‘First Reformed,’ ‘Beale,’ Focus on Characters from Different Walks of Life

First Reformed
Courtesy of A24

Many of this year’s films nominated for original and adapted screenplay center on issues of class, race, diversity, and marginalized individuals who are living on the fringes of society, or operating within their own personal realm to the extent that they feel like outsiders to the rest of the populace. When narratives explore events from the past, the lessons that one takes away from those stories often times apply directly to the present, and it’s important to note how society’s mistakes can be captured and studied through cinema, while commenting on how we treat one another in the moment.

The ascetic lifestyle of a solitary pastor in a Dutch Reformed Church is explored in Paul Schrader’s script for “First Reformed,” while the lawlessness of the Old West and its various oddball characters — a singing cowboy, a woman fighting for survival on the Oregon Trail — points to the precariousness of the human condition in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology film in which everybody seems like an outsider.

Personal experience heavily informs Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical drama “Roma,” an intimate story that might best be described as a hopscotching filmic collage from the not-too-distant-past. Centering on a tight-knit family and their dedicated housekeeper in various stages of emotional crisis, the film is set at the brink of the Mexican revolution during the 1970s. “Whenever you write about the past, it can’t help but be filtered through the prism of today,” Cuaron says. “If I was going to travel into my childhood in order to tell a story, it needed to be honest, and that was my goal from the beginning.”

A virtue of “Roma” is how universal it feels, touching on love, death, and the hope for happiness, despite haunting passages displaying the random cruelty of life. “Film is a projection of your ideology and politics, and because it was a process of putting my own memories to the page, and then from the page to the screen, I had to be as descriptive as possible. I had to let myself go.”

If Beale Street Could Talk,” which writer-director Barry Jenkins adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed 1974 novel, directly confronts issues of class inequality and institutional racism that works to disrupt a blossoming romance between two young African-American lovers who are up against an enormous challenge — she’s pregnant with their baby and he’s been wrongly imprisoned for rape.

“What happens in this film can still happen today,” says Jenkins. “Because history often repeats itself, I felt like Baldwin’s original story still accurately reflected our world today.”

Few groups are more despicable in their level of blind hatred than the Ku Klux Klan, something scenarist Kevin Willmott wanted to reinforce while co-writing “BlacKkKlansman” with Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, and David Rabinowitz. The film tells a gripping story laced with incendiary humor, revolving around true events from the early 1970s in which an African-American detective working in Colorado Springs helped to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK.

“We take it for granted, how people can subscribe to that feeling of hate, and we can’t take it for granted,” says Willmott. And because the events of “BlacKkKlansman” are still relevant today, it stings with a harsh truth. “The film demands that the audience feels some discomfort. We don’t teach history enough in this country, and when you get comfortable, that’s when trouble starts. We wanted to show the end result of hate.”

The idea of the second-class citizen is felt throughout “Green Book,” which was co-written by director Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. The emotionally poignant story centers on African-American jazz musician Don Shirley, as he took a musical tour and road trip of the deep and segregated South during the early 1960s with his Italian American driver, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a man who lived a rough life and who learned some valuable lessons from his companion. “I recognized the story was very pertinent to today, and we wanted to show how their friendship was built upon incremental moments where you got to see them changing and finding common ground. It was a gradual awakening. Despite everyone’s differences, we all have a lot more in common with each other than we think,” Farrelly says.

The heartfelt dramedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” focuses on Lee Israel, (Melissa McCarthy), a woman living her life completely on the margins. She’s a financially struggling lesbian, dwelling in less-than-glamorous NYC surroundings, during a time of serious economic uncertainty. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script, which was based on Israel’s book, unabashedly shows the hardships that she was facing.

“I’ve always championed the underdog because I’ve always felt like one,” Whitty says. “Part of what’s subversive about the story is that it’s about a gay woman and her personal struggle, and our representation of gay people in this film needed to feel true and organic. It’s a progressive film because of that fact, and we need further representation for these types of characters. I feel very blessed to have been a part of this project.”