As consumers we pick at endless rows of grocery store displays, weaving in and out of a sea of familiarity in dozens of uniform rows across the immediate horizon.
Everything is there, and everything is convenient.
The way we digest movies largely follows the same pattern all the way through to awards season. Films are produced, they’re released, and they’re marketed to specific audiences. They succeed or they fail.
It’s funny that studios seem to process us the way we gobble up their films. We fall into demographics, clusters of numbers, ages, attendance figures and statistics; labels placed upon us so they can determine which standards of beauty to uphold and which norms to re-enforce. Anything to make a buck on the status quo.
Oscar campaigns seek to funnel those we see onscreen (and those who craft the fantasy from behind the lens) into their respective categories, to be voted on by the Academy, which bestows a prestigious label on one member from each category: victor.
One thing that hasn’t been a luxury of convenience is the avenue of expression the minority voice has at its immediate disposal. In 2014, teenagers in Florida are being murdered for being black and listening to loud music; in Texas, those who oppose the state’s ban on same-sex marriage face majority opposition to the tune of 57% percent (according to a survey by Public Policy Polling).
As much as movie studios and television networks treat their demographics like guaranteed, sliced-and-served morsels, people are not wonderbread slapped onto a shelf or saccharine pudding fudged into tiny plastic squares.
Labels have become a tool for both sides of the debate. For the oppressed, labels identify their “other”-ness and embrace it; for the oppressor, they’re used to alienate.
It seems that the very industry within which minorities often find their voice also comes under the most scrutiny for upholding societal standards. Big-budget films and the studios which release them generally funnel their products into four affective categories, films that:
a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally
b) Bolster traditional gender, race, and identity roles because that’s what the dominant majority is used to
2013 saw the release (and triumph) of three prominent black-themed, black-created films that bucked the system: Lee Daniels’ The Butler proved that “black” subject matter has commercial staying power; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, storming critics circle awards at the end of the year; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is on the verge of potentially becoming the first black-themed film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The clout is undeniable, and the tide seems to be turning in the favor of a “New Black Cinema” movement of sorts.
The voice of the LGBT community is one that shares the spotlight of inequality, yet is often misunderstood by the dominant majority far more than racial minorities. For every The Butler, there are twelve Blue is the Warmest Color controversies; sexual stigma follows simply follows gay-themed films, and we as consumers and critics have ourselves to blame.
The Oscars aren’t innocent on this front, either. So blatantly was the tide of 2005’s awards season turned against Brokeback Mountain when Crash took the Academy’s top honor out from under it. Is the Academy ready to hear the LGBT voice beyond decorating heterosexual actors taking on the “ever-courageous” task of playing *gasp* a gay character?
Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film nominated for six awards at the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect transitional film for a still all-white, still prominently-heterosexual, still predominantly-male voting base not unlike the one which upset Brokeback Mountain at a time when history could have been made.
Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic, bigoted man in Texas who contracts AIDS as a result of his promiscuous, drug-using ways.
Using Ron’s homophobia as a base, the film then systematically deconstructs his fear of the LGBT community as he copes with his diagnosis. His struggle with AIDS is closely mirrored by that of Rayon’s (Jared Leto), a transwoman he met while at the hospital. Initially hostile toward her, Ron’s relationship with Rayon is further founded on the prospect of business (he eventually uses her to sell non-approved treatments for AIDS-related ailments on the street), and the hostility he feels toward the gay community lessens to the point where he actively campaigns against the FDA and its regulations.
The film sort of passed with the Academy because of the general “safeness” of its plot. In their eyes, it’s ok for old white men to like this film, seeing as its protagonist is a heterosexual male who “enters” the gay community for personal gain, using a transgender woman as a tool for business instead of, say, enjoying her company. The gay community is seen as an impenetrable barrier or obstacle for Ron. He doesn’t want to associate with it, but bites the bullet for a quick buck.
His tune changes, though, and he quickly forms a friendly bond with Rayon. In one powerful scene that takes place as the pair shop at a grocery store, surrounded by uniform displays and generic products soldiered next to each other in perfectly-aligned fashion, Ron forces a bigoted former-friend to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene which cements the equal-plane understanding of each character. Rayon shows Ron a side of himself he didn’t think existed, and Ron shows her an equal ally in the battle against discrimination, as he now knows what it’s like to be discriminated against.
It’s not merely the presence of a trans character that makes Dallas Buyers Club such a revolutionary film. Rather, it’s the screenplay’s unwillingness to let Rayon become defined by her status as a transwoman that allows the film to thrive.
Whereas a film like The Crying Game (an Oscar favorite in its respective year) toys with gender identity as a thematic device to give the film some edge, Dallas Buyers Club‘s screenplay never bullshits Rayon’s existence, doesn’t shove her into any boxes, and certainly doesn’t confine her to heroic status because of her identity. She is not a object of LGBT championing, nor is she an “other”: she’s simply a character.
Rayon is defined by her attitude, her assholish (if you will) demeanor, and the fact that she’s allowed to be herself, which is an imperfect person not merely defined by her sexuality. The fact that she’s allowed to be flawed beyond what the hetero-normative perspective would immediately label a “flaw” (her transsexuality) is where the character succeeds as a positive presence for the LGBT community in film.
While Ron’s’s relationship with her deepens as the film goes on, it’s never motivated by anything more than the bond of friendship.
While Ron is doing a service to gay community, Rayon is never seen as needing a straight man to save or defend her. She’s secure in herself enough to maintain a grasp on equality within their relationship. Issues of “queerness” aren’t at the forefront of her character. She sees Ron as a friend, doesn’t let his sexuality (or what his demeanor and dress would suggest about his “straightness” to a stereotypical mind) precede him, and initially approaches him out of kindness without fear as they both lay in hospital beds, for disease knows no socially-coded bounds.
Rayon’s eventual death is deeply disturbing. We spend so much time with Rayon, absorbing her flaws, watching her paint her face and create the reality she desires that the world won’t let her have without burden. In her dying moments, she remains true to herself. We see quick, abstract shots of her reaching for a mirror and makeup; not as a means to put on a fake face, but to cement her life’s purpose with the identity she embraced, even in death.
Another unlikely face that (sort of) destigmatized the LGBT community in 2013 was Australian writer-director-actor Chris Lilley and his brilliant mockumentary series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.”
The series follows Ja’mie King (Lilley), a 16-year old private school student and her attempts to garner her institution’s most prestigious award, the Hilford Medal. Of course, Ja’mie’s pursuit is offset by her miserably evil ways. The show comes off at once as commentary on the ever-increasing superficiality of the world’s youth, but never emphasizes the fact that its title character is played by a 40-year old man.
Most American critics bashed the series, labeling it a transphobic assault of sorts, insisting that it prompted viewers to see Ja’mie as a monstrous other simply because a male actor happened to play her part.
First of all, the American media and entertainment industry hardly carry the torch for the LGBT community in a way that gives them the right to suddenly defend what they perceive to be unfair representation. Second, the genius of the series lies within Lilly’s abilities as an actor, not his creative decision to don women’s clothing.
There’s a brilliant believability in his mannerisms as he encapsulates and transforms into a 16-year old girl. From the way he maintains childish aura to the attitude, the dialect, the cultural understanding of a younger generation gone sour is embodied in the character. It’s not drag for the sake of poking fun at a man in women’s clothing, it’s simply appealing for Lilley’s ability to become a character he’s created. It’s acting in its finest form.
The show insists on not placing Ja’mie in situations where the gender-bending would be an easy joke. Instead of seeing a person of trans identity, we’re forced to see Ja’mie as the terrible, manipulative, angry, evil, juvenile, judgmental person that she is. Her actions transcend her physicality. The show doesn’t rely on its lazy, would-be crutch to succeed.
Whereas Rayon represents the progressive face of transpeople in cinema, Ja’mie’s appeal lies more in how the character is digested by audiences versus the content of the show. The de-emphasis on the fact that it’s “drag” has audiences focusing on more important aspects of her character: how she treats people, how she manipulates every dynamic of her life, and the pure comedic wit of Lilley’s writing.
Australian audiences adore the series, as their audiences are generally able to understand the appeal versus identifying its most superficial parts and ripping them apart because it’s easy to. American audiences–especially those watching movies–could benefit from adopting this mindset.
So, does Jared Leto’s status as a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category speak more to the Academy’s diversifying tastes, or does it speak more to the Academy’s long-standing view of straight men playing queer characters as heroic or stepping beyond their bounds?
I think it’s easier to gauge the Academy’s stance by looking at the Best Actor category, where Matthew McConaughey is currently predicted to win by nearly every major Oscar pundit. In a sense, Ron is the Academy. He represents the old-fashioned, traditional way of thinking that’s made the Oscars a confluence of the same opinion for the past 85 ceremonies.
Dallas Buyers Club represents a point of reference for these members. They can reject his transformation, or accept the minority voice the diversifying Academy around them is attempting to amplify.
Until the envelopes are opened, let’s hope they inspect the mirror as carefully as Rayon and Ja’mie do, or force audiences to do.
No one likes the old white boys’ club label anymore, anyway.