Cinema: What Is It Good For?

“Film throughout lacks any elements of entertainment in its desire to sock over a depressing message. Hard selling will be required here, with expected grosses slim.” - Variety trade paper on Outrage (1950)

Ida Lupino is remembered as the pioneering mid-century director who specialized in “problem” pictures. When forming her independent production company, Lupino announced that The Filmakers [sic] would make documentary-inspired films about social issues, beginning with Not Wanted (1949). This low-key drama about single motherhood was penned by blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and Lupino’s directorial contribution went uncredited. (Sean Penn’s father, Leo, appears in a supporting role.) Later subjects tackled by The Filmakers in its five-year life include rape (Outrage), bigamy (The Bigamist), female ambition (Hard, Fast & Beautiful) and polio (Never Fear), a heady mix for the novice writer/director who added more than 40 such credits in both film and television to an already successful screen acting career.

Production conditions have changed dramatically since Lupino’s time, of course, but she continues as something of a standard-bearer for contemporary women filmmakers such as Nia DaCosta, whose debut feature as a writer/director, Little Woods (2018), premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and went into general distribution nationwide in April of this year. Little Woods is unmistakably a social problem film offering a bleak look at an America often dismissed as “Trump Country”—that is, poor and white and mostly hopeless.

DaCosta is currently at work on her second feature, in association with the established power broker Jordan Peele, himself no stranger to controversial topics. Her work has the support of the Sundance Institute and the Time Warner Foundation, among other high-profile investors. She is a filmmaker to watch.

Cinema has a long history of tension between social commitment and profit motive. Is it art or is it commerce? Message or entertainment? Lupino and DaCosta are firmly positioned on the messaging side.

Lupino wasn’t the first and DaCosta won’t be the last. Women filmmakers—and the problem pictures they make—will continue as long as cinema holds currency.

But do we really want to see their movies? Hollywood’s ever-quotable independent producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with quipping, “When I want to send a message, I use Western Union!” Cinema has a long history of tension between social commitment and profit motive. Is it art or is it commerce? Message or entertainment? Lupino and DaCosta are firmly positioned on the messaging side.

While promoting his new movie, Donald Sutherland—then a major star—took great pains to point out that Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989), from André Brink’s apartheid-era novel, was more entertainment than ideological slog. In fairness to Sutherland, he did not repudiate the horrific content, and he was clearly personally committed to the movie’s political message. The last major feature before Nelson Mandela’s release, the film is signficantly brutal and uncompromising. Some of its tension is released through star turns by, among famous (white) names, Sutherland himself, the underappreciated Janet Suzman, reliable Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando, in a cameo calibrated to warm a liberal’s hurting heart. Yes, there is real entertainment value here. Seeing it on original release, the viewer couldn’t help but also come to the conclusion that, with international clout like this against him, FW DeKlerk was well advised to begin mending his nation’s murderous ways. The rest is history.

The same qualities do not apply to Little Woods. The outlook here is unrelentingly grim—as it should be. Set in what may or may not be Trump Country, we are unquestionably in the America of hard-right social policy: unrelieved poverty, inescapable petty crime, dead-end jobs (when there are jobs)—the multiple afflictions of the multigenerationally afflicted. One disaster removed from catastrophe—and then catastrophe strikes. The setting is present day, not a vague dystopian future. Drug dealing? What else is a minimum-wage entrepreneur to do? Her business deepens individual suffering in her community? Why would that be solely her moral responsibility? What about her other personal and familial responsibilities? Possibly her product affords the users who can’t afford it some respite, even if it’s the respite of the long goodbye. (Little Woods does not pretend to address the opioid crisis.) Who are we, in the luxury of our $20 cinema seats, to judge?

Of course, there’s an unplanned pregnancy. Our heroine’s sister, whom she loves and who is already a young single mother, lives in chaos. This is chaos not of a want of personal responsibility, but born of lack of what academics like to call “social capital”: stable income, housing, meaningful labor, nutritious food, education and vocational training, community, the realistic promise of a future for you and your children and so forth. (“Your choice is limited by your options,” we’re told. Poor people know full well the moral limits of their social condition, as Little Woods illustrates.) Deb’s first thought is to continue the pregnancy until this pipe dream encounters contemporary healthcare, a system rigged for profit not people. “Being pregnant costs $8,000?” she asks the not unsympathetic hospital worker, who’s probably minimum-wage herself. Deb’s incredulous. And so is the viewer.

Of course, there’s an abortion. Not quite a knitting needle, but close. If there are proper facilities in this landscape, the sisters have no information about them—and just about no money either, aside from the drugs. But they live within driving distance of Canada . . .

The lead persformances by Tessa Thompson (Ollie, whose precarious hold on her life is complicated by being on parole for—natch!—drug dealing) and Lily James (as Deb) are impeccable, the direction competent, the supporting characters convincing and, where possible, multidimensional. The audience has never met them, but we know these people, we understand their frustrations, we identify with their strengths. We know that they’re one flat tire away from destitution. It’s scary, and we’re scared for them. The film doesn’t tell us what we should be doing to help them; we’ll have to figure that out on our own. Maybe at election time.

Who is the audience for the social problem pictures of Lupino and DaCosta? Neither director offers the pleasure of big-name stars, unlike the Palcy movie. Over time, the very locations of their stories have become ever more bleak; no refuge left in set décor or “gowns.” There’s hardly the hope remaining that a raw film such as I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) might result in penal reform, as it did in its time, however temporarily.

Writing of another pertinent issue, Rachel Louise Snyder asks, “What kinds of reportage really move policy? What kinds of narrative—what sorts of tone, structure, examples—can stoke a reader’s [viewer’s] outrage and then translate that outrage into action, keeping it from curdling into cynicism or despair?” (No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, 2019).

I’m already convinced (aren’t you?) that the country may be pushed beyond return, that women now seek abortion in the 21st century’s back alleys where agency and moral decision making have no place in the lexicon. Do we need the confirmation of a movie, however well made, as Little Woods is? What is the value of sitting in the dark bearing this gloomy witness, cheering on another pioneering filmmaker, as we do?

Or should we all be back on the streets?

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

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