Trauma and Escape: A Night at the Oscars

Our movies, ourselves: The Oscars invariably reflect the American zeitgeist. This year’s ceremony is no exception, especially given its topsy-turvy ending in which the presumed winner unexpectedly loses.

La La Land had been the clear favorite of the four top contenders for best picture. It’s the type of film Hollywood always loves because it’s about—well, Hollywood. It’s also been welcomed as an escape from the dismal reality of the current political landscape. Deliverance comes through saturated colors and a love story about attractive people who don’t sing and dance all that well. La La Land embodies the American fantasy that life works out if you follow your dreams.

Hidden Figures, too, is a feel-good narrative, depicting three brilliant African-American women who endured racism and sexism at NASA in the early years of the space program. The film is a bridge between the sheer escapism of La La Land and the more depressing realities depicted in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures almost tricks us into believing that individual grit matters more than institutional oppression, and that the days of rank prejudice are behind us. These wishes, too, are part of our national fantasy. But as Faulkner and the recent election remind us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This theme is woven throughout Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. While La La Land and Hidden Figures offer escape (and very little back story), these two films are in the clutches of trauma. Neither Chiron, of Moonlight, nor Lee, from Manchester, can escape the past.

Chiron, a sensitive young, gay, black boy born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, grows into a hardened drug dealer. He is a broken survivor who nonetheless finds a bit of peace and tenderness.

Lee is also broken, but barely surviving. He is not born into trauma, but causes one that quickly engulfs him. Lee can escape the town—at least until his brother’s death forces him back–but not the guilt and harm he’s inflicted on himself and others.

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea do not feel good. But they feel honest. They affirm the harder truths: Some damage cannot be undone. Triumphant Hollywood endings are rare. There is no escaping the past. Yet revisiting it and coming to terms with it—as Chiron chooses, as Lee must, as we do in our everyday lives—creates small shifts, more understanding, and perhaps a tender cradling or a little extra room where none existed before.


Which film were you rooting for?


Unwatchable Must-See

"12 Years a Slave" wins best picture Oscar

Celebrating Oscar best-picture winner “12 Years a Slave”

I did not want to see 12 Years a Slave. It sounded like a magnificent movie that was nearly impossible to watch. But I went anyway, to keep up with Oscar best-picture nominees. I’m glad it won–now more people will overcome their wish to look away, and go see it.

How people direct their gaze is an important motif in the film. The camera lingers on the brutality of a system that subjugated millions of black men, women, and children. Protagonist Solomon Northrup, who has lived a comfortable life as a free man until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, looks directly at people. A fellow captive aboard the steamboat delivering them down the Mississippi to their enslavement advises, “Survival’s about keeping your head down.” Indeed, slaves who have never known freedom avert their eyes. In contrast, the menacing, sometimes psychotic gazes of white owners are as crucial to the system of terror as whips and lynching ropes. Plantation mistresses stare silently from the porches above.

The most compelling scene is an interrupted lynching. Solomon, rope around his neck, dangles from a tree an inch above the mud. For hours, he tries to maintain contact with the yielding ground by shuffling his feet back and forth in a tortured tip-toe. Meanwhile, his fellow slaves come in and out of their cabins and go about their business without looking directly at him.

Solomon survives only to endure years of even worse agony until his release is finally secured. Traveling safely on the road returning him to freedom, he gazes intently at those left behind on the plantation.

We, too, have traveled far from those times. Yet around the time 12 Years a Slave was released, news broke that an African-American freshman had been tormented by his white suite mates at San Jose State University. They taunted him with names like “Three-fifths” and “Fraction,” displayed a Confederate flag, and placed a bicycle lock around his neck. This went on for weeks, until the freshman’s parents intervened. Once the outcry became impossible to ignore, the tormentors were suspended. Some face criminal hate-crime charges.

But how long were eyes averted? The victim himself apparently tried to survive by keeping his head down. So did the many who were silent witnesses to his ill treatment. A report describing widespread racial discrimination on campus had been shelved by the administration two years earlier.

In the wider world, too, we look away while African-Americans still struggle to gain traction. The unemployment rate among blacks is twice that of whites. Housing discrimination and de facto school segregation are widespread. Racial disparities in drug laws have resulted in mass incarceration of African-American males. Voting rights are under attack. Young men are treated with suspicion, and sometimes even killed, because of the color of their skin. And while it’s true that President Obama has won the presidency twice, it’s also true that racial animus has fueled a concerted effort to delegitimize him.

This is not the antebellum South. It’s happening now. How long will we continue to avert our eyes? 12 Years a Slave–this unwatchable must-see–forces us to look directly at America’s horrific history so we may come to terms with our unreconciled past and ongoing shame.