From ‘Dark Waters’ to ‘Harriet,’ Screenwriters Reckoned With Power

2019 has been a reckoning, overdue and arguably well-deserved, for men in power. The ways in which this has played out in real life is, sadly, too often unsatisfying: criminals escape justice, the rich retain their wealth, and the corrupt remain in power. But on film, screenwriters can not only deliver satisfying resolutions to the stories that inflame our sense of outrage, but also examine the mindset of the people within and without the power structures that are in desperate need of change, whether they’re fighting it or helping it along. Some of these journeys come down to a simple loss of authority or relevance in the face of a changing world, and others are driven by an urgent need to foreground the previously marginalized, and to tear down antiquated and unbalanced institutions that favor the historically privileged. A remarkably diverse slate of films over the past year has addressed these ideas in thoughtful, eclectic, extraordinary stories.

Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” for example, depicts America’s “original sin” of slavery through the eyes and experiences of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Lemmons and her collaborator, Gregory Allen Howard, say they were astutely aware of the parallels between the antebellum South and what’s happening now when they crafted their fact-based historical drama.

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“There was this underlying sense of paranoia and anxiety, this low-level anxiety at the divisions in the country that I wanted to speak to that I think is going on right now,” Lemmons says. “I’m interested in the mental gymnastics involved in this system of evil. From an anthropological, sociological point of view, how did they f**king wrap their heads around this idea?”

But even if contemporary audiences automatically know the destructive impact of chattel slavery, some characters facing more contemporary but no less dangerous threats struggle to recognize the truth for themselves. In “Dark Waters,” Todd Haynes’ legal thriller about a 20-year effort to hold DuPont accountable for creating chemicals that knowingly and irreversibly polluted the environment, and as a consequence animal and human populations, it takes real-life attorney Rob Bilott years to realize that his former corporate overlords won’t thank or even accept his earnest efforts to point out their malfeasance.

“Rob believed that if he just showed DuPont what they were doing wrong, that they would correct it,” says co-screenwriter Mario Correa. “He believed in the system for quite a bit of this case early on. And we wanted to make sure that we understood the world that was propping up this system around Rob as he navigated it.”

Similarly, Charles Randolph’s script for “Bombshell” — about Fox News’ ousting of Roger Ailes after several female staffers came forward with sexual harassment claims — works on the audience’s resistance not only to Ailes but also his accusers, as Randolph and director Jay Roach chronicle a pivotal moment in the movement to confront and stop sexual abuse.

“For me, what was so powerful about this story is that it came from the least likely people on the planet in terms of standing up, and that really underlined how bipartisan this issue was,” Randolph says. “Because if Jay and I can get you to identify with these people, then we can sort of move the ball forward for everyone. It’s terrifying to do a movie about a subject where you know that at least 50% of the audience, the women, are going to know more about it than you do. So if I could just get to some place where women feel like it resonates and men understand it, then I feel like we’ve done a good thing.”

In the case of “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes’ big-screen coda and celebration of his acclaimed television series of the same name, the writer had historical precedent on his side when choosing to foreground the stories of several of the ensemble’s female characters.

“The powerful woman has always been a part of the story of the aristocracy because that is the most hereditary element about society,” he says. “[But] there were aspects of that society that were very repressive and very cruel, and I think it’s worth reminding people not to be too nostalgic about the past.”

Still, Fellowes champions the freedom he has to focus on a rich and eclectic panoply of characters within the world he has created.

“Even in the 1950s, we were still making films where the servants were essentially extras. And that is a sign of the modern times that we regard them just as fully developed characters as the people they’re working for.”

Modernity is a topic that has always intrigued the storytellers at Pixar, and in particular, how the evolving lives of the people telling those stories can be reflected in the characters they create inside the computer. In “Toy Story 4,” Sheriff Woody must come to terms with the change in his relationship with Bonnie, the child he’s sworn to play with and protect — a scenario Andrew Stanton related directly to as his own children grew up and he prepared to become a grandfather.

“The seed of the story was Andrew wrestling with the fact that he is in a phase of life where the kids are out of the house and he’s trying to figure out where he is,” says co-writer Stephany Fulsom. “And also it was about me and the younger generation kind coming into Pixar at a moment where we are going to take up that mantle in the world, essentially.”

Stanton suggested that drawing on the lives of the filmmakers was more than an opportunity; it was a responsibility.

“We would be blind if we hadn’t noticed the parallels that were happening in society and culturally in our country and as well as just what was happening in our studio,” Stanton says. “It was kind of like the world was just telling us to lean into the truth.”

Juggling ideas that inspire audiences while acknowledging inescapable realities was one of the biggest challenges for Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, who adapted defense attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy,” into a powerful and thought-provoking film about the pursuit of racial justice in a South that, then and now, mistreats people of color on an institutional level.

“We always wanted to show that when people are educated in a nonjudgmental way about the truth of the situation, that can give you the opportunity to open closed minds,” Lanham says. “We also wanted to try to be honest about the fact that a lot of people have closed minds that are most likely going to remain closed.”

“Bryan saw a very real problem that most people at the time, or even now, would say is an impossible feat to try to change, and just decided that he was going to do it,” says Cretton. “And he has been incredibly effective over the past 40 years. But it’s equally important to talk about how much and how little has changed. And we hope people leave the theater with a mixture of inspiration, but also the reality that there is still a lot to do.”

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