The Good, the Bad and ‘Black Panther’

Having wrapped up their reviewing duties for 2018, our chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, look back at a year of rage, silliness and sublimity at the movies and ahead to the 91st Academy Awards.

A. O. SCOTT If I had to pick one movie moment to sum up 2018, it would probably be the last scene of “Support the Girls,” Andrew Bujalski’s workplace comedy about the manager of a Hooters-like bar and grill in Texas. Not enough people paid attention when the film was released in August, but Regina Hall’s performance has picked up some awards and nominations since then, and everyone should stream it right now.

Anyway: The movie ends with three women — Hall, Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle — screaming on a roof. Not in terror (as women on screen so often do), but in rage, frustration and a kind of righteous, rebellious glee. They are venting and protesting, having endured an endless cycle of everyday racism, sexism and exploitation. As an ending, it feels triumphant and bleak at the same time, which may be why I keep coming back to it.

MANOHLA DARGIS I was up on that roof, at least in spirit. In some ways, this sisterly scream is the signature image for the past year. Scarcely a week (a day!) went by without a powerful man being called out for his alleged sexual misconduct, most publicly of course during the fraught Brett Kavanaugh nomination hearings. At the same time that we were witnessing this profound reckoning, we were also seeing a number of female-driven movies, most of which — it’s important to recognize — had finished shooting before news of the sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein broke in October 2017.

Oddly, when I watched the roof interlude in “Support the Girls” I flashed on the scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” of Marlon Brando screaming — he’s cursing God — under a thundering overhead train. Bertolucci died in November, and his artistic legacy is forever linked, and rightly so, to allegations of abuse from that film’s co-star, Maria Schneider. In 2007, she said that while shooting its most infamous sex scene she felt humiliated and “a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” The allegations feel emblematic of the destructive power imbalance in an industry that has marginalized and victimized women while giving free license to male abuse.

No wonder women are yelling.

SCOTT A few years ago you and I examined the state of female representation in movies, and found that it was improving, meaning that a wider range of roles seemed to be opening up. But in retrospect a lot of those roles — the varieties of strong, raunchy and badass comic and action heroines who emerged in the early and middle part of this decade — look like they were designed to deflect criticism or prove a narrow point: that girls could be just as tough, violent, brave or naughty as boys. This boldness was accompanied by a certain anxiety about losing the male audience, anticipating the tantrums that would later be thrown by some fragile “Ghostbusters” and “Star Wars” fans.

In some ways, things haven’t changed so much. In a recent essay in Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore notes that “2018 has been as rich with slogany, simplified women’s empowerment callouts as it has been with reasons for women to be filled with rage and dread.” She singles out “On the Basis of Sex,” Mimi Leder’s film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early career, and “Ocean’s 8,” Gary Ross’s #squadgoals heist picture with a cast including Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna.

But the careful, superficial conventionality of those movies highlights the complexity of so many others. It’s worth listing some of them, just as a reminder of how much feminist argument there has been in and about movies this year — how central the questions of women’s anger, power and autonomy have been in popular culture and politics more generally. In no particular order, and in addition to the ones we’ve already named, I would mention “Revenge,” “Widows,” “The Favourite,” “The Wife,” “Suspiria,” “Destroyer,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” “Roma,” “Eighth Grade,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Let the Sunshine In” and “A Simple Favor.” It’s not that all of them offer equally plausible or positive images — they’re not all good movies! — but that filmmakers seem interested in the politics of women’s experiences in a way that feels different. One measure of the difference is that for the first time in I don’t know how many years the field of potential Oscar best actress nominees looks much wider and more interesting than the potential best actors.

DARGIS It’s great to see so many female-driven stories, though — as you say — not all are good or feminist. “Widows” and “Ocean’s 8” put a spurious sisterly spin on old-fashioned American greed. Both would have been better and more honest if their characters were just as openly mercenary as any male movie thief and didn’t try to soften these women’s crimes with tears and rationalizations. By contrast, because “Support the Girls” leads with the lived-in, different truths of its characters, its feminism is organic, not performative or programmatic. “Roma” focuses on one woman, but, unlike most American movies, also looks at that life in the larger world of structural oppression.

Taken together, all these movies — the good, the bad, the blah — are welcome just because they offer an actual range of different female roles and diverse ideas about women’s place in the world. Some of these ideas are stale and the moviemaking is dreary or worse, but I’m glad they exist. A movie like “The Wife,” for instance, is so devoid of aesthetic interest that the only thing we can discuss is how it frames power and gender while letting its title character — who has been long complicit in her husband’s literary fraud and his exploitation of her — off the hook.

“The Wife” is calibrated for maximum audience flattery: viewers are encouraged to nod in recognition at the literary milieu and clap their hands in self-congratulatory glee at the husband’s fall. Men, bad; women, good — its feminism is irritatingly reductive, but it does make the movie topical fodder especially in 2018, a year that has reminded us that feminism speaks in many different voices. Some of these voices are radical and forward-thinking while others seem discouragingly stuck in the same era as, well, “Green Book,” yet another movie that seems mostly interested in making its audience — here, presumptively white — feel good about its own racial sensitivities.

SCOTT I love that “The Wife,” most of which takes place in Stockholm during the Nobel Prize ceremonies, was released shortly before the Swedish Academy canceled the literature prize because of a sexual harassment scandal. I hope someone has optioned that kerfuffle — which is too baroque and weird to summarize — for a movie. Maybe Yorgos Lanthimos, fresh off the power games of “The Favourite.”

Films like “Sorry to Bother You,” starring Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield, had more on their minds than comforting fables of finger-lickin’ harmony.

Ah yes, “Green Book.” It’s sort of mind-boggling that Peter Farrelly’s compendium of tone-deaf racial clichés arrived on screens in the same year as “Sorry to Bother You,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It seems to come not only from a bygone era but from a whole different cinema planet, one governed by feel-good pieties that were dubious here on earth even back in the 1960s. The voting membership of the Academy circa 1987 would have given all the prizes to “Green Book,” but in 2019 its prospects are decidedly cloudier.

Not that Boots Riley, Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins represent a unified perspective on black life and American racism, or that they are in perfect political and imaginative harmony with one another. Hardly, and thank goodness. But all of them are interested in offering something other than comforting fables of finger-lickin’ harmony. And even though “Beale Street” and “BlacKkKlansman” are set in the ‘70s, while “Sorry” unfolds in a speculative near-future, each one explicitly addresses the unfinished business of the present.

Which is what I want: movies that, rather than arriving at pat or reassuring conclusions, embrace the complications of reality and invite the audience to really think about it. Mostly this year I found that in documentaries and in other movies made at some distance from the American commercial mainstream.

DARGIS At this point it feels as if the remaining big studios have nothing to offer other than recycled ideas and brands, with some exceptions. I like some of the box office behemoths — mostly, I like “Black Panther” — but too many of them were numbingly familiar in every way, narratively, tonally, whatever. This isn’t new or news, but it’s bleak that “Avengers: Infinity War” receives attention simply because it is from Marvel. Each of its movies is just a delivery system for that brand, though this one did encourage me with the promise that its characters and this franchise are finally goners.

Disney has been the dominant player for a while and, as its power has grown, each of its new movies feels like a product launch: The release of the new Marvel, Star Wars or Pixar movie is greeted like the release of the latest iPhone, including the rabid-dog media attention it generates. There are modifications, some nifty new features, but it’s mostly the same, just pricier. This seems like how things worked in classic Hollywood cinema, which depended on both standardization (through product quality control and storytelling norms, for instance) and differentiation (in the diversity of films and stars and so on).

The current big-studio model, though, is more focused on sameness than difference. Each new addition to the franchise can’t be meaningfully different enough to mess with the brand. That’s partly what makes “Black Panther” interesting: It doesn’t just swap out one Chris for another (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor instead of Chris Evans’s Captain America). It introduces ideas and characters that are so strong, so in excess of what we normally see — African-American identity, Afro-futurism, Michael B. Jordan’s performance and the very figure of Killmonger — that they become bigger and more important than the Marvel brand and story beats.

SCOTT It turns out that when “diversity” means something more than pandering or tokenism — when, as in the case of “Black Panther,” an African-American filmmaker can claim the freedom to explore the cultural and political valences of an African superhero — a worked-over franchise can be revivified. That’s what Ryan Coogler did to the Marvel Universe. (He’d already done it to the “Rocky” cosmos with “Creed,” which he bequeathed to his fellow U.S.C. alum Steven Caple, Jr.)

Something similar happened, on a more modest scale and with a more playful sensibility, in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which brought an ingenious, unforced pluralism to the Peter Parker mythos. What if the radioactive spider happened to bite the Afro-Latino son of a police officer and a health care worker? It’s a fascinating question if the answer is handled with appropriate wit and authenticity, as it was by the gang at Sony Pictures Animation.

Marvel Comics has been exploring these kinds of stories for a while, steadily eroding the white-male monopoly on superhero status in print. I’m glad the movie’s incarnations of those stories are starting to follow suit (and not only in the Marvel universe, to be fair). My political quarrel with “Black Panther” — wait, where are you going? — has to do with its commitment to monarchism and to Wakanda’s appropriation of Silicon Valley techno-neoliberalism as its guiding ideology. Superheroism remains a profoundly anti-democratic undertaking. I wish the great Senegalese filmmaker (and novelist, labor organizer and political gadfly) Ousmane Sembène were still around, so he could take up the next chapter in the franchise. Or maybe Disney would hire Raoul Peck (“Lumumba,” “I Am Not Your Negro”) or Abderrahmane Sissako (“Bamako,” “Timbuktu”) to direct a stand-alone Killmonger adventure, one that rescues that misunderstood villain from the condescension of comic-book history. The next phase of the dialectic is surely the synthesis of Marvel and Marx.

A fellow can dream, anyway.

DARGIS Keep dreaming, and I mean that in the nicest way, comrade. That “Black Panther” inspires such reveries — and indeed was one of the most exciting, idea-generating movies of the year — is further proof that its differences are profound, even if it is another male-driven heroic tale. It’s the kind of big-studio release that makes me think that the world of American industrial moviemaking isn’t a creative wasteland. Its impact even makes me look forward to the next Oscars. (Not really.)

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