Last October, director Mimi Leder had just begun shooting “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when the news hit of sexual misconduct accusations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In that instant, Leder realized that her period film — which centers on Ginsburg’s early legal battles in the 1960s and ’70s against gender discrimination — was suddenly on a collision course with the zeitgeist.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget — there it was, the crack that just broke open,” Leder says. “The movie was important before but now it was more important than ever.”
As this era of intense partisan division builds to the crescendo of the midterm elections, Leder is one of several prominent filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Jason Reitman and Adam McKay, who have been looking to political events and figures from decades past as a way to reflect and comment upon the current landscape. Though the hairstyles and wardrobes in their films hark back to earlier times, their central concerns — racism, women’s rights, the private lives of politicians and the machinations of power — could be taken directly from today’s headlines and fiery cable-news debates.
This summer, Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” used the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police detective who infiltrated the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, as a vehicle to explore today’s racial divisions.
On Nov. 6, Reitman’s “The Front Runner” hits theaters, with Hugh Jackman playing former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, who was brought down in 1987 over revelations of an extramarital affair — an event that laid the groundwork for every political sex scandal to follow, all the way up to President Trump and Stormy Daniels.
In December, McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice” will dramatize how the Washington insider wielded power within the George W. Bush administration to reshape national and foreign policy in ways that continue to be felt today.
“Artists always hold a mirror to society and capture a reflection, and I think that’s what these films are doing,” says Leder, whose “On the Basis of Sex” will have its world premiere at AFI Fest on Nov. 8 and hit theaters on Christmas. “Political films make us think and be responsible and look at our global community. They’re extending the conversation.”
Of course, in such a polarized climate, that conversation can be deeply fraught. Showing what a minefield politics can be for Hollywood, even a seemingly unifying historic event like the 1969 moon landing, as chronicled in the new film “First Man,” became a flashpoint of controversy over director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to show the American flag being planted on the lunar surface.
“I think it’s fair to say that, whether we’re talking about today or the whole history of movies up to today, every movie, every work of art, has a political component whether it wants to or not,” Chazelle told The Times recently.
With some of these movies, the political resonances were crystal clear to the filmmakers from the outset. With others, they came into greater focus — for better or worse — as the projects made their way toward the screen.
“The thing everybody says about the movie right now is, ‘It couldn’t be more relevant,’ ” Reitman says of “The Front Runner.” He chuckled darkly. “All I keep thinking is, I wish it was a little less relevant. I’m good on relevant.”
Journalist Matt Bai and former Democratic political advisor Jay Carson had largely put the finishing touches on their script for “The Front Runner” — which is based on Bai’s 2014 book “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” — well before the 2016 presidential election. In Hart’s story, they saw a chance to shed light on how American politics first began to transform into a kind of reality show in which everything, no matter how personal, is considered fair game.
“What began in 1987 with this celebritizing of our politicians has led to a process that demands of anyone who wants to hold office that they behave like a celebrity and be willing to be scrutinized like a celebrity,” Bai says. “That attracts a certain kind of skill set, and it’s not necessarily one that’s conducive to governing the country with the kind of principled leadership we expected in previous generations.”
Under Trump, the film’s thorny questions about the role of shame in the political sphere and the tabloidization of news coverage have only become more germane — though Reitman says the intent was to avoid any easy answers.
“My favorite movies are the ones where the director hands me a baton and encourages me to run with it — and to do that, you have to be aware of what baggage the audience is bringing to the table,” Reitman says. “What the audience brought to the table in 2015 is very different from what the audience brings to the table in 2018. It’s a much different thing for this movie to come out after the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s a much different thing for it to come out when we look at the Senate in the wake of Al Franken stepping down.”
Carson — who, among other political endeavors, served as Hillary Clinton’s press secretary during her 2008 presidential run — says the film aims to accurately depict modern politics in all of its moral murkiness.
“A lot of times when Hollywood does political movies, they’re done from 3,000 miles away and there are good guys and bad guys,” Carson says. “We don’t have good guys and bad guys in this movie. If we did our job, every character is a human being put in a difficult situation, often for the first time, and actually grappling with how to do the right thing.”
In the case of “BlacKkKlansman,” by contrast, Lee’s intention was clearly to delineate good guys and bad guys and to draw a direct and unambiguous line, often using barbed satire, from Stallworth’s unlikely story to the racial politics of 2018.
“The big thing that Spike said from the very beginning was that he didn’t want the movie to be just a period piece,” co-writer Kevin Willmott says. “He wanted to find connections to today and to the total racial insanity that had been coming out of the Trump administration.”
Those connections took on a disturbing new immediacy in August of last year when white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Va. As he was editing “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee decided to conclude the film with footage from that rally’s deadly violence as well as Trump’s initial response, in which he said, “I think there is blame on both sides.”
“When Trump equated the Klansmen and the Nazis and the people fighting against them, saying they had the same moral status, he just put himself right in the middle of it,” Willmott says. “Then you had David Duke there, citing Trump and saying he was, in essence, their leader. How could Spike not put that in the film?”
“What the audience brought to the table in 2015 is very different from what the audience brings to the table in 2018.”
While acknowledging that “a lot of supporters of Trump are probably not Spike Lee fans,” Willmott says the hope with “BlacKkKlansman” was nevertheless to reach across the political divide and spark a dialogue about racism in America. He recalled one screening in which he sat beside a Trump voter, watching as the man went through a range of emotions.
“When the Charlottesville footage comes at the end and there’s that gut punch, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m not like that. I voted for Trump but I don’t believe in that,’ ” Willmott says. “He wanted me to kind of give him absolution and he wanted to really have that dialogue with me. It was an interesting moment.”
Leder harbors similar ambitions for “On the Basis of Sex.” While the film celebrates Ginsburg as a liberal feminist icon and should resonate strongly with supporters of the #MeToo movement, Leder says she hopes it will not simply preach to the converted.
“I can’t speak to the red states but I can speak to people who have common sense and people who believe that our country is in deep trouble,” Leder says. “I think it’s not only a political film and a rallying cry, but it’s also a love story and the story of a woman who finds her voice. We all have that voice inside of us, so I actually think both sides will appreciate this film.” She pauses. “That is my hope.”
For Reitman, whose film will be hitting theaters as voters nationwide go to the polls, the hope, at least initially, will be simply to be heard above the deafening din of political analysis and debate.
“I know what people will be thinking about that day, and I think it’s the appropriate thing,” Reitman says dryly. “I’ll settle for their interest a few days later.”