for its good intentions.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, author of Placing Movies, says this “bias against socially critical cinema” was “partially a justifiable bias against the phony liberal pieties of Stanley Kramer and his ilk.” Kramer was a Hollywood producer-director who provided a template for many message movies to this day: take an issue most of the audience already agrees on, and portray it in the most middle-of-the-road way possible. Inherit the Wind took on the famous Scopes evolution case almost 40 years after it happened. Not long after the case revisisted in Loving was decided by the Supreme Court in 1967, Kramer had a big hit with his film about interracial marriage, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, where he chose to portray the prospective black son-in-law as a person with no flaws. Kramer, and other liberal Hollywood filmmakers, may have given social consciousness a bad name.
But names like Stanley Kramer don’t mean much to younger filmmakers. The Hollywood status quo they’re rebelling against may be the exact opposite: movies that consider themselves too insular to deal with the problems around them. Today’s filmmakers are often interested in what Krivoshey calls the power of film “to effect quantifiable change on social and political issues,” and to influence people “in the foods they eat, in the products they buy, and in the companies they choose to do business with.” Selma director Ava DuVernay told New York magazine that issues like race and class are “like an open wound,” and “there are artists trying to heal it.” The same may go for critics, increasingly tired of movies that don’t have much to say about the wider world.
Still, the conditions that caused the older backlash against message movies still exist today, and may prevent some of these movies from digging too deeply, even if they win Oscars. The biggest problem with message movies is that, being commercial movies, they play it safe. That’s one reason why so many are set in the past, focusing stories like the breaking of the colour line in Major League Baseball (in the 2013 drama 42). Though they try to draw parallels between then and now, or renew our outrage over recent scandals and wars, there is a sense of distance, an easy out for viewers who want to believe the problems have already been solved.
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Gabriel says that movies about a subject like slavery usually find some way to fit it into an uplifting narrative. For instance, The Birth of a Nation, he says, “alludes to a coming victory for American ideals by transforming a young boy into a Union soldier.” Even movies that focus speciﬁcally on the horrors of slavery, like 12 Years a Slave, “fulfill a dramatic narrative by giving audiences a person/persons to cheer for—with the hope that eventually there will be a victory, with villains easily personified by disreputable characters.” Movies, especially movies with stars and decent budgets, can’t afford to rock the boat too much; in that respect, not much has changed since the days of Stanley Kramer.
Some filmmakers have tried to avoid the usual easy answers. DuVernay’s Selma tried to do without the typical Hollywood device of giving white filmgoers a white hero to identify with. When some commentators complained that president Lyndon Johnson wasn’t portrayed positively enough, it may have demonstrated that she was doing something right: this was a message movie that, for once, didn’t make white liberals feel comfortable.
It seems likely that a new generation of directors and critics will continue to look for new and more challenging ways to tell this type of story: “Today,” Rosenbaum says, “we no longer have Kramer as an excuse for ignoring socially and politically relevant films.” Though it’s still hard to know how truly challenging a Hollywood movie can be. “Most adult content in American mainstream cinema nowadays winds up either in documentaries or on cable TV,” Rosenbaum adds. “Most of Hollywood is addressed to 10-year-old boys such as Donald Trump.”