Sometimes when you go out and see so many silly movies playing at the multiplex, you can rightfully wonder if movies have lost their relevance on our cultural landscape, or if all the sociological conversation has migrated to television. As someone who produces movies for a living and actively pursues some titles simply because I believe they can sell a lot of tickets, it’s possible to sometimes be disheartened by participating in a Hollywood machine that cranks out its share of meaningless fare. Not that I have anything against escapist entertainment — we all need a break from our current reality.
Now 2015 may or may not be a better year at the box office, or for movies in general, but in the rush of prestige movies that floods the marketplace in the late fall, I have been inspired and re-invigorated by several pictures that have reminded me of the power of movies and their potential to get audiences thinking and actually to shape the national conversation.
At least three movies this season have taken on massive institutions that have knowingly pursued profit and self-preservation at the expense of the American public. For me, these films have inspired relevant dialogue and will — hopefully — influence how we view those institutions and their impact on our lives.
Spotlight kicked things off by recounting the Boston Globe’s expose of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, a travesty that obviously goes well beyond Boston and even the United States. It actually calls into the question the very foundation of the Church’s role in society, as the mind reels at the decades and perhaps centuries of abuse the Church has enabled, and the thousands, if not millions, of people whose lives have been warped — and in many cases ruined — by this tacitly accepted dysfunction from an institution that plies its trade under the rubric of God. The fact that the Church’s leaders — at the highest levels — were aware of this and spent more time covering it up than facing it is enough to make anyone question his religion.
Next I saw an early screening of Concussion, which takes on the epidemic of head injuries in professional football. Like many people who will see this film (and indeed like the very star of this film, Will Smith) I experienced this movie mired in personal conflict. I love football. I could (but don’t) easily watch 12 hours of football (college and pro) a weekend. I allowed my football-loving son to play seventh- and eighth-grade football and attended every game. I was even one of those parents who might just be a little too vocal on the sidelines. I now count my lucky stars that he’s too small to “safely” play high school ball because it’s not rocket science to realize that the head traumas impacting 28 percent of professional football players started way before the pros, even though it’s the NFL on the hot seat. Like the Catholic Church, the NFL has known about its problem for years, and has only recently started to come to grips with the human costs. This movie will not go unnoticed and should cast in a new light the game that tens of millions of Americans rabidly attend and watch every fall.
The third movie to rattle the foundations of an American institution is The Big Short, which explores the mortgage-backed securities crisis that ignited the world’s financial meltdown in 2007 and 2008. In this case, director Adam McKay humorously and bluntly takes on the world’s biggest banks, which were so greedy and blind that they created financial instruments that encouraged selling homes to people who couldn’t afford them and then — in a perverse Las Vegas-inspired twist — created yet another financial instrument that allowed sophisticated investors to bet on the system’s collapse. U.S. banks literally created a tool that preyed on the American dream of owning a home. And in a painful, ironic turn, the whistleblowers — the ones who recognized the profoundly flawed situation — were among those who made out like bandits when they shorted the bedrock of American economy, the housing market. Once again, the institutions that conjured this toxic financial implosion that ruined the finances and lives of millions at first denied it was happening, then found ways to profit from it, and then — when the losses it generated threatened to take them down as well — looked to the American taxpayers to bail them out. And virtually none of the bankers responsible paid the price. Today, it’s business as usual at nearly all these institutions.
The next movie I plan to see is Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which deals with gun violence. From the trailer, it looks to me like one of America’s most powerful directors is back in fighting form. While it may not take on the gun industry directly, it is my hope that it’s the first of many movies that will confront America’s most deadly cabal — the NRA, the arms industry it advocates for and the politicians they own. Certainly, the callous greed and corruption that fuel this juggernaut, which seems to have more than half our elected officials in its pocket, is ripe for skewering by cinema’s best writers, directors and actors. I hope I can be a part of that.
What will come of these institution-challenging films? Can movies make a difference? Certainly, that’s the hope, and that’s what gets me — and many others in the movie business — out of bed every morning.
J. Todd Harris is a Los Angeles-based producer. His credits include The Kids Are All Right, Bottle Shock and the upcoming So.B.It.