Janelle Monae stars in a scene from the movie "Hidden Figures." (CNS photo/Fox)
Much has been made of the great diversity of this year’s Oscar nominees. Following two years in which Americans railed against “#OscarsSoWhite,” this year’s nominees included six African-American actors and an English actor of Indian descent; eight films whose lead actor or actors are women; four films about the African-American experience, another about a young Indian man and the story of a Seventh Day Adventist.
It’s an impressive turnabout, particularly given the strength of the films nominated, which include the true stories of the black female mathematicians who helped launch the U.S. space program (“Hidden Figures”), the interracial couple whose marriage helped end miscegenation laws (“Loving”) and the first conscientious objector awarded the Medal of Honor (“Hacksaw Ridge”), as well as powerful films about a young black man in Miami struggling to find connection (“Moonlight”), a broken New England man trying to help his nephew while haunted by his own loss (“Manchester by the Sea”), an abrasive Pittsburgh garbage collector struggling to imagine a world of possibilities for his son (“Fences”), a linguist tasked with helping the U.S. government communicate with extraterrestrial life (“Arrival”), two would-be stars struggling to get their big breaks (“La La Land”) and a middle-aged single mother trying to figure out how to help her son grow up to be a good man (“20th Century Women”).
Even in terms of geography, this year’s nominees show enormous range. Texas, New England, Miami, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, India, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Santa Barbara, Pittsburgh, New York and Australia each play significant roles in different films.
Having said that, in some ways the real story of this year’s nominees is not their diversity, but their empathy. Many of this year’s nominees hold up characters that, historically, American society has tended to forget, ignore or persecute, and find within their lives tremendous beauty, courage and pathos.
“Moonlight,” written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and “Manchester by the Sea,” written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, are cases in point. Films about inner-city black kids tend to turn on the same few overused tropes — gang life; hip-hop music; drugs, violence and poverty. “Moonlight” offers the tale of a black kid traveling through such a world. Yet, focused on the boy’s inner life, his mostly silent struggle to understand how he loves and whether anyone will ever love him, the film feels anything but familiar. Even as reticent and still as protagonist Chiron is, you can’t help but feel for him.
Much the same is true in “Manchester by the Sea,” with the twist that main character Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck) is anti-social to the point of being strange, even dangerous. In a sense the film and Affleck draw us in by way of that strangeness; we don’t understand what’s happening, but you get the sense that you’re watching a man drowning before our eyes, and want to help.
Empathy also lies at the heart of the plots of many of the nominated films. “Hidden Figures” and “Loving,” among others, turn on people coming to realize the humanity and the courage of those they have previously ignored or mistreated. It’s intriguing how much here, too, this happens in silence.
“Hidden Figures” has one Hollywood show-stopping moment in which Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) explains to her white male colleagues what she’s been going through as a black woman in their office; but mostly she and the other African-American women portrayed in the film (including nominee and former winner Octavia Spencer) succeed and affect their colleagues through their quiet, indomitable persistence.
Likewise, what’s most surprising about “Loving” is that though it depicts the struggle to overcome an enormous social injustice, main characters Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) are soft-spoken, Richard painfully so. There is no “Norma Rae” moment in the film, no big speech. The couple doesn’t even attend the Supreme Court hearing of their case. Their quiet commitment to one another is the transformative witness they offer.
Even this year’s genre nominee, the aliens-come-to-Earth tale, “Arrival,” ends up being a story not about invasion or special-effects whiz-bangery, but about how the act of communication depends on the ability to see beyond oneself, to put oneself in another shoes, or whatever aliens wear on whatever they stand on, if they stand. And strikingly, in learning to speak the language of these mysterious, strangely realistic elephant-meets-squid aliens, Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks not only finds her own life utterly transformed, but manages to stop humanity from killing itself. Empathy saves us all.
In talking about “Hidden Figures” recently on NPR, writer-director Ted Melfi expressed his optimism for our country, which he believes his characters share.
“My wife says I’m happy delusional. ... I think the world is a much better place than maybe we think it is. ... Everyone’s talking about how bad the country is and how divisive it is, and yes, there is that, I’m not delusional about that. But I think overall America is a great place, and it always has been a great place, and it always has been trying to get better. And as soon as they learned how to get better or learn that’s something’s wrong we try to do our best to fix it. ...
“I asked Katherine [Johnson] straight up, ‘Katherine, how was it at NASA? What was it like being a black woman in an all-white male world? What was the racial and social and sexist issues that you dealt with every day?’
“She looked at me like I was crazy. She said, ‘What? Oh no. I didn’t experience any of that. I just did my work and everyone was so nice to me.’
“And I got it. Katherine Johnson had blinders on. She’s an optimist. She put her head down and she let her pencil do the work and push her forward. And that’s the message of the movie.”
In the end it’s a hopeful message shared by many of this year’s nominees: no matter the limitations of our society and our humanity, no matter the forces or odds arrayed against the good, the just and the true, we can overcome. And also, when necessary, we can be overcome, and transformed.
McDermott is a Jesuit priest from Mount Prospect working as a screen and magazine writer in Los Angeles.