Having just seen back-to-back screenings of The Central Park Five and West of Memphis, only a week after seeing Middle of Nowhere, it struck me how loudly each film howls about the world we live in now. Besides certain contextual elements (Middle of Nowhere too deals with the judicial system) these films also share that they are anchored by three female filmmakers – Sarah Burns, Ava DuVernay, and Amy Berg. While their perspectives undoubtedly inform smart, unique choices, the strengths of these films go well beyond the genders of their makers. Politics and social critiques are nothing new to cinema and they’re certainly not revolutionary to any art form in the kind of social unrest that currently subsumes America. During an election year, mainstream politics especially come to the surface in movies, if only because they’re actually on our minds.
These three films deal directly and indirectly with a system that has the power to suffocate, disguise, repress, forget, and deny. There’s a helplessness to these narratives that reflects the struggles not only of minorities but of all Americans today. Globally, the crush of economic strife and the expansion of information flow has given us equal parts knowledge and awareness of our shortcomings. These films too are products of an age where we have the power to incite something as huge as global peace while we also have the ability to watch people in power turn a blind eye to devastating problems.
While the plot of DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere is about a woman, it’s subtext is not so subtly about the human condition more than anything else. It’s about dedication and unconditional love. Dedication to a cause and to the purpose of freeing loved ones also runs close to the pulse in both The Central Park Five and West of Memphis. These all feel like universal stories told by creators who possess an instinctual understanding for the struggles of those inside the frame. These three films could only have been made by these three filmmakers. Berg has the backing of heavy-hitters like Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder who will probably steal much of the spotlight. Yet, Berg made the aesthetic and emotion product of Memphis all her own (seeing her work in Deliver Us From Evil will attest). Likewise, as The Central Park Five rolls out to more audiences, Sarah Burns will likely get lost in the shadow of her dad. But this story was brought to life by her ingenuity. Hearing one of the subjects during the Q&A refer to her as his “angel,” told me all I needed to know about the kind of trust and compassion needed for these wounded men to open up. Sarah Burns provided that window.
We may see one of these docs come to the forefront if the Oscars recognize it, or they otherwise have some resounding effect on the judicial decisions they take on. The Central Park Five especially has a chance to illuminate a subject that has been unjustly lost on a public that at one time used it as a rallying cry. There’s also a distinct chance that these films could sink into obscurity. West of Memphis has some star power behind it, but it also tells a very long, thorough, and detailed story that will be passed over by many oblivious viewers. The Central Park Five is currently slated to begin its theatrical run in a whopping three theaters across the country. Middle of Nowhere keeps on kicking, while still being seen by far too few.
This year, in the mainstream, another female filmmaker (Kathryn Bigelow) will release an equally hot button film: Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow, unabashedly burning up the man’s world of action films, may be the best chance for a woman director to have a film get wide recognition. In some ways, Bigelow has become representative of that possible breakthrough that has already come decades too late for women and minorities in Hollywood. As documentarians or as women or as an African American artist or as anyone who has been wrongfully pushed aside, the climb may not actually be more insurmountable than for others in such a difficult field, but the rejection is at times more conspicuous.
I don’t subscribe to the thought that a film makes what it makes in the box office and we shouldn’t harp on how many see it: “just that it exists is a miracle.” I think that’s buying into a system that continues to try to homogenize as a way of controlling the predictable gain. I hope that these three films get recognition. And that MORE people see them. First, because they are important stories that need to be told. Next, because they are great films made with superlative skill. Even without all the context, these are magnetic pieces of art.