What keeps us apart is, in many ways, exactly what can bring us together. Well, not all of us. Let’s face it, there are always people on each side who are a lost cause and some subjects on which the most malleable of us choose to be unbendable.
For instance, there’s nothing you can say, do, write or text that will bring me around on our current Electoral College POTUS and, yes, the people who continue to support him.
So don’t even try it. I’m not interested in understanding them, you or him. I’m only concerned with removal whether it be impeachment or otherwise –- as long as that otherwise is painful, messy and unforgiving.
But let’s leave politics out of it and go to the movies!!
See what I did there?
I watched two very different and relatively new films at home this weekend that got me thinking about this. Contrary to what we’ve all heard, there are popular films that DO make you think and some of them are available to you without leaving your home if you have access to home streaming or at least someone else’s account number to pilfer (Note: Oh, like THAT’S not happening – as we speak).
The films? One was Mudbound and the other The Big Sick.
What makes these very different movies special is what actually makes them so similar: How they express our perpetual culture clash here in the US and worldwide – through various generations – and what interest, if any, we have in doing anything about it.
If you believe in the movies (and which of us doesn’t), there are always a few naysayers in the bunch, usually young people, who reject the purity and isolationist adherence to the true doctrinaire cultural heritage/thinking/values any said culture requires– in other words the dogma.
But I for one refuse to believe we have gotten so cynical that we reject the movies and the fact that they are actually reflective of real life today because, well, they have to be: — they’re always made by live humans who live in a particular time and those people in that time thus choose their subject matters for very particular, nee timely, reasons – for them.
Not sure exactly what was going on in the filmmaker minds of Mudbound and The Big Sick but we can guess.
They are both made by people of color exploring their backgrounds and the isolationist philosophies of their culture partly due to the repressiveness of the dominant white society. Of course, the same can be said about many white filmmakers who also feel the need to look back and understand these very same issues not only from their POVs but through the perspective of others not like them (Note: Yes, each of these above movies did also have Whites in prominent positions that helped get them made).
In any event, if all of the above themes and reasons sound particularly timely for 2017 they should. There are only so many superhero franchises and studio tent poles a conglomerate can afford and audiences will go see. All you have to do is consider the box office results for Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, John Carter and The Lone Ranger in the last few years and you’ll understand. Not even a conglomerate likes to write off $100,000,000 per asset. (Note: Yes, that’s what they call movies these days in the big glass tower/boardrooms and yes, that’s about on average, give or take some millions, what each of those films has lost).
That’s where movies like Mudbound and The Big Sick come in. Someone, and then more than one creative talent – and then some more – get committed to an idea or script that often burns a hole into their soul because they’ve either lived it, observed it or it resonates with them for some other very personal reason.
In the case of Mudbound, it’s a book about a Black and a White family in the deep rural south that are involuntarily connected through racism, patriotism and all sorts of other isms. Yet putting it in the directorial hands of a Black, out lesbian director like Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie Smith) takes it way beyond the usual Hollywoodization of this subject and gives us something uniquely 2017 even though it principal action occurs more than three quarters of a century ago.
For The Big Sick, well – it’s a true and very personal autobiographical love story told from the perspective of standup comic Kumail Nanjadi – a unique talent who people felt comfortable enough to not only trust writing his own story (okay, co-writing) but to also play what is essentially a decade younger version of himself convincingly.
Still – there are numerous other reasons these films succeed creatively the way that they do.
The Big Sick speaks to the difficulty and irony of love and how one never seems to find it in the right time and place – except when we do but are too dumb and/or scared to fully commit to it. However, the magic of the film lies not only in the writing and performances but the fact that the onscreen (and real) Kumail is a transplanted Muslim-raised Pakistani who essentially grew up in the US with parents that still expected him to adhere to the ways of traditional culture and marry one of his own kind.
Yes, several decades ago we had the even more comedic breakout hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which, yes, too, was universal. But, um – NO, it didn’t quite have this kind of timeliness of being released into the world of Muslim bans and rash Trumpist nativism that is 2017 America. Though nothing like being lucky enough to catch time in a bottle….right???
In writing and starring in his own love story the real Kumail gives us what feels like an open and unvarnished (though certainly partially comic – hence the studio appeal) look into the truth of HIS family life and in the process de-myths some of the ridiculous stereotypes a large segment of the US clearly feels about his culture and families like his that they have, for THEIR own reasons, never taken the time to know.
On the other hand, as the film deftly communicates, maybe Kumail’s family also has not taken enough time to truly give the adopted country THEY chose to live in enough of a chance. This is why in the end The Big Sick is not a polemic for either side, which is why it is, indeed, a film uniquely today. When small windows of opportunity are jimmied open for non white, non-binary thinking creators it’s amazing how much color, critical acclaim and yes, even box office returns on one’s money, manage to sneak in.
Mudbound, on the other hand, is an ugly look at an ugly past that we Americans never seen able to get past – southern racism – nee slavery. It’s sad and maddening yet somehow feels compelling and current.
This is partly due to the current US Senate race in Alabama with a Republican nominee (Roy Moore), an acknowledged white separatist and accused child molester, being this week wholeheartedly endorsed by our current sitting US president. It is also not coincidental it is being released at a time where Mr. Moore is running to claim a Senate seat vacated by our current US Attorney General (Jeff Sessions), a man once wholly rejected for a federal judgeship by an actual US Senate judiciary committee because he was deemed a racist.
Though Mudbound takes place in nearby rural Mississippi before, during and after World War II, and though it has a literary patina due to shifting narrative voiceovers by a handful of its primary characters, it is blunt in its depiction of how ethnicity and difference was (and by reflection, is) treated in large pockets of the Deep South. The foulness, the dirtiness and ever-pervading stench of what was and sometimes still is our uniquely American sin is reflected in every frame of the film.
There is little true or enviable about this White family except that it has all the power in the world as it reigns over a Black family that is equally unenviable despite doing its best to be true to each other. Of course, the latter is impossible given the rigged system they’re living under where there isn’t a white billionaire in sight making big speeches promising to do so. This is one more among so many reasons everything about Mudbound has a scarily somber contemporary feel – the belief of so many that not only is the system they’re living under truly rigged but the fact that the one white billionaire continually making public speeches claiming he’ll help them will not be offering their family a helping hand at all. If anything, it will be quite the opposite.
Sly & The Family Stone – “Everyday People”