In Hollywood now, race and gender matter so much that nothing else does. Craft and storytelling have gone out of fashion. Let’s not forget why we pay the ticket price: to lose ourselves in a convincing drama…
Human depth has all but vanished from Hollywood movies. Flawed, risky characters are no longer presented. Most films now resemble Jurassic World: a large, somewhat diverse cast utters expository dialogue to advance the plot, and not one actor is meaningfully characterized.
At the 2018 Oscars, actress Frances McDormand urged her female colleagues to insist upon an “inclusion rider” in their contracts. Inclusion riders ensure that many of the film’s roles go to under-represented groups, who must be portrayed positively.
Her idea caught fire. As stated in Variety.com in April 19, 2018, “Many in Hollywood, including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Michael B. Jordan, and Paul Feig, said they would be adopting inclusion riders.” A USC professor is quoted as predicting that riders “should change entertainment within a year.”
On September 5, 2018 The New York Times announced, “Warner Media Unveils Diversity Protocols for Movies and TV Shows.” Their policy will increase “the number of women and people color involved in its movies and television shows.”
Despite good intentions, Ms. McDormand seems to find no fault with the extremely shallow movies that Hollywood makes now—Ghostbusters, Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi, A Wrinkle in Time. These titles have the diversity she seeks, but nothing helps when the characters are unconvincing, the dialogue awful, and the plot a confusing flat-line.
In none of these discussions about riders, however, does anyone promote excellence, or even minimal quality, in film making. Diversity itself is the prize, a catwalk of genders and races. But Ms. McDormand is a distinguished, brilliant actress, who has starred in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Fargo. Not just anyone can achieve her level of artistry. One assumes she cares about good movies, right? The silence on the subject of quality is bewildering.
What ought to matter most are intelligent films, like Ms. McDormand’s, with convincing and psychological characters, of any persuasion. She inspired the nation in her role as sheriff in Fargo. Americans don’t balk at seeing movies that depict minorities or women on the screen, but let’s not forget why we pay the ticket price: to lose ourselves in a convincing drama. Black or white, male or female, actors who deliver the goods possess a rare skill. It’s this human achievement we ought to celebrate, instead of some display of sex or pigment.
Consider Spike Lee, for instance. Whatever one might say about his extreme politics—his over-the-top paranoia in BlacKkKlansman, for instance—Do The Right Thing is a fine movie.
As soon as Do the Right Thing appeared in theaters in 1989, people discussed it everywhere, in bars, classrooms, subways, dining rooms. Even those who hated the message found themselves immersed in the story.
Long-time owner of a Brooklyn pizzeria, Sal (Danny Aiello) runs his business in a neighborhood that has changed to include mostly African-Americans. He has built strong friendships with his customers. Tension surrounds the absence of black heroes on Sal’s wall of framed Italians. When a showdown ensues between Sal and several young people in the neighborhood, Mookie (Spike Lee), who delivers pizza for Sal, heaves a trash can through his boss’s window. Frustrated, caught between friends on both sides, Mookie makes a choice.
In 1989, Mookie’s rebellious action created a conflict in many viewers. The whole event was fraught, likeable Mookie throwing the trash can, and likeable Sal witnessing his pizzeria smashed and burned. Some believed that Mr. Lee hated whites.
But it was Mr. Lee’s generosity as a filmmaker that caused so much outrage. After all, he was the one who made us love Sal. He could have made Sal a racist like his son Pino (John Turturro). But Mr. Lee presents life as it is, with good people on both angry sides, the emotional circumstances combustible, but ambiguous and alive.
The film embraces messiness, blurred lines, and confusing alliances. If the film leans toward Mookie, there’s room to care about Sal, too, and to wonder if “the right thing” really had taken place this night.
In Hollywood now, however, race and gender matter so much that nothing else does. Craft and storytelling have gone out of fashion.
Indeed we suffer from a paucity of great directors. We’ll simply have to wait for the next generation of talented young people who have the vision of a Martin Scorsese, a Jane Campion, a young Spike Lee, or an Abbas Kiarostami. Geniuses arrive at their own time. Without them, however, we’ll see a record number of bad movies in the coming years, with or without diversity riders.
As the Iranian director Kiarostami observed, “Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life.”
Martin Scorsese, creator of Taxi Driver, would likely agree. The mysterious trajectory of Travis Bickle’s character would’ve collapsed if many political hands had been at work shaping it. Mercifully, no one can take that movie away for further editing.
“God’s lonely man,” Vietnam veteran Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) ferries passengers through a city he perceives as filthy, “venal.” He has “some bad ideas” in his head.
Put mildly, Bickle is askew. When his romantic hopes for Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) die on the second date—he believed it was a good idea to take her to a pornographic movie—he blames women and commits to further isolation. He quits pills, gets in shape, and buys a lot of weapons. He’s leery of the blacks he sees in the streets, a garden variety prejudice of the 1970s—ugly, yet true to his character. When a twelve-year-old girl named Iris (Jody Foster) gets in his taxi cab, and a man we assume is her pimp (Harvey Keitel) yanks her out, we see a shift in Bickle, as though he observes the girl with a protective interest.
Later he appears at a presidential rally for Charles Palentine. Betsy volunteers for his cause. Near the crowd but not in it, Bickle wears a vet’s coat, a war mohawk, and a cracked smile. When he approaches Palentine, and his security team spots him as a threat, he runs off, and no one dies at the rally this day.
Bickle could go any direction—commit murder at a rally, help a young prostitute. After failing to assassinate Palentine, he ends up at the residence of Iris’s pimp, shooting him and several men in charge there.
It’s a miracle of filmmaking that we come to love Bickle. Though we understand he’s not right in the head, we know good exists in him. Whatever his evil intentions, he really shot the men who kept Iris enslaved, and thus saved her. He’s restored to humanity as a man of goodwill. Perhaps this experience will make him make him right again.
Taxi Driver would never get made in Hollywood now. The guns and “toxic masculinity” render it impossible. They’d make Bickle a pure psycho with no good side, and throw all his positive qualities into some inanely perfect detective, and no one would care about the movie in 40 years, as we still care for Taxi Driver. The world-class actress Frances McDormand can’t possibly stand for this inevitable result.
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Editor’s note: the featured image is “Pure Diversity” by Mirta Toledo and is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.