We’re more than 18 months deep into the Trump era, and — for better or worse — the effect of his regime is finally starting to trickle into the movies. From massive franchise blockbusters to righteous historical biopics and even the occasional family comedy, films of all shapes and sizes have been responding to (or even inspired by) the current state of world affairs, reflecting the systemic failures that got us here, and occasionally using their light to guide us through the present darkness.
The defining cinema of the Trump era is likely still to come, but these seven films — including Eugene Jarecki’s “The King,” which opens in theaters today — provide our first indications as to how the movies might process this grim period of American history.
David Lee/Focus Features
Spike Lee is not a particularly subtle filmmaker, but we are not living in particularly subtle times. If “BlackKklansman” is blunt even by Lee’s standards, that’s because it had to be. A buddy cop biopic about the African-American police officer who conned his way into the KKK in the early ’70s (John David Washington shines in the role of Ron Stallworth), the movie’s mass appeal is a huge part of its power. Lee paints with a broad brush, but he does so in order to make damn sure that everyone can see the line he’s painting between David Duke and Donald Trump.
“BlacKkKlansman” is funny and furious (but not in equal amounts, especially after the coda that connects these events to last year’s Nazi rally in Charlottesville), unapologetically exploring how a White Nationalist came to occupy the Oval Office, and questions if it’s possible to change a broken system from the inside. Lee reaches into the past in order to rage against the present, packaging some of the most pressing issues of our time into a wildly entertaining night at the movies, and forcing even the most casual viewers to confront what it really means to put “America first.”
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“The Boss Baby”
“The Boss Baby” is a crude, unfunny movie about a megalomaniacal toddler in an oversized suit who cries his head off when he doesn’t get what he wants. Other babies understand him, but rational adults cannot. He’s played by Alec Baldwin. At the end, the Boss Baby almost gets innocent people killed in a rocket attack because nobody gave him the love and attention he needed as a child (or, um, as an even younger baby). This terrible movie got an A+ CinemaScore and made more than half a billion dollars. A sequel is being threatened for early 2021. We are doomed.
“Buy Me a Gun”
Located somewhere between “The Florida Project” and “Children of Men,” Julio Hernández Cordón’s precocious and arresting “Buy Me a Gun” is a neo-realist fable that’s seen through the eyes of a child and set in a world ruled by fear. It’s a major work in a minor key, a movie that gracefully straddles the line between the tenuousness of the present day and the violence of the post-apocalyptic thunderdome we’re all racing towards.
The story takes place in a lawless, vaguely unreal Mexico where everything is run by the cartels and violence is the only meaningful form of currency. This is what the wasteland looks like during a period of transition — after the rule of law but before “Fury Road” or the rise of Lord Humungus. It’s the drug-related violence of contemporary Mexico stretched to its logical conclusion, the horror so perfect that it casts a pall of dark enchantment over everything it touches. That’s especially true for one little girl, who’s separated from her father and forced to make sense of her own suffering. She’s growing up beyond the shadow of even the most basic humanity, with so much to offer and no place to put it; her world might be somewhat mythical, but her plight is all too real.
“Buy Me a Gun” premiered at Cannes earlier this year, and is still looking for U.S. distribution. It’s growing more urgent by the day.
A documentary as sprawling and brilliant and flawed as the country it traverses, Eugene Jarecki’s “The King” is a fascinatingly overstuffed portrait of America in decline. In the process, it’s also: a biography of the 20th century’s most famous musician; a story about how a man became king of a democratic nation; a nuanced analysis of cultural appropriation in a multi-racial society; a southern-fried rock n’ roll performance piece; a horrifyingly sober look at the rise of Donald Trump; a closed-casket funeral service for The American Dream; the best recent film about how the hell we got here; and more. So much more.
The premise of “The King” (formerly known as “Promised Land”) is as simple as the movie is complicated. Jarecki, after having somehow gotten his hands on Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V (which sold for almost $400,000 at auction a few years ago), decides to outfit the luxury car with cameras and take it across the United States, retracing the trajectory of The King’s life story from Tupelo, Miss. to Las Vegas and beyond.
What he finds along the way is a country that’s been deluded by its dreams. Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.
“The Last Jedi”
With every new phase of the pathetic nerd outcry that’s hounded the best (and most inclusive) “Star Wars” movie ever made, it becomes increasingly clear that the response to “The Last Jedi” is a beautiful glimpse at how the MAGA types would have reacted if Hillary Clinton had won the election. “Star Wars” was their franchise, and Rian Johnson took it from them. He pulled out the past from under their feet — he killed it because he had to — and he did so in order to recenter the galaxy on the heroes who have its best interests at heart. Needless to say, that wasn’t appreciated by some of the people who’ve always felt entitled to their central role in this saga, and to the power that comes with it. Shrug emoji.
Of course, “The Last Jedi” didn’t just piss off the right people, it also tapped into the desperation of being wronged, and the sacrifices required to restore the balance between them. No other Trump-era blockbuster has so viscerally conveyed the feeling of being eclipsed by an immense darkness, or so convincingly illustrated the possibility of finding a new hope.
A recent spate of humane and optimistic movies —short on discord, long on warmth, and explicitly about the goodness in people — suggests that our ongoing political debacle may be prompting some filmmakers to reconsider the types of stories they want to tell. At a time when the free world is run by a malignant cancer who can’t even shake hands with someone without trying to assert some Nietzschean kind of dominance, perhaps it’s not surprising to see an uptick in movies that subvert the idea that we have to tear each other down to prop ourselves up, or the idea that success is a naturally a zero-sum game.
The evidence is everywhere, and it’s as sweet as a marmalade sandwich. Take “Paddington 2,” for example, a British movie that functions as a politely scathing rebuke to Brexit and the xenophobia that made it possible. Maybe the best film of 2018 so far, Paul King’s delightful sequel argues that conflict doesn’t have to drive a story, that kindness can be a transformative force unto itself.
In doing so, it convincingly refutes the idea that nice movies have to be a distraction from the horrors of our world. Idealistic as it may be, the climactic scene where all of Paddington’s friends come together for a big surprise — a coterie of immigrants gathering to celebrate one of their own — doesn’t encourage us to hide from things, but rather to accept the power we have to change them. And then Hugh Grant sings a song from “Follies” and everyone gets to go home with a smile on their face.
There’s topical, there’s timely, and then there’s “The Post,” which feels less like a historical thriller set in 1971 than it does an exhilarating caricature of the year 2017. While Steven Spielberg’s latest film rivetingly dramatizes the publication of the Pentagon Papers (and eloquently unpacks the consequences of their dissemination), “The Post” wears the Nixon era like a flimsy disguise that it wants you to see right through.
Unambiguously using the past to reinvigorate our resistance to the present, this is a movie that couldn’t be more relevant if it had been set last week, or tomorrow. It’s a movie by someone who desperately wanted to address the world’s current crises, someone whose direct access to our collective imagination may have burdened him with a personal responsibility to do so.
Most of all, it’s a movie that was rushed into production because it feels so urgent, and not the other way around. Only nine months passed from the time that Spielberg read Liz Hannah’s script to the time “The Post” came out in theaters in December 2017, making it the first Hollywood feature that was explicitly made in response to Trump’s election. Blunt and didactic as it gets in its final moments, the film rages with the distinct adrenaline of a fresh wound. If we’re lucky, it will feel like a relic in 10 years; if we’re not, it might be relevant again in 20. Today, when it matters most, “The Post” is essential because it stares down cynicism with a smile, and because it enshrines the fact that governments only see journalists as a threat when they have something to hide.