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Best Picture Contenders Tap Into the Current Times

There’s a line near the end of Fox Searchlight’s biopic, “Battle of the Sexes,” that is particularly memorable. It’s when Alan Cumming’s out-and-proud fashion designer, Ted Tinling, comforts tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). She’s having an extremely emotional moment; although she just bested blowhard Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in an epic match that also was a landmark for women’s equality, it’s 1973 and she still cannot live openly with the woman she loves. He soothes her, saying that soon she’ll be able to live the life she’s struggled so hard to keep hidden from public view because “times change.”

“One day we will be free to be who we are and love who we love,” he promises her, though he admits that he doesn’t know when that will be. “Right now, all you can do is join the dance.”

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who directed the film based on Simon Beaufoy’s script, say this moment gets mixed reactions from audiences: is it too on the nose? Is it too heartfelt or earnest?

“At that time, it was such a rare thing to have someone who was out and comfortable in his sexuality say that,” Faris says. But what pretty much all audience members can agree on is the very reason why this bit of dialogue pops out in the first place.
Battle of the Sexes” went into production in 2015, when the idea of a President Trump was a late-night host’s punchline instead of a reality and when civil liberties — in particular to this film, those impacting women and members of the LGBTQ community — weren’t at high-alert, attack levels.

Faris and Dayton’s film isn’t the only recent release in this situation. One of the greatest tricks that Hollywood must always pull off is the ability to look timely when, in fact, films and TV shows take months or years of preparation. But, especially after Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” nabbed the best drama series Emmy this fall for not simply just being a great show, but also an extremely important and relevant one, politically and socially conscious movies vying for awards this season may receive more detailed scrutiny than their filmmakers expected.

Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele, whose film notoriously satirized the horror movie genre in an unflinching look at race relations, says, “The biggest change in the climate from when I started writing and when the movie came out or when I was editing or even shooting was that, in the beginning, race seemed almost like a taboo subject and that calling out racism was not really accepted.”

“Under President Obama, it was convenient to overlook the racial problems because there was a big racial victory in Obama’s election,” Peele continues. “So, by the time the movie came out, the conversation had progressed with [activist movement] #BlackLivesMatter and we had attention to police brutality that we hadn’t had five years ago.”

As fans of “Get Out” know, Peele did change the original conclusion of his film. He says while it may have “really rang true” for his African-American photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to end up in prison, it was still a “sadder, darker ending.”

“By the time we tested the movie, it was clear that people wanted a victory and were tired of the injustice,” Peele says, so he reshot the resolution to “have both a very truthful moment” and also “allow the audience to have a hero.” He says he doesn’t regret this decision; it would have been the one he’d gone with if he’d thought of it first.

That the film also had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival a few days after Trump’s inauguration is not lost on Peele. “I think the weird thing about making a social thriller is the way society works and the discussion about society are kind of a moving target,” he says. “It feels like the climate has been almost unstable, but I’m sort of encouraged that we’re moving in the direction of progress even though it feels like we’ve taken some huge steps back in many ways.” He reminds that “what the movie’s about” — i.e. racism, oppression, society turning its back on African-Americans — “has been here for so long.”

Other Oscar contenders this season that conquer our country’s history of systemic racism include “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s period drama about the city’s 12th Street Riot; Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” which includes a plot about the U.S. military-led genocide of Native Americans; and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which centers on rural farmers in segregated post-World War II Mississippi.

Peele says “the only real change” is now, given our political climate, “racists have been emboldened in this country and racist sentiments have become more on the forefront as opposed to something people feel they need to hide more.”

Continuing the trend of activism on film, there’s writer-director Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” which ponders what happened to the passionate, outspoken youth with bullhorns who galvanized the last civil-rights movement. In Gilroy’s telling of it, Denzel Washington’s Afro-sporting activist went on to become a criminal lawyer with an insatiable need to stick it to the status quo, even if the world around him isn’t as embracing of his definition of “change,” as Gilroy depicts through his setting of an ever-gentrifying downtown Los Angeles.

“I have always been interested in activism and the journey of activists,” says Gilroy, who began writing “Israel” about two years ago.

He chose to make the character older, as opposed to following someone who more recently picked up the baton, because he remembers the passion and dedication that drove the latter half of the ’60s and he wanted to follow someone who “had been carrying around a four-decade burden of helping other people and really getting almost nothing in return for himself.”

The decision to make his titular character African-American came from something a little more personal: he’s an enormous fan of Washington and wrote the script on spec for him. (Fun fact: Roman’s mealtime ritual of peanut butter and honey sandwiches was Washington’s idea).

Gilroy says he didn’t alter the script while filming to reflect the frantic newspaper headlines detailing events such as the shooting of unarmed African-Americans. But, he says, he thinks everyone felt during filming “that we had landed in a very timely arena, given … how many people have been energized by the political climate and are out there advocating for quite a few different causes.”

Of course, some films’ resonance are purely coincidental. “Beatriz at Dinner,” writer Mike White’s dramedy starring Salma Hayek as a Mexican-born massage therapist and last-minute invitee to a dinner party that also counts John Lithgow’s ethnically lacking real estate tycoon as one of its guests, finished production before the 2016 election. Same with Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” which follows impoverished children scraping by in an Orlando motel, and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” a not-so-subtle side-eye to our capitalist culture’s waste creation, starring noted environmental advocate Matt Damon.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh says he penned the script for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” eight years ago. He says nothing in the plot, which follows a grief-stricken mother (Frances McDormand) who goes rogue when she feels local law enforcement aren’t doing enough to catch her daughter’s killer “was a direct response” to more recent horrific incidents like the 2012 brutal rape of Daisy Coleman in Maryville, Mo., or the 2014 police-related shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. There’s a key line in the film where McDormand’s Mildred Hayes says, “it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crimes.”

“I guess the attitudes and the opinions of the piece are ones that I’ve had for a while about race relations; not just in America, but in the U.K. and Europe, too,” the British-Irish McDonagh says, adding that he chose the Show Me State for his locale simply because “I thought it needed to be one of the old Confederate states.”

McDonagh says, frankly, that “a lot of that stuff, sadly, wasn’t going to change in the last few years. And, sadly, I’m not sure how much it will change in the next few years unless something radical is done about it.”

On a more optimistic note, he says it’s “kind of great to be putting out a film right now that has such a strong female lead; a take-no-prisoners, empowered woman at the forefront of the movie.”

All of this doesn’t mean that filmmakers would (or should) not show modern-day, real-world correlations to their works. As the Trump administration planned another attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act in September, actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted, “I’ve had a loved one spend time in a hospital. I know how much it would have cost if she didn’t have insurance. We’d never have recovered.” He was, presumably, speaking of his wife, Emily V. Gordon, with whom he wrote the indie darling “The Big Sick,” based on their courtship and her experience of being suddenly placed in a medically induced coma.

Several filmmakers thought their projects would be sending a very different message upon their projects’ releases. “Battle of the Sexes’” Faris and Dayton point out that their subject, King, is a close friend of Hillary Clinton’s. He says they figured they were making a compendium piece that “would be a great marker for how far women had come.” Instead, they’re premiering in an era in which sexual assault and harassment cases are unfolding at a fever pitch.

Of course the filmmakers are aware of the subliminal messaging — and marketing gold mine — “Battle of the Sexes” has in having a male-female directing team overseeing a movie about gender equality. Faris says, “We don’t divide things by gender in our lives.” Also she, by default of their working relationship, doesn’t “get the same treatment that I think women in our industry do.”
Liz Hannah, who wrote “The Post” about the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to release the Pentagon Papers, had similar sentiments about premiering her film this year of all years. She says she’d thought when writing it on her kitchen table last year that she’d be paralleling “another woman’s triumphant win.”

Also, consider also how many think pieces were written over the timing of this summer box office smash, “Wonder Woman,” not to mention the significance of its director, Patty Jenkins, being the first woman to helm a big-budget superhero film. Or the ones over the resurgence of projects featuring headstrong British prime minister Winston Churchill, like director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” or Lithgow’s Emmy-winning portrayal in the Netflix series “The Crown.”

Interestingly enough, Hannah tells Variety that one of her screenwriting heroes is Aaron Sorkin, who is releasing another based-on-a-true-story account of a steely heroine who shook the system with his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game.”

“What is important to me about this story being told now is history is cyclical,” Hannah says. “It’s important that we pay attention as citizens and as consumers of information. On the opposite side, I think it’s important to have everyone remember that the press is able to go into rooms that we, as citizens, are not allowed to be in. It is vital to the influx of information, the transparency of information, that they’re allowed to be in those rooms.”

There is another aspect of “The Post” that Hannah says, unfortunately, has never gone out of style.

“A woman being silenced in a room full of men is something that could happen in 2017 and this movie takes place in 1971,” she says. “I think it is important to remember that, while some things have changed, a lot of things really haven’t.” Hannah wants her film to symbolize “holding up a mirror and saying: ‘What can we do?’”

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