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The State of the Race: True Stories, True Heroes

Why do we reach for heroes in the movies? We reach for them when we are all out of ideas. We reach for them when the real world crumbles, as it always does, when we can’t save it from ourselves. Art can be complicated; cinematic heroes aren’t. By design, we stare up at them. From our place in the darkness below, we watch them stride forth in the light above us, their faces as big and beyond our reach as the moon. We watch their stories because their stories reassures us that some goodness remains in the world. 25 million people share a viral video on Facebook of humans joined together in a daisy chain to rescue a dog trapped in a river. A department store Santa cries all the way home after granting one last wish to a kid dying of cancer. An American sponsors a Syrian family of six who need sheets for the beds they don’t yet have, gifting them with shiny, impossibly bright American toys to tell them that they too can be the center of the universe. There are real people who stand ready to step up to do great things, and we need to know them. So we tell stories about them.

So many films this year engrave the epilogues of heroic individuals. Who they were, what they did, how they lived their lives and how they ended them. Films like La La Land, Moonlight, Arrival, and Manchester by the Sea take us to places where troubles are dealt with in imaginary, symbolic worlds that revolve in the minds of the artists who conjure them. Other films, like Jackie, Lion, Hidden Figures, and Loving take true stories and polish them till they shimmer like dreams, dreams both dreadful and hopeful. Still others, like Sully, Patriots Day, Hacksaw Ridge, and Silence tell real stories about real people who did real things and became heroes. These cleave more tightly to the truth, even when those truths are the hardest to embrace.

We get slapped with a reminder that the Oscar race is a silly thing when a doctor in Syria writes, “A farewell message: Remember that there was a city called Aleppo that the world erased from the map and history.” The Oscars feel silly when we see Donald Trump tapping ex-Texas governor and complete moron Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy — the same man who once stood on a debate stage and couldn’t even remember the Department of Energy was one of the three agencies he wanted to dismantle. It’s a silly thing when you remember that many celebrities being exalted in this race and in Hollywood overall were so full of their white male pride that they could not be bothered to help defeat Trump because they believed “both sides are equally bad.” So this year more than most years it’s hard to make a case that the Oscar race matters at all. But here you are, eager and unflappable. Here I am, ornery and unstoppable. Together each season we decide to make it matter. For me, it’s my job. For you it’s hopefully entertainment, engagement, camaraderie, distraction. For all of us, it feels like the least we can do to pay tribute to the talents and ambitions of filmmakers who hope against hope that art will outlast the blunders of history.

Thanks to filmmakers, the best stories of humanity can be shared and enshrined. At a time when everything true is called into question, it’s good to remember that true stories are important stories. One of those is Hidden Figures, which might just be the most uplifting film made this year. It’s uplifting because it shows three brave women who succeeded despite all the barriers put up to prevent them from doing so. At the screening I attended, one woman raised her hand during the Q&A and pointed out that Hollywood never make movies like this. Hollywood doesn’t make movies that tell black women that they have been and can be math geniuses — geniuses like the unknown women who put famous men on the moon. It doesn’t tell black women that their stories are worth telling, even when — especially when — they aren’t stories about the white experience.

How many films remind us of a time when there were 2nd-class bathrooms marked for “colored” and better bathrooms for everyone else? How did someone like Katherine Johnson have the tenacity and downright valor to keep doing her work in the face of relentless disrespect? When many white people hear this, they immediately deflate: “Please don’t keep reminding us of the terrible things we did.” Those people need to get over themselves. This movie isn’t about them. Hidden Figures is about someone else for a change. It’s everything it needs to be for the rest of us: inspiring, enlightening, and above all, entertaining. When the truth is hard to swallow for some, a great movie knows how to make it go down easy.

Jeff Nichols’ Loving is another film that centers on a woman’s courage. After her husband was jailed, Mildred Loving led the charge to change federal laws that used to forbid people of different races from marrying. But who are we kidding. This was bigger than any antiquated concerns of mixing black and white. This was nothing less than the vengeful losers of the Civil War refusing to admit their loss, and finding any way they could to cling to their phony supremacy. Millions of those white folk are still enraged today, and now they’ve been emboldened by an apricot creature who’s stolen then White House. The true story of Loving, like Hidden Figures, is more timely now than ever. We’re very lucky to have movies like these that provide a roadmap for a country that has lost its way. Movies that can rally America to help defend our fellow citizens whose rights are now threatened and greatly diminished. This rings true across the board: for women, for minorities of ever race and gender identity, for Muslim Americans and Americans of every faith. It’s acutely true for the black community, for the descendants of families that have endured slavery, the Jim Crow era, mass incarceration. Their struggle continues. It’s unconscionable that any of us has to wake up each day with a fear of harassment, retribution, and even death simply for standing up for our rights. Rampant, unchecked voter suppression, and oppression still exist. A film like Loving, though, demonstrates the power of the legal system when justice is allowed to prevail. It is a loud message told quietly, and a quiet truth forces us to listen.

So another reason true stories and true heroes mean so much is because they make us root for what’s good and true. We’re swept up in our palpable tension and relief when we see Sully Sullenberger thinking fast to save an entire airplane and the 155 souls on board. We share their determination and pride when we see the first responders show up to rescue passengers and crew from icy waters, keep them warm and dry, and prevent a single one from dying. If I want to take myself away for a couple of hours from the horrors of everyday life perpetrated by the evils that exist on planet Earth, I put Clint Eastwood’s film on. Sully perhaps didn’t set the critics on fire, but it does what some of the best American films are designed to do and what they always have been designed to do: take us somewhere else, somewhere safe where we can once again believe in something gutsy and valorous.

America, of course, has no monopoly on uplifting true stories, and Garth Davis proves that with Lion. It’s rather sad that we live in an age of such cynicism that we need to make excuses for loving a film like this. Sure, some will look askance at the Google product placement that no doubt helped fund the film. But once you pull back, set aside your skepticism, and watch with rapt wonderment that a story so unlikely can be true, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a grisly reminder of the horrors of war. It tells the kind of brutal truth that is too often neatly tucked out of view for most Americans. Google “Aleppo video” if you dare, but be prepared to bear witness to mankind’s most recent nightmare. The hyper-realized violence in Hacksaw Ridge has wrongly been tagged as another example of Gibson’s fetish. But what it really represents, when you remove that facile narrative, is the factual biographical reality of one man’s interpretation of the violence he saw firsthand. Desmond Doss was a pacifist, a conscientious objector who nonetheless earned the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers without ever picking up a weapon. Classic Hollywood war movies, especially those about World War II, are often told from the point of view of the winners of that war — aka, us. It’s far easier to sell tickets that way. But some filmmakers choose to tell the story from a jarringly different point of view — as Clint Eastwood did with Letters from Iwo Jima. Few Americans have the stomach see these stories told from the point of view of the Japanese — or Iraqis — where the Americans are the tormenters and invaders. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t interested in making the Americans look like the good guys, even if we prefer to see ourselves that way. Gibson intends to portray violence, particularly the ruthless violence of wartime battle, for what it really is. In Hacksaw Ridge, I saw something true about us as a species. I saw the best of us, and the worst what some of us are by nature. Thankfully, I also saw another a roadmap showing the way out, if we’re smart enough to find the right heroes to lead us.

Audiences may find a different kind of relief in Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, even if it’s a reminder that so much pain and turmoil exists, not just here on our own streets, but everywhere. Once again, this is a film that pays tribute to ordinary heroes whose stories would not otherwise have been told so vividly. Heroes walk among us who go most of their lives never called upon to display their capacity for heroism. We saw them emerge on a bright spring day in 2013 when the people of Boston came to run a marathon and instead suffered a horrendous attack for no good reason. The film puts us in the middle of that story, so we can feel the chaos and see the fearlessness of those on the scene who tended to the wounded. We needed this story to be told. Boston needed it, America needed it, anyone anywhere in the world with a shared sense of compassion and esteem needed it. We tell the stories of heroes to remember them, to celebrate them, so that we may follow where they lead.

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie imagines the beautifully adorned, iconic first lady turned inside out when her world was blown apart. Thanks to a masterful, brilliant performance by Natalie Portman as Jackie, there isn’t a moment when we doubt the veracity of this experience. A film like Jackie, released in any other year, would be an interesting biopic. But coming this year, it reminds us of how very fragile our seemingly durable power structure in American really is. Not just because presidents can be shot, but because our story as a nation is taught to us and told like a fairy tale. From grade school onward, we hear a version of history pushed by people who have a vested interest in making us all believe in something bigger than ourselves; to buy, if you will, the propaganda that America is a great country because it elects great people. So let it be written, so let it be done? If only. In listening to the way Jackie herself shapes that narrative to hold the myth of Camelot together, we see that JFK got all of the credit for much of what she did. It’s unbearably bittersweet that we celebrate Jackie in a year that would have seen America’s first woman president — a woman who had earned her promotion from first lady to president. Sadly, instead, we now must watch a monster rises to power in her place. And we have no Jackie Kennedy who can remedy the illness of yet another American horror story.

These are the true stories that will haunt and illuminate our screens for the next several climatic weeks of awards season 2016. But, almost perversely (or perhaps serenely), this year’s Oscar race will likely be dominated not by true stories, but by imagined ones. Our current consensus frontrunner, La La Land, is a wistful but ethereal film about taking precious things for granted. Moonlight is about the personal courage to accept who you are, even if the culture around you tries to shame you for it. Manchester by the Sea is about the frailty of human relationships, the things we lose that are unrecoverable, the mistakes we make that are unfixable. And then there’s Arrival — an extraordinary story that asks us to imagine what we would do if we knew what would to happen in the future, even if that future was destined for a tragic ending. All of our endings are a mix of tragic and wondrous. Of course, there are heroes in these films too. Heroes don’t always need to save someone else. There’s heroism in saving oneself.

Sometimes it seems there’s more trouble and torment in the world than can ever be conquered. It’s overwhelming. There is tragedy everywhere, large and small. A baby bird falls out of its nest and can’t survive more than a few hours. A python chokes down a hapless mountain goat. But leave it to humans to take a bad a situation and make it worse. So much of our pain is pain we inflict upon ourselves. It seems almost innate to our nature to destroy ourselves and other living things. “There are eight million stories in the naked city” — yes, and few of them are very pretty. That’s why we don’t have eight million movies to watch every year. We have only a handful. Because the stories we want to hear are as rare as the people we admire in the stories we choose to tell. But every so often there’s a truly good person born. We tell the stories of those good people to remind us of who we should be and, by example, who we can be. We reach for truth and quiet heroism in art because it’s always been our way to make sense of existence when all else is lost. In times of treachery, we reach for heroes on screen when those put in charge are anything but.