Four Notable 2016 Films That Boldly Confronted Racism
2016 has been a contentious year all around. For one, it’s an election year, and any regular user of any social media platform has had to bare the brunt of argument after argument about which candidate is the best, or why the opposing side is just the worst. Having survived through a good number of presidential elections in my life, I can safely say that this seems to be the most heated to date. And I recall the Florida recounting of 2000. The left is extra left, the right is extremely right, and it seems that, more than ever, never the twain shall meet.
Such a climate has – generally speaking – made for more and more open and impassioned conversations about racial justice, equality, prejudice, and other important political issues. More and more political thinkpieces are being published online (so it seems), and everyone is eager to chime in. And, seeing as film seems to reflect our passions, Hollywood has been following suit.
Although there are always innumerable indie films that deal directly with social issues, it usually takes the behemoth Hollywood machine to catch up to the zeitgeist. So when several major films, backed by major studios, tackle racism directly, then you know that the people are being heard. Three films, as it has been said, denote a trend. This year, there have been at least four. The trend in 2016 seems to reflect an open concern about racism in America.
The most obvious of the four is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The film went unseen by many, as it came tinted with the recent revelation of dubious actions in the filmmaker’s past. And while certain audience member may have a difficult time separating the film from the filmmaker, those who saw The Birth of a Nation may have discovered a frank, matter-of-fact, often clichéd, but nonetheless earnest attempt to rewrite Hollywood’s horrible legacy of racism. The title comes from, of course, the infamous 1915 feature by D.W. Griffith wherein Klansmen were depicted as post-war heroes who saved the white South from the encroaching threat of black villains.
The 1915 film is often hailed by critics – with an uncomfortable shift in the chair – as a watershed moment in cinema. Griffith’s classic, while full of racist imagery, and based on racist source material, is still an impressively mounted piece of cinema that famously incorporated then-new cross-cutting techniques to its action sequences, allowing film to evolve from something stagey into smoother and more cinematic. For a century, the film has been praised by cinematic students, even though it was considered ignorant even at the time (D.W. Griffith made the even larger film Intolerance as an apologia).
Nate Parker used the same title to tell the story of real-life pre-war slave Nat Turner, a man who worked as a preacher, was forced to use the word of the Bible to keep other slaves loyal to their masters, and who eventually led a bloody – and unsuccessful – uprising against the local white people. The film is, in many ways, ethically responsible; while the violence perpetrated by the oppressed slaves in cathartic on one level, it’s also seen as the darkest and most destructive choice for these people. It seems that the rebelling slaves in the film don’t want to contribute to a political movement. They just want personal revenge. Blood begets blood.
Another 2016 film to tackle racism was Gary Ross’ underseen Free State of Jones, another biography, this one set during and after the Civil War. Free State of Jones unveils an oft-underexamined historical phenomenon: The anti-Confederate movement in the South. The film is about Newt Knight, an impoverished white man – played by Matthew McConaughey – who was drafted into the Confederate army only to find death and horror. He defected and found himself in the company of other runaway soldiers, and no small number of escaped slaves, hiding in the woods of Mississippi. He eventually also led a revolt against the Confederacy, and continued to fight for Civil Rights following the war.
Free State of Jones was dismissed by many critics because it was about a brave white man instead of any of the black people he aided. It was also called clinical and dry, focusing, as it did, on historical accuracy rather than any sort of palpable human drama. What Ross was trying to do, however, was clear and impressive: He sought to set the record straight about Civil War racism. Not all white people blithely accepted slavery, and many Southerners were just as keen to end the systematic slavery as Northerners were.
To be released in theaters on November 4th is Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a calming and realistic biography about Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) and her white husband Richard (Joel Edgerton) and their legally contentious marriage in 1958 Virginia. Given the time in which it was set, Loving is very much about the ins and outs of the legal rigmarole involved in the Civil Rights movement. This is a film about proving to courts all over the country that anti-miscegenation laws are dated and outmoded. It’s about innocent people who had nothing to prove… until they did. Richard as seen as the grumpy half of the couple, who chooses to hide and live in quiet peace. Mildred, meanwhile, understands the larger injustice, even if she doesn’t have the words for it yet.
And, lastly, one of the biggest films of the year is Disney’s animated feature Zootopia, a film that is set in the world of anthropomorphic animals, but which is very much about prejudice and the pervasive insidiousness of casual racial profiling in the post-institutionalized racism world. Zootopia takes place in a major animal metropolis where predator and prey essentially get along, but where the film’s protagonists – a hard-working bunny cop and a sarcastic fox con-man – discover a conspiracy to turn predators into dangerous, well, predators again.
Given the way racism operates in the modern world, it’s easy to see that Zootopia is making a comment on the way hate is used as a plaything by those in charge or those who are looking to be in charge. Predators aren’t eating the populace, but the prey assume that they could “snap” at a moment’s notice, a fear that is being explicitly orchestrated by a shadowy villain. Much of the hate heaped upon the predators in Zootopia is clearly meant to reflect the hate encountered by American minorities. Even in a place called Zootopia, things aren’t perfect. Even little kids seeing this film will be able to pick up on the messages of modern inequality, and the insidious prejudice that even intelligent bunnies might have.
Films always serve as a portrait of the time and the attitudes into which they are released; no film is apolitical. If these four films are any indicator as to where we are in 2016, then we are living in a world that is trying to actively squeeze as much inherent racism out of itself as it can. We know what’s happening. We see it. Hollywood sees it. And now we’re all in a place to address it, talk about it, and do something about it.
Top Image: Disney
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.