"Middle of Nowhere."
"Middle of Nowhere."

AO: Yeah, as movie critics we don’t really have a voice in any debate on ontology, do we? At my politics-obsessed publication, I’m always trying to jump the fence and turn movie reviews into political essays (or vice versa), but that’s just moving between competing or overlapping epistemological frames, isn’t it?

Anyhow. Are 2013’s movies about race something the public actually wants? Are they, in fact, the "national conversation" President Obama promised us, back when Henry Louis Gates got busted breaking into his own house? It’s an interesting question, and the answer might not be no. I think everyone in the business was startled that "The Butler," ungainly as it was, turned out to be a big hit, and only Harvey Weinstein, consummate salesman that he is — because he genuinely believes in what he’s selling — could have turned "Fruitvale Station" into a genuine awards contender.

I think those are small but tangible examples of that hopey-changey stuff, to quote a noted pop culture expert and former governor of Alaska. I’m actually going to call myself out on that one, going back more than a year, when I wrote about Ava DuVernay’s excellent indie drama “Middle of Nowhere," which was focused entirely on the lives of unstereotypical African-American characters, and pretty much made the assumption that no one would see it. I was wrong about that, and delighted to be wrong, but I think that assumption reflected my own bigotry about the nature of the indie-film audience (which is no longer entirely white) and also about the nature of the white indie-film audience, which is not locked into old patterns quite the way I suspected.

BERLINALE '08 | Buoyed by Sundance and Berlin, "Ballast" Prepares for Unsteady Market with IFC
Lance Hammer's "Ballast."

Now, I think John is absolutely right that the best popular filmmakers aren’t whoring themselves or pandering to what they think we want; Cameron is a perfect example, but I would say approximately the same thing about Michael Bay, who has execrable taste but a clear aesthetic and one he appears to believe in. And my faith that John would be a great counterfoil in this exchange is fully justified by his remarks about "Frances Ha" versus "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." I totally agree! If they take away my card as a New Yorker and an art-film snob, maybe that’s because it’s time. Of course there are occasions when critics and festival-goers push into terrain where the audience doesn’t want to follow; both John and I admired Mungiu’s "Beyond the Hills," but the number of people who paid to see that film in North America is probably in the low four figures. Many of my friends assured me they were going to see "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," but I’m pretty sure none of them did. Consider the "mumblecore moment" of the mid-2000s or its immediate successor, the "American neorealism" represented by Lance Hammer’s 2008 "Ballast," a film I’m pretty sure only critics saw, or got anything out of.

By those standards, "12 Years a Slave," one of the most demanding films to make an appearance in the Oscar race for years and years, is pretty much "Jaws." "Gravity" points the way toward new technical possibilities, clearly, and "American Hustle" establishes that David O. Russell has cracked the code of making films that are tremendous fun and just meaty enough to feel meaningful while you’re watching them, and maybe even while you’re driving home. But I do think it’s possible that the set of movies tackling the issues of America’s racial past and present, a set that stretches across the artistic gamut from an essentially reassuring dramedy "The Help" to the profoundly unsettling "Blue Caprice," are addressing a real need in a country that spent much of the last year arguing about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and in which an intransigent, all-white political party has staged a blockade against a moderate black president. At least on the screen, and sometimes in other frames or on other stages, we’re looking at our real history and its real costs in a new way.