Critic's Notebook: For Politically Charged Films, Timing is Everything

Chi-Raq Where to Invade Next Carol Split - H 2015
Parrish Lewis; Courtesy of Dog Eat Dog Films; Wilson Webb

Chi-Raq Where to Invade Next Carol Split - H 2015

It’s a truly weird season when a new Michael Moore movie is one of the least topical, but the impact of a politically charged film is often a matter of timing (just ask Spike Lee).

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq — a brilliant, reality-based, phantasmagoric musical drama about gun violence and murder in Chicago — would have had a visceral impact in any recent year. But it happened to open a week after the Chicago police released a video of a black teenager shot to death by a white policeman. Like other socially charged films this year, Chi-Raq arrived in a geopolitical landscape changing so quickly that the movie speaks to the current moment with more urgency than anyone could have predicted.

Straight Outta Compton pointedly connected to recent cases of police violence. Carol, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a 1950s lesbian romance, and The Danish Girl, with Eddie Redmayne as a 1920s transgender woman, were projects gestating for at least a decade; accidents of timing helped them land now, when awareness of gay and transgender identity has been heightened. The Big Short may not be as piercing as it would have been a few years ago, but it still touches a nerve in an America that remains mistrustful of its financial system. And the foreign film Mediterranea, about Africans who migrate to Italy, has gained resonance since the refugee crisis in Europe exploded and captured the world’s attention.

It’s a truly weird season when a new Michael Moore movie is one of the least topical. In his benign Where to Invade Next, the director scours other countries for good ideas to import, finding healthier school lunches in France and free college tuition in Slovenia, for example. Those issues, while important, are not central to an American political conversation that has been driven, over the last few months, by the Paris terror attacks and Donald Trump’s xenophobic rants.  

Television, of course, can approach current events more rapidly, even allowing for a season-long lead time: Homeland, which this year focused on a terror plot against Berlin, even managed to loop in the line “Nobody wants to see another Paris” after the attacks there in November.

The lengthier preparation period for films makes timeliness more challenging, but also means those movies offer a way to chart long-term progress. Movies that intersect with current events tend to be the ones that tap into a chronic or deeply embedded social issue that has never been resolved. Chi-Raq deals with the entrenched problem of black rival gangs, who murder each other and the innocents who cross their paths. The story is based on the ancient play Lysistrata; transposed to the present, with rap-like dialogue, it now centers on a gang leader's girlfriend, who orchestrates a sex strike by women until the men make peace.

The film gains the kind of emotional power that speaks across time because of its topicality, but also because Lee so artfully uses dance, music and verse to convey the message in a non-preachy way. A scene in which a priest (John Cusack) gives a fiery eulogy against gun violence may be the movie's most didactic and therefore least effective. The film’s soul is with characters like the one played by Jennifer Hudson. As a mother grieving the death of her daughter in a drive-by shooting, she is at once universally resonant and specifically reflective of today’s news.

Similarly, Straight Outta Compton highlights a frustrating lack of progress in the history of white police officers targeting young black men. F. Gary Gray’s dynamic film is primarily about the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it also is a matter-of-fact portrait of racial profiling, showing the N.W.A. members getting handcuffed for being black in a white neighborhood. News reports seen in the pic show the video of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police in 1991, and later the "not guilty" verdict for those officers. Those moments pop out because they bring to mind recent incidents, including the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore.

No wonder the political tide has worked against Where to Invade Next. Moore's documentary is entertaining enough, but subjects like better paid vacation for workers can’t compete with more urgently threatening issues. Moore says in the film, “My mission is to look for the flowers, not the weeds,” but the fact remains that even today, this movie is less galvanizing and current than his 2002 polemical masterpiece about gun violence, Bowling for Columbine — another indication of how intractable that problem has become.

On the other hand, The Big Short, Adam McKay's comic drama about the 2008 financial crisis, still strikes a chord, even against the backdrop of a recovering American economy. The scathing film, set on the eve of the economic collapse, plays on our awareness of what was to happen and reminds us that the guilty parties — the banks and big-money players — got off scot-free. It makes a very slowly healing wound feel raw all over again. 

Perhaps the most hopeful signs of progress may be found in the public embrace of Carol and The Danish Girl, which have benefited most from rapidly shifting attitudes. Both films have gone through more than one director and iteration, but even these final versions were in the works long before the Supreme Court affirmed same-sex marriage rights and before figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner raised mainstream America’s awareness of trans identity. Not only do these starry movies reflect a wider acceptance of themes that might have been harder to sell a few years ago, they also help expand the audience for small-scale, grittier indie pics like Tangerine, shot on an iPhone and starring two trans actresses.

Any film can accidentally or intentionally sideswipe social issues, but only a few are so artistically successful and relevant that years later they still feel tailored to today's issues. The wrenching depiction of refugees in Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea lends big-screen immediacy to a crisis that had been building in Europe long before it became a critical global issue. But perhaps an even more resonant and evergreen look at that long-simmering situation is in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men. Set in a future Britain where refugees, derisively nicknamed Fugees, are kept in camps and sometimes chain-link pens, the pic is more chilling and hits closer to home today than nine years ago.

Some older films were so prescient that their warnings now seem like facts of life. Two prime examples are Network (1976), with its forecast of television as the great manipulator, and The Candidate (1972), with Robert Redford as the poll-driven Senate candidate, speaking the famous final line after his victory: “What do we do now?”

The best of this season’s socially aware films, notably Chi-Raq, are likely to endure on their artistic strengths alone. Whether they will continue to seem urgent is a tough, high-stakes question. If gun violence persists as an unsolved problem, Lee's movie may become even sadder as time goes on, as topical in the future as it is today.