Using historical recreation, comedy and the tropes of horror, many of the most impactful movies of 2020 dramatized important cultural conversations — some that audiences began examining long ago, and others they may still be reluctant to broach at all.
Social commentary has become an additive, even essential element in the resonance of a contemporary narratives, even those set in the past or masked by the mechanics and conventions of a particular genre, simultaneously challenging screenwriters while supplying them with new and unique creative opportunities. And particularly in a year of such tremendous upheaval, tales about generational shifts — clashes between a safe and possibly outdated old world, and the irrepressible spirit of what’s coming — generated some spectacularly moving moments on screen.
As far back as “A Few Good Men,” writer-director Aaron Sorkin has always worn his liberal bona fides on his sleeve. But after spending 14 years bringing “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to the screen, he discovered that the real-life court case against anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention only gained relevance because of the tragic events not just during filming, but leading up to (and even following) its release.
“I never wanted this film to be about 1968. I wanted it to be about today,” Sorkin tells Variety. “But then in May with the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and protesters on the streets of Portland, Ore.; Kenosha, Wis.; Minneapolis; Washington, D.C. being met once again by tear gas and billy clubs, I felt like if we just degraded the color a little bit, it would look exactly like footage from 1968. And then of course, on January 6th Trump stood at a microphone and did exactly what the Chicago seven were on trial for doing.”
“I’ve been asked if I changed anything in the script or in the cut to mirror events in the world, and the answer is events in the world changed to mirror what was going on in the script.”
Where Sorkin had pages of court transcripts and the insights of Tom Hayden to draw upon for his recreation of events, playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers used the building blocks of real historical events in “One Night in Miami” to create a vivid dialogue connecting past celebrities and present-day concerns.
“My friends and I were having a discussion about what if any social responsibility do Black artists, Black business leaders, have to their community when you experience a certain amount of success,” Powers says. “My idea was to reverse engineer these ideas back into the mouths of the men who very much inspired that way of thinking. Malcolm X really did inspire a call for revolutionary change, while Sam Cooke, not just as an artist but all the things he was doing behind the scenes as a businessperson, symbolized this idea of changing the system from within. They just represented the purest form of those ideas.”
“One Night in Miami” shares in common with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of the 1982 August Wilson play, a rare and bracing spotlight illuminating the kind of authentic conversations between Black characters that white audiences rarely see. But where Powers’ civil rights-era historical fiction offers a more hopeful portrait of opposing viewpoints finding an accord, Santiago-Hudson uses Rainey’s history as “Mother of the Blues” to drill fiercely down into both the success Black artists can achieve and the risks they face of losing it.
“I wanted to show the power and impact of Black people marketing to Black people and how it empowers their environment,” he says. “I also liked to show the glass ceiling of achievement for Black people with Levee finally getting through the door and there’s another wall, the usurping and taking away, the control of Black culture and who reaps the financial benefits of that.”
Kevin Wilmott’s contemporary-set script for Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods” picks up threads that these films’ source material introduced and puts them in a different context, exploring a group of Black veterans who return to Vietnam for a treasure hunt — and a reckoning with their past. Wilmott indicated that the mechanics of a heist paved the way to explore these other racial and social issues.
“The gold is the driving force of all the emotional relationship issues of the film,” he says. “In pursuing this gold and in trying to find Stormin’ Norman’s body, you have to go back and unearth and unpack all these issues. [Spike] wanted to make sure that we kind of dealt with the full package — that Black veterans caught hell coming back home and caught hell in Vietnam, the way they were treated by the U.S. government, the whole complications that go with war period, and also the whole legacy of colonialism and the point of view of the Vietnamese.”
Although they may not seem similar, Sofia Coppola’s quiet comedy about an inveterate philanderer (Bill Murray) who teams up with his daughter (Rashida Jones) to find out if her husband is cheating also explores the effect of a complicated past on an uncertain present.
“I was thinking about male and female points of view across generations,” Coppola says. “Some of the men of [Bill’s] generation have one point of view of women and then their daughters, they see in a different way, that no guy will be good enough for their daughter. Having kids and a family, you look on the family that you came from and how you bring baggage from that in the way you interact with partners in your adult life.”
In “Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s examination of male-female relationships stands in stark contrast with Coppola’s — and almost all others last year — by turning horror’s well-established rape-revenge subgenre into a referendum on the warped power dynamics that complicate an all too frequent and unambiguous personal violation.
“What happens in this film happens all the time,” Fennell says. “So what do you do when something horrific has been absolutely or at least tacitly allowed by parents, by people who run schools, run universities, by peers, by everyone? The film really is about more than anything is this resistance to acknowledging something that happened.”
“There’s something quite chilling to me that we side still with the powerful — we’ve made being accused of something and being a victim of that thing equivalent, when they’re not.”
Erica Rivinoja and Jena Friedman were two of the writers who helped circumnavigate the unimaginable challenge of capturing lightning in a bottle a second time on “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” by bringing an essential feminine energy to counterbalance Sacha Baron Cohen’s iconic, woefully regressive journalist. The relationship between Borat and daughter Tutar (played brilliantly by Maria Bakalova) become a mirror, and eventually, as much of an indictment of America’s attitudes toward women as Fennell’s film, albeit with a savagely funny edge.
“To see something like the [debutante] ball where you have these performances of gender and femininity happening, we don’t even think about them as antiquated until you see Borat and Tutar in that context — and in a way Borat was more liberated than American dads,” Friedman says.
“Just pushing to do this debutante ball with this giant period thing was even a bit of a debate because a lot of people were like, it’s really gross,” Rivinoja says. “But it was a lot of us as women pushing it forward and I’m so happy that made it in because it’s what makes it much more of a feminine film.”
If these films focus on separation and differences of perspective, Lee Isaac Chung’s fish-out-of-water story “Minari” ironically seeks harmony, reconciliation and unity at every turn as an immigrant Korean family relocates to rural Arkansas in a clash of cultures, generations and sensibilities.
“I was really aiming to make a story that leads more towards human connection and that happens mostly within this family,” Chung says. “I wanted to write a film in which everybody has a different mindset approach to life, and that they’re in constant conversation with each other, even if it’s not direct then the things that they say are refuting things that other characters have said before them.”
“And so when I was looking at generational differences, cultural differences, I never wanted to just simply highlight those differences, but they spoke into the greater feeling within the film of these characters who really need to learn how to love each other.”