Commentary: How woke was 2017 at the movies?
Times reporters Jen Yamato and Tre’vell Anderson reflect on 2017’s best movies and their impact on culture.
Two years after #OscarsSoWhite propelled representation front and center at the Academy Awards, how much progress did Hollywood really make at the movies in 2017 — a banner year for conversations around social change that pushed the culture forward? Times reporters Tre’vell Anderson and Jen Yamato revisit the year in review and discuss how far the film industry still has to go.
JEN YAMATO: Now that we’re in the thick of awards season, it really feels like the huge steps forward for representation at the movies this year are coming into focus. The fact that films like “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Call Me by Your Name” struck such powerful chords with audiences and critics alike — and are in the awards mix — speaks to a hunger for the kind of inclusion Hollywood has been sorely lacking for, well, ever. But how would you grade 2017 on the whole? Can movies effect real social change? How many cinephiles went vegan because of “Okja?” How close did Hollywood come to “solving” #OscarsSoWhite?
TRE’VELL ANDERSON: Don’t get me started on this whole idea that because “Moonlight” won last year, #OscarsSoWhite was solved. On the contrary, the industry still has a long way to go not only in terms of the representations of people of diverse backgrounds on screen, but so many of those women and people of color and LGBTQ folk and disabled people still need the chance to write and tell their own stories from behind the camera. In the words of April Reign, who created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, while we should celebrate the hurdles we’ve crossed — because there has been important progress in leveling the playing field industry-wide — we must not think we’re anywhere near the finish line.
If I’m giving Hollywood a grade, it’s going to be an “I” for incomplete. There’s still more work to be done.
YAMATO: My 2017 started out on an exciting note at Sundance when I caught “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and thought to myself, “This is the movie of the year.” Other wins for representation made their mark in less direct ways, behind the camera. “Thor: Ragnarok” was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be directed by a filmmaker of color, Taika Waititi. F. Gary Gray’s “Fate of the Furious”’ made $1 billion in two weeks! And Patty Jenkins proved that what Warner Bros.’ DC Comics movies were sorely lacking was a (wonder) woman’s touch. Where else did we see wins for diversity this year?
ANDERSON: Well, on-screen there are some standouts. In addition to Daniel Kaluuya from “Get Out,” which is by far the people’s movie of the year, I really enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” which he also wrote and produced, and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which has some powerful performances from Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige. There’s also Chile’s Oscar contender “A Fantastic Woman,” which stars trans actress Daniela Vega. And I obviously have to give it up for “Girls Trip” — a “black movie” starring four black women, written by a black woman and man and directed by a black man — for becoming a commercial hit and giving us breakout star Tiffany Haddish, who deserves all the nominations and awards.
YAMATO: The Hollywood Foreign Press really blew that one — the Golden Globes have an entire category for comedy performances and no love for Haddish?! At least they showed up for Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite “The Shape of Water,” a love story for xenophobic times poised for further recognition as we march on toward the Oscars.
ANDERSON: I also just have to give a shout out, behind-the-scenes wise, to Stella Meghie, who with “Everything, Everything” became one of a limited number of black women to helm a major studio project. Besides those you already mentioned, anyone else of note behind the scenes stand out to you?
YAMATO: It was certainly a huge year for women in the greater culture, and we saw notable work behind the camera from directors like Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Niki Caro (“The Zookeeper’s Wife”), Amma Assante (“A United Kingdom”), Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Angelina Jolie (“First They Killed My Father”), Ana Lily Amirpour (“The Bad Batch”), and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”). But female directors remain a marginal presence on the whole in studio films released this year, as do LGBTQ filmmakers and filmmakers of color. Hollywood needs to actively put their money where their “woke” sound bites are and actually invest in more visions from diverse storytellers.
ANDERSON: On that note, I was very heartened by so many documentaries that I saw this year, about and by people of diverse backgrounds, and thought they captured some of the socio-political sentiment going on outside of the industry. “Strong Island” by Yance Ford seems to be the only one that’s really caught on in terms of awards attention, but “Whose Streets?” and “Step” gutted me emotionally in the best of ways. In the year after Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” went to the Oscars and helped reify conversations around mass incarceration and racism and police brutality and white privilege for countless folks, all three of these films continue that work. And with “Step” and “Whose Streets?” in particular, we’re beginning to see films about the enduring impact the instances of police violence that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement have on the people who live in communities like Baltimore, Md., and Ferguson, Mo.
YAMATO: Let us not forget that this was also the year that Hollywood tried to give us “Ghost in the Shell,” Matt Damon helped save China in “The Great Wall,” and Netflix dipped its toe into cross-cultural reinterpretation with their manga adaptation “Death Note.” Of course, learning how not to be utterly culturally tone deaf will continue to be a steep learning curve for the industry. At least we’re capping 2017 on a high note thanks to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” whose new heroine Rose Tico (played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) is a welcome addition to the galaxy far, far away, and to Hollywood.
ANDERSON: And we’ve seen the Asian American community hold Hollywood accountable for that white-washing and cultural appropriation, with one of the most notable instances leading to Ed Skrein backing out of playing a “Hellboy” character who had been conceived as Asian in the comics. That gave way to Daniel Dae Kim being cast in the role.
Last but not least, 2017 brought us a new president, and at least one film is a direct response to a number of his actions. That’d be “The Post,” which journalists are raving about ahead of its release to the masses.
YAMATO: With Steven Spielberg behind the camera and powerhouses like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks playing two of the Washington Post figures who published the Pentagon Papers in defiance of enormous government and corporate pressures, it’s no wonder “The Post” was made so quickly; it truly reverberates with a timely urgency in the face of President Trump’s attacks on the news media. This country still has a long way to go, but films this year at least echoed a growing call to speak truths out loud and — hopefully even more so in 2018 — a collective imperative to listen to the stories that need to be heard.
ANDERSON: I’m excited to see the films, and other art, that continue to respond to this administration. And I think 2018 will be the first year when we can really judge what Hollywood does or doesn’t offer audiences in response to #OscarsSoWhite. I think this conversation will be much more juicy this time next year. One can hope.
Only good movies
Get the Indie Focus newsletter, Mark Olsen's weekly guide to the world of cinema.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.