Filmmakers have been making message movies since the birth of the art form, as Hollywood has long embraced the notion of observing progressive social change through mass entertainment. From some of the earliest talkies to outright propaganda pieces, to the Stanley Kramer dramas of the ’50s and ’60s and the resurgence at the studio level in the ’80s and ’90s, storytellers continue to find ways to embed strong personal and cultural statements within their motion pictures. And while many artists will argue that every film is a message movie, it’s clear that 2018 produced a bunch of narratives that spoke louder than others.
One of the most incisive and fierce was “Blindspotting,” a Sundance favorite from director Carlos Lopez Estrada and the writing/acting team of Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. The provocative narrative pivots on best friends who have learned to navigate the rough streets of Oakland, Calif., only to see gentrification upend their neighborhood. Everything changes when Diggs’ character, who is three days shy of completing probation, witnesses a white cop shooting and killing an unarmed black man.
“Our guiding light was to make a movie that could entertain a mainstream audience but not ignore the present realities we all face,” says producer Keith Calder.
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Nothing comes easy in the challenging world that “Blindspotting” presents, with the storytellers offering up important questions concerning multiple topics that have no simple answers. “It’s shockingly close to the film we wanted to make,” says Diggs. “Blindspotting” is one of those breakthroughs that demands to be discovered.
“We hope the film brings about some self-reflection for the viewer,” says Casal, who was first contacted by producer Jess Wu Calder when he was a YouTube star.
“We developed the film as a love letter to Oakland,” says Calder. “This isn’t the time to be subtle. You need to scream to get your message heard.”
Alfonso Cuaron flashed his auteur muscles with “Roma,” which he wrote, directed, co-produced, shot and edited. An intimate and personal family drama, the picture is a hop-scotching cinematic time capsule from a volatile point in Mexican history, focusing on a family in 1970 and their dedicated housekeeper, all of whom are caught up in various stages of emotional crises.
“The film has messages about diversity, social inequality, ethnic discrimination, as well as messages about strong women and family, and how we’re all the same,” says producer Gabriela Rodriguez.
The film “represents how fragile we are as human beings, but also how resilient we can be and how we can overcome adversity.”
George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” forcefully explores unwarranted and deadly action by the police, a headline-dominating issue for decades. Based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel and adapted by Audrey Wells, who passed away a day before the film opened last October, the story examines painfully harsh truths about the current African-American experience, and is the sort of movie that might serve as a potent message for certain viewers.
“I was interested in telling a story through the eyes of a 16-year-old,” says Tillman Jr. He “didn’t want to get preachy with anything, but at the same time, the story needed to be authentic to the world we’re discussing.”
“Sorry to Bother You,” the striking debut from rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley, is the motion picture as societal-wrecking-ball, a work so brazen and alive with possibilities that it’s impossible not to be provoked into a visceral response after viewing.
“This was a hard film to get made because the structure couldn’t be compared to anything else,” says Riley.
Lakeith Stanfield’s character, an African-American telemarketer who learns that sales are easier if he speaks in “his white voice,” gets mixed up in corporate greed and conspiracy, with satirically hallucinogenic results.
“Nobody has just one view of the world at any given moment, and that was a message I wanted to get across,” Riley says.
One of the year’s biggest blockbusters, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first studio film with an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club.” For fans of Kevin Kwan’s novel, the big-screen adaptation from screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli lived up to the hype, featuring a classic set-up with cultural distinction, allowing for observations regarding class-status, wealth and marriage to boil up.
“The film is about the Asian-American experience, and we wanted to show love for family and how there’s always concern for the future,” says Lim.
Co-stars Constance Wu and Henry Golding became break-out stars, and look to challenge the notion of expected casting decisions with upcoming projects.
“If you make a movie that many people enjoy, it’s easier to get more films with a similar message made,” Chiarelli says.
Comedy veteran Peter Farrelly stepped outside his comfort zone with the crowd-pleasing drama “Green Book,” a true story that looks at the friendship between a black musician (Mahershela Ali) and his Italian-American driver and protector (Viggo Mortensen), as they journeyed across the Deep South in 1962 on a musical tour, learning important life lessons from each other along the way.
“Everyone who worked on this film followed their hearts,” says Farrelly. “The message was so pure and it was an important story that deserved to be told.”
“This is a time to be blunt, and not remain quiet about our feelings,” says Spike Lee, whose “BlacKkKlansman” is an equal parts incendiary and hilarious account of the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Dept., and who helped to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
It’s set over 40 years ago, and yet speaks directly to our present societal landscape, finding the filmmaker doing what he knows how to do best: Telling a hot-blooded story with multi-dimensional characters while making observant comments about race relations. And then there’s the film’s blistering final shot, featuring a distressed, upside down American flag, drained of color.
“There was some initial pushback about the ending,” says Lee. “But hate crimes are way up in America and I felt it was important to end the film on that note.”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is “Moonlight” helmer Barry Jenkins’ bittersweet adaptation of James Baldwin’s celebrated novel, concerning a potentially doomed romance between two young African-Americans living in rapidly changing Harlem during the early 1970s. It’s an artistically bold work that further underscores the racial divide in America, whether from decades previous or right now in the moment, showing how race defines how people are viewed throughout society. Because the narrative pivots on an act of racism resulting in an innocent man being put into jail, the film carries even deeper meaning.
It’s also an experiential work, showing how hard life would have been for middle-class African-Americans during that time period, as they attempted to find apartments, jobs, and gain fair treatment from law enforcement.
Oftentimes the various characters look directly and confidently into the camera, seeking answers to questions that will never be explained, a sublime aesthetic decision that fully demonstrates Jenkins’ command over his craft.
Final message: The industry has no shortage of powerful voices that look to tell insightful stories.