Part of my intention when I began Films for the Trump Years was to provide something of a beginner’s guide to films of all ages and stripes that, in some way, dealt with themes that reflect or comment on the many issues we are currently facing at this particular fulcrum of human history (both Trump-related and non). The easy way to do this would be for me to stick to historical dramas or documentaries that explicitly tackle the direct, real-world causes of this current wave of reactionary conservatism. And indeed, that is mostly what I spent 2017 doing.
This was with good reason- all the films I’ve picked are excellent, must-see works- but going forward I’d like to at least occasionally branch out a bit and think a bit bigger about how we relate to storytelling, and how we can use storytelling as inspiration for real-world change. With that in mind, for this month’s installment I am suggesting a double-feature that might sound rather odd, at least at first; the 2010 indie drama Winter’s Bone, and last year’s Best Picture Winner, Moonlight (2016).
Winter’s Bone is a 2010 indie drama written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (who also directed), and starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role that put her on the cinematic map. She plays Ree, a teenager living in a dejectedly poor stretch of the Ozark Mountains. With a no-show father connected to the area’s extensive methamphetamine underworld and a mentally ill mother, she’s had to grow up fast and basically be the lone providing parent for her two younger siblings. What scraps the family has are suddenly threatened when the local sheriff shows up and informs her that her Dad failed to show for a court date, and had previously signed over the family house as collateral, meaning that if he doesn’t show soon (or if Ree can’t provide proof he’s dead), the state will be forced to collect, and she and her family will essentially be made homeless. Left trying to navigate (and survive) a world built on family loyalty and absolute silence, she proceeds to fight tooth and nail against the grain of her community so as to find out the truth.
Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, came out in 2016, and eventually won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture in possibly the strangest moment in Oscar history. Divided into three parts, we see different stages of the life of a black man named Chiron, first as a small child, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult. The film is, at least primarily, about Chiron’s lifelong struggles to understand and accept his homosexuality. It goes far beyond that, however, in its meditations on racism, toxic masculinity, cultures of drug abuse and prostitution, and the dynamics of broken families, and how each of these things contribute to making his journey of self-acceptance that much harder and more painful.
On the face of it, these movies may seem to be complete polar opposites; one is about a white woman in one of the most homogenously white parts of rural America, and the other is about a black man in one of the most ethnically diverse coastal cities in America (Miami). And yet, the more I’ve thought about these two movies, the more similarities I see between the two main characters. Both are struggling to achieve some form of material or emotional peace amidst worlds of depravation and violence. Both are stuck in cycles of deep poverty, which inform the life choices they end up making about how to live. For Ree, one of the only viable options open to her to make a decent salary is to join the military, where her life would be completely in the hands of higher-ups who literally can’t imagine what she’s gone through. Chiron comes from a world suffused with drug use, and we eventually learn that, through either choice or circumstance, he ends up in the same boat as an adult, selling the very drugs that wrecked his mother’s health years earlier.
Even the respective obstacles they are forced to deal with are remarkably similar. In addition to the limitations of poverty they face, both push against gender and sexual restrictions latent in society about how they each “should” behave. Both worlds are filled with men, young and old, who exemplify various forms of toxic masculinity. Ree is told perfunctorily by the men (and the women!) around her to just drop it, to stop asking awkward questions about her Dad, to just shut up and let things be. Chiron is tormented by other kids at an early age for being a “faggot,” with even his own mother criticizing the way he walks. He is provided some fatherly support and advice by Juan, but for all his wisdom, he’s every bit as trapped as Chiron by the environment he’s grown up in. None of the men in these movies, for all of the swagger they possess, are in places of real security or happiness.
And though neither film focuses on racism, at least consciously, it’s worth viewing them a second time deliberately through the lens of this country’s racial history. Look at the ethnically homogenous world Ree is from and ask yourselves; why, exactly, is this part of the country so white? How would these characters react if a Trump-like figure came marching through, proclaiming his solidarity with their pain and an end to the dominance of those terrible city elites who scoff at their poverty and laugh at their silly accents?
Similarly, what are the racial dynamics in our history that led to Chiron’s community in Miami being so cut off, poorly-served, and plagued by drugs and crime? How does the film’s treatment of this sort of environment comment on our broader history of explicitly shunting minorities into poor neighbors and promoting drug use there? What can Chiron’s life tell us about the prison industrial complex? What would it take to rectify all this pain, all this suffering, all this psychological scarring?
Part of the challenge we now collectively face, if we can summon the courage to really deal with it, is to finally own up to difficult, painful questions that need to be asked, again and again, questions that are without simple solutions. Both of these amazing films allow us to do that, which is why, this month, I recommend watching each of these movies side by side, if you haven’t seen them already, and allowing yourself to ponder the questions they raised, and whether or not we can finally offer some answers to them.
Previously on Films for the Trump Years:
Part 1- Selma
Part 2- Good Night, and Good Luck
Part 3- 13th
Part 4- Get Out
Part 5- Chasing Ice/Chasing Coral
Part 6- The Big Short
Part 7- Human Flow