This year’s awards contenders are hoping to take home prizes in 2018, but many are firmly affixed in the past. Stories this year are being told about Amazon jungle explorers (“The Lost City of Z”), World War II in Europe (“Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk”), a 1967 inner-city riot (“Detroit”), Queen Victoria’s friendship with a citizen of one of her colonies (“Victoria & Abdul”) and post-WWII veterans in America’s deep South (“Mudbound”).
That’s hardly unusual; movies frequently plumb the past for its rich store of stories, told and untold, particularly during awards season. And each of these films have found tales to spin from history that are both familiar and fresh. But none of these films — in fact, few period films, aside from documentaries — are merely the sum of their parts. Whether audiences are aware of it or not, filmmakers are not simply tugging narrative threads from history’s tapestry: there’s a much more subtle art at work here.
“The present is always in conversation with the past, and by looking at the past we measure the present,” says “Darkest Hour” screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose film sets the stage for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decisions on how to guide Britain during the World War II. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” highlights one particular heroic effort that takes place amid the events of “Darkest Hour,” though the two films are not linked otherwise.
“One of my favorite Churchill quotes is: ‘The farther back you look the farther forward you are likely to see,’ ” McCarten says. “The themes in this film are relevant now, but they were also relevant 1,000 years ago.”
“We continue to live it,” says Dee Rees, “Mudbound” director and co-screenplay writer with Virgil Williams. “This is us, the past is present. It’s not necessarily something that’s behind us — or even understood.”
Racism forms a significant thread throughout many films in contention this year, from how Abdul Karim, an Indian serving Queen Victoria in “Victoria” is treated; to the patronizing approach many explorers and scientists had toward indigenous cultures in “Lost City”; to the way African-Americans in the Jim Crow South of “Mudbound” and mid-’60s “Detroit” are overtly, violently discriminated against. It’s difficult to watch any of those films and not see parallels with today’s headlines — and that’s entirely intentional, say the screenwriters.
“You are essentially trying to get the audience to extend its sympathies so they can see themselves with greater clarity,” says “Lost City” director-writer James Gray. “Sometimes, the present can be too close. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ reflected the turmoil and restlessness of the ‘60s, but it’s about people who rob banks in the 1930s. Movies are like dreams, and sometimes your dream is a metaphor.”
Part of the power these films convey is that history doesn’t end when the credits roll. “The film poses the question about how much has changed, and that’s intentional,” says “Detroit” screenwriter Mark Boal. “There is a tendency in Hollywood to make movies about the past with this anachronistic sheen to them so that the racism feels distant and there’s an implied sense of progress to that.”
Rees considers that part of the problem. “[Filmmakers] want to go straight to the happy ending,” she says of Hollywood films that focus either on slavery, the Civil War or the civil rights movement — and leave the vast majority of the black American experience in shadow. “You only have to look at the headlines and public sentiment to see we haven’t gone progressed very far.”
That said, she notes that “Mudbound” is likely to be seen by audiences with a very different filter than if it had come out five years ago. “Had it come out then, audiences might not see themselves or their country in it,” she says. “They’re now seeing it with a more critical eye. The film doesn’t change, but the audience’s ability to be open and receive it will change.”
Ultimately, screenwriters don’t expect their stories will actually affect massive, immediate change: if films had that power, then the dozens of blockbusters demonizing WWII’s losing side, or highlighting the nobility of the civil rights movement would have stymied the rise of the new alt-right movement.
But to McCarten, that’s not the point of using history to highlight the present at all.
“If it’s correct to say that there is a closing of minds around the world, story is one of the most powerful agents of reviving the conversation between ideas,” he says. “Ultimately, that’s all stories are trying to do — open the conversation. They cannot give a proscription. It’s not clairvoyant art.”
And with every conversation — literal or on the screen itself — filmmakers, including “Lost City’s” Gray, say a difference can be made. “You don’t see a movie and it changes your life forever and you change your behavior,” he says. “You have to think of it like a brick in the house of a person’s makeup — it at least allows them, for a moment, to understand another side of things. That’s all you can ask for.”