When Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” premiered at Sundance in January, and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” stormed theaters late the following month, they seemed to have little in common. Rees had made a searing historical drama about the relationship between a white family and a black family in post-World War II Mississippi, and Peele had made a satirical horror film about a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family in upstate New York. There’s a distance of 70 years between when their stories take place and a difference in milieu, too, between the rural Deep South, where Klansmen hold sway, and the suburban idyll of liberal Northerners in the present day.
And yet the two directors have made films that are in conversation with each other. Rees calls it “white currency” and Peele calls it “the post-racial lie,” but they’re each talking about racism and white supremacy as intractable problems in America, unsolved by seven decades of progress and the election of Barack Obama. They were not made in anticipation of each other or how the culture has changed in 2017, but they prove how much the past and present exist on the same continuum and comment meaningfully on the events of the day.
Many of the year’s director candidates have made films that reflect the tenor of the times, yet approach social commentary from different angles, from the historical bent of “Mudbound,” to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” and the complementary visions of Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” to the modern provocation of “Get Out” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Then there’s Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” which brings the Vietnam and Iraq wars together, each haunting the veterans who fought in them. None of these directors could have anticipated the tumult of Trump’s America, but they’ve hit it in stride.
In “Mudbound,” the relationship between the McAllens, a white family that’s moved to rural Mississippi, and the Jacksons, a black family that’s often commissioned to help them adjust, serves as an allegory for the entrenched racism that bogs them both down in the muck. When Rees talks about “white currency” in the film, she’s referring to the leverage the McAllens hold over the Jacksons and how each of them chooses to spend it, from the vile bigotry of their oldest member to the subtler expectation that the Jacksons will put the McAllens’ needs over their own.
“Mudbound” asks audiences to consider how racism still lingers, but between its Sundance premiere and its debut on Netflix in November, as hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Va., with Tiki torches, the Klan violence of its most shocking scene suddenly seemed like a not-so-distant possibility.
“Back in January, I think [the Klan scene] could be read as hyperbole,” Rees says. “With Charlottesville, people are able to admit, ‘OK, things haven’t changed as much as we thought.’ This didn’t just spring up. This isn’t new. This has always been here. This is fully formed and growing and festering.”
For its part, “Get Out” marked the end of the Obama era with a reminder that his election didn’t move the country past race. It takes satirical aim at white liberals who may have voted for Obama, but weren’t interested in dismantling a system that benefits them. Taking a cue from the Ira Levin adaptations “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” Peele introduces his black protagonist to his white girlfriend’s family, who pride themselves on being progressive, but cover a nefarious agenda with an unnerving battery of micro-aggressions.
A student of the genre, Peele started thinking about making a horror film about race back in 2009, when Obama took office and the phrase “post-racial” was being used to describe the country.
“We had a black president, but there was this sentiment going around that if you even talked about racism, you were part of the problem,” Peele says. “I knew that we weren’t cured of racism and I knew that if I pulled off a horror movie that dealt with that problem, the experience would be cathartic.”
As “Last Flag Flying” was premiering at the New York Film Festival in October, President Trump was stirring up controversy over the national anthem protests at National Football League games. They had started last season when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee to send a message about police brutality and racial injustice. But the issue had since been muddied by an argument over the flag itself and what it represents, and whether those who kneel are taking advantage of their freedom to protest or disrespecting a flag many veterans have sacrificed themselves to defend.
“Last Flag Flying” opens in 2003, as the film follows Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a Vietnam vet who recruits his former Marine buddies (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) to help bury his son, who just died in the Iraq War. As accounts of how he died start to deviate from the official story, “Last Flag Flying” becomes a poignant reflection on patriotism and how the country can do a disservice to those who give their lives to it.
“We all love our country, but that’s not the question,” Linklater says. “A football player taking a knee on the sideline loves his country and appreciates the opportunities they’ve been given. But they’re there to represent people who aren’t as fortunate as they are. People who have it worse, which is brave in itself to care beyond your own selfish interests. That’s the American way, in my opinion — to represent all of us, to demand we live up to these higher aspirational ideas that our country is founded on.”
The current spread of right-wing nationalism across America and Europe, including his native U.K., which approved the Brexit referendum to depart from the European Union, was an inspiration for Joe Wright to make “Darkest Hour,” a biopic about Winston Churchill standing up against the fascists. Set largely in May 1940, shortly after Churchill (played by Gary Oldman) succeeded Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister, the film is about the difficult decision not to pursue a peace agreement with Germany and the private doubt behind Churchill’s public strength.
To Wright, Churchill’s uncertainty and thoughtfulness in the moment, combined with his extraordinary rhetorical gifts, were the sign of great leadership when it mattered the most.
“I never trust people who seem to not doubt themselves or doubt received information,” says Wright. “These people who claim to know everything, know exactly the right way. Churchill has been portrayed as just such a character, but actually what one finds when digging a little deeper is that at this pivotal moment in the history of civilization, we find a leader who doubts himself, and doubts his own policies. And through that doubt, he acquires the wisdom required for leadership, and the ability to lead us against this terrible enemy.”
Many of the issues at play in “Three Billboards” — including the power of protest and police brutality — are a synthesis of the year’s themes, all wrapped up in McDonagh’s lively treatment of small-town America. Rather than wilt in grief over the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, the film’s hero, Mildred (Frances McDormand), uses three billboards on an empty stretch of road to accuse the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) of not doing his job. As the tension escalates over Mildred’s protest, the town’s sympathy toward her wanes, but it’s a primary virtue of the film that she isn’t an easy character to support.
Asked if Mildred would have voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, McDonagh demurs.
“We don’t know where the hell she’s coming from politically,” says McDonagh. “Sometimes her actions seem very right wing. Sometimes they seem very left wing. Sometimes they feel very anarchist. It’s all of those things and none of those things, I think.
“I’m kind of interested how [the film] might play in the center of the country, because for those reasons too, she’s someone people could either get behind or be completely against, but I think that’s hopefully the beauty of Frances’ performance.”