Power and privilege are often parts of the same formula — one almost inevitably leads to the other. The films of this award season examine the phenomenon in myriad ways: from factual to fictional, and within institutions as disparate as the military and the classical music community. The directors behind “The Inspection,” “Devotion,” “The Woman King” and “Tár” explored these dynamics both thematically and visually while shepherding their characters through four very different but equally powerful stories.
For “The Inspection,” director Elegance Bratton, whose film is based on his life experience, joining the Marines gave him a purpose and place that otherwise never existed for him.
“People assume that I named myself,” says Bratton, though he didn’t. He recognizes that it evokes assumptions even before anyone lays eyes on him, but intersectionality doesn’t bequeath a gay, Black man much. “[This is] my experience as a person who’s born on the outskirts of privilege. [It’s how] I can continue to arm myself with the skills I need to survive the onslaught of what it means to be myself in the world that we all share.”
The military gave Bratton, depicted on screen via the character of Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), an inherent sense of inclusion just from putting on the same uniform as his fellow recruits. But if the Marines necessarily provided the framework for a hierarchy of power, it’s more than uniforms and “yes sir” affirmations to superior officers that reinforce their well-established structure.
“You also have the culture of men evaluating each other’s bodies, and certain body types are privileged over other body types, and features and appendages … but one thing that is certain is that we are all oppressed in our status as recruits,” Bratton says. “And for me, that was normal.”
French, like his real-life counterpart, was kicked out of his mother’s house for being gay, a story that’s all too real for LGBTQ+ youth. Nonprofit org School on Wheels estimates 2.5 million children experience homelessness annually in the United States. “French can’t just be me,” notes Bratton, “but I was French.”
Comparing the military to other male-dominated spaces brings further revelations. “The Marine Corps is like the Harvard of masculinity,” says Bratton. “As an out Black gay man, you’ve gone to all sorts of all male spaces … where men congregate to find romantic connection and then you assume that the other side, this heterosexual male space, is something that you’ll fail in … [and] it’s so arbitrary because once you get in the space with the straight men, you realize, oh my God, it’s just like the gay bar, except supposedly none of these people want to have sex with each other.”
Bratton’s film suggests that masculinity and femininity are arbitrary. “This whole movie is about trying to assert a possibility that being a ‘real’ man is a problem for every man,” Bratton says. “Ellis learns … that forgiveness can be the source of male strength.”
If “The Inspection” reexamines stereotypical masculinity, its complement is “The Woman King.” The film, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is also based on a true story, about a group of women warriors whose strength on the battlefield isn’t societally endorsed like it is for men.
Prince-Bythewood knew immediately it “was important to establish these women as skilled and athletic and strong and formidable.”
When asked about imagery that makes audiences reconsider the role, and strength, of Black women in battle, Prince-Bythewood references a famous quote by Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.”
Establishing this conspicuously unique dynamic in an historic setting was particularly meaningful in the context of contemporary notions of societal power and privilege. “That feeling [of] invisibility and a lack of respect and a lack of protection [in life], it’s in your head, it’s embedded, and yet to be able to see yourself again in a way that you are actually revered” is potent, Prince-Bythewood says. Not only do people who are typically underrepresented get to see themselves on screen, but afterward take that feeling of empowerment out into the world.
Prince-Bythewood focused on blocking to amplify those thematic elements. When Nanisca (Viola Davis) is introduced, she is “alone, rising out of the grasses, which I think is such a powerful image, but certainly sets the tone that this is our leader, this is our hero.” Oftentimes, Nanisca is flanked by her two lieutenants so they stand out visually as a group, suggesting these three belong together.
This sort of categorization is taught in school at young ages: notice what doesn’t belong, or what stands out as different, and then examine why.
Director J.D. Dillard used a similar approach in “Devotion,” a film based on the true story of Korean war hero Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors). Frequently, Brown is positioned further back than the others in group settings. Or, a wide master shot shows everyone except for Jesse, who appears only in the reverse.
“This is a great way to hold Jesse in the periphery,” Dillard says. The same goes for the use of hats and sunglasses, and those who do and don’t wear them. “At every step of the way, out loud and subconscious dialogue, [we find] those ways to tell that story visually.”
He recalls a photo they came across during research in which Jesse is the only one wearing a green flight suit while everyone else is in beige. “That’s not to say that there was any foul play,” that just felt significant. “We don’t have the answers why.”
Sometimes, questions only lead to more questions. Todd Field, writer and director of “Tár,” created such a powerful fictional world that one of Google’s most frequently searched topics about the movie is if it’s a true story. (It isn’t.)
Field conceived his main character Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) as a woman with the understanding that audiences would settle in with different expectations. “We’ve been looking at a particular [gender of] individual that holds power for a very, very long time. It hasn’t even been a question … [and] we’re attenuated to how we’re supposed to feel about that,” says Field.
Historically, there has never been a female chief conductor of a major German orchestra, or of any of the big five American ones. “[Lydia] chasing what she sees as a continuity of power and that drug that she’s addicted to is a patriarchal power, it’s not a matriarchal power,” says Field. “Tár” further examines if power corrupts, regardless of who is at the helm, by separating it from those who so frequently have it.
Big questions linger long after the end of all of these films. Does putting a woman in charge constitute matriarchal power? Is a woman warrior inherently feminine? Is a gay Marine inherently masculine? More broadly, does transference of power become transformative?
Asking audiences to form their own conclusions is essential to the medium, even as the medium drops hints and makes inferences of its own. Shakespeare declared in “Hamlet” that playing this way holds a mirror up to nature. Films such as these require, and inspire, audiences to be brave enough to take and long and hard look at the truths they reflect.