An image sticks with me from this season’s many female-driven contenders — that of Danielle Deadwyler’s Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley. At the end of “Till,” she is planted onstage at a rally. With erect posture, she wears her Sunday best, red lips and finest necklace, following the racially motivated murder of her only son, Emmett, in the summer of 1955. Mrs. Till has transformed from private mother to public activist. In the wake of an impossible grief, assaulted by a country beset by racial prejudice, she has walked into her power as a Black woman, however dangerous that might yet be.
The film’s director and co-writer, Chinonye Chukwu, has used the biopic template to filet a shameful moment in American history — but this is not in any sense a poor-me lament, an enshrinement of victimhood. Says Chukwu: “Mamie’s journey involves her going from being content living in a very contained, middle-class bubble, to becoming an activist that will help galvanize a modern civil-rights movement.”
What sets “Till” apart, and places it in the context of many of 2022 contenders, is its focus on the arc of social change. “Mamie is an ‘unintentional activist,’ who transmutes her grief and anger over her son’s lynching into a purpose far greater than herself,” continues Chukwu. “Her journey of a developing activist consciousness is grounded by the love from and for her community and, of course, her child.”
Festival programmer and host of the “Maximum Film!” podcast, Drea Clark, sees this as part of a larger trend: “Women utilizing their anger and grief as life-changing catalysts has been the earmark of both characters and narratives in this year’s Oscar contenders. ‘Women Talking,’ ‘She Said,’ ‘Till’ and ‘Wakanda Forever’ give us characters thrust into that change and given new purpose by virtue of a trauma inflicted upon them.”
Clark continues: “Michelle Williams in ‘The Fabelmans,’ Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Causeway’ and Michelle Yeoh in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ are on vastly different paths, but all strengthened by the emotional honesty of self-actualization. Similarly, the empress in ‘Corsage’ and the sister in ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ are equally stifled by their limited roles in the specific worlds they inhabit, breaking free only when they leave those expectations behind.”
In 2022, empowerment was as much a personal journey as a story-shaper.
Take Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” co-written by Joe Robert Cole. The global box office smash is a project rooted in grief, the premature death of Chadwick Boseman, the original Panther T’Challa. In his wake, the movie became a study of the transformative power of grief, and the resilience of the women in his orbit to fill that void.
“We were all experiencing the process our characters were going through,” says Cole, who also co-wrote the original “Black Panther.” “Chad meant a lot to all of us. He was the heart of the first movie. His loss drove all of us to approach this story and to pour what we’re feeling into Wakanda. We asked: How does this individual respond to grief? In the case of Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, how does it feel to be a mother and to have lost your husband, and son, and have to come back and still be the stateswoman and spiritual leader. You have to show a level of resiliency; it’s just what you do.”
Grief is the great leveler, and at the same time, everybody grieves differently. Only some emerge stronger, their characters bolstered by surviving the unthinkable. In the case of Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, the loss affects her profoundly. “She was more about innovation and technology,” says Cole. “It failed her. She was not able to save her brother. Her diving back into work is a resistance to moving forward.”
Ultimately, challenged to her core, Shuri must find a way to overcome her knee-jerk desire for vengeance. By opening herself up to tradition and her people’s spiritual side, she transforms herself. Hers, says Cole, is a “journey of resiliency and opening oneself up, finding grace, a way forward, and turning away from vengeance toward love.”
The result is an expansion of the genre film. Cole says that “[it was] a superhero movie where the superpower is being human — the resilience of the nation and who they were. That strength. That coming together is the superpower.”
But transformation doesn’t require a superpower, or a loved one’s death. It can be a process like photosynthesis that develops from within the cells of who a woman is, or might become. “Corsage” presents a portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps), a born and bred people-pleaser who turns 40 and has a midlife crisis for the ages. She has the audacity, as she nibbles oranges to maintain the slender figure demanded by her corset strings, to want to own her own body.
For Elisabeth, her royal purpose was to give birth to heirs, act as a figurehead and be beautiful beneath her braided coronet. “If people love you for your beauty, it’s hard to let that beauty go because what are you, then?” asks writer-director Marie Kreutzer. “Some people were asking me, isn’t it strange that on one hand, she doesn’t want that, but on the other hand, she supports that image? And that’s just how I wanted to show her, wondering ‘What can I do? How can I deal with this? How can I figure out who I am, or what I can be loved for instead?’ It’s hard to let that go.”
Out of this ambivalence, the empress sets herself on a path of self-realization. She’s isolated from her husband, children, sisters and the ladies in waiting who surround her but, given their relative power positions, cannot provide a mirror that reflects who she really is. At some point, tired of the expectations, she succumbs to the urge to please herself.
“I wanted her to take control,” says Kreutzer. “In that last sequence of the film, she becomes the director. She’s doing the staging, she’s casting…. She chooses the person to replace her, and determines how she should be replaced. And this is how she wants to die. It’s her taking control and creating that ending herself. This is what I wanted, to give her control.”
These final acts, eating cake here, rejecting the corset there, taking a final leap, aren’t intended to be seen as surrender. “I wanted her to free herself the way she’s choosing it,” says Kreutzer. “There wouldn’t be any other way for a person in that role, in that time, to be free.” It’s at that moment that she gives birth to her true self, and while the outcome may be brutal, she’s acting with agency.
Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films, distributor “Corsage,” tells Variety, “Stories about women have always existed but what’s happening now is three-dimensional stories about women who are proactive and acting on their own agencies. For example, ‘The Woman King’ is not just a female story, it’s a great action story. Women and their stories and their lives aren’t being put into boxes anymore. That’s what excites me and what I find compelling.”
Whether these films will be resilient at the box office remains an open question in the wake of B.O. busts “She Said” and “Call Jane.” Film programmer Clark notes: “Other than ‘Wakanda Forever,’ ‘The Woman King’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ the other stories centering on women’s resilience may not have the same marketplace impact. The root of the anger and resentment in so many of these characters is a world where their stories or voices are considered lesser; audiences not responding to ‘women’s films’ at the box office aligns with that. What I hope is that the viewers they do reach find their own perspectives shifted accordingly.”
Bocco sees reason for cautious optimism. Change will come.
“The word of the year is ‘gaslighting’ and I’ve been thinking about this in relation to film,” she says. “It’s apropos to the kind of year culturally that women are fighting back. And that doesn’t come without backlash. This is what happens when you change culture. Any kind of change within an old guard culture will create this kind of a conversation, and compelling stories. To me, why is that word the word of the year? It fits into a culture in film where women are fighting back on that, saying these stories are representative of our own agency and they’re not just women’s stories, they’re great stories.”