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From Spike Lee to Paul Greengrass, Oscar Contenders are Compelled to Recreate the Past and Reveal the Present

Setting out to recreate history, three top filmmakers found themselves in the crosshairs of unforeseen relevance.

“22 July”


For filmmakers who choose to look to the past to reveal who we are now, these are some challenging times. It’s easy to say that truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not exactly true: With daily news feeds that can seem like an endless scrolling of inciting incidents, outrageous is the new normal. As a result, some of the best films of the season can be the ones that filmmakers wish they didn’t have to make.

“Sometimes, the political landscape develops in a positive way and sometimes the political landscape develops in a negative way,” said Joel Edgerton, actor-writer-director of “Boy Erased,” based on Garrard Conly’s memoir. It’s the 2004 Bush-era story of a gay teenager (Lucas Hedges) who is outed to his Baptist preacher father and his mother (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) and sent to conversion therapy lockup, where the lead counselor (Edgerton) tries to browbeat his flock of queer youth (including Xavier Dolan, among others) into being straight. Eventually, the kid rebels and begs his mother to rescue him, which she does.

"Boy Erased"

“Boy Erased”

Focus Features

Its November 2 release seems particularly well timed for current headlines, and for Edgerton that’s a struggle. “Through the process of putting this film together, the political climate has gotten to a point where [they’re] talking about walking back potentially the identification of trans people. On one hand, you’re like, ‘Great, as a filmmaker this is good for us.’ But on another hand, you go, ‘I wish it wasn’t good for us.’ In this case, I wish this film didn’t even have to exist, you know?”

Timing also gives tragic favor to Paul Greengrass’ must-see festival hit “22 July,” now performing well on Netflix (over 14 million eyeballs, per the site), after day-and-date theatrical engagements on 22 screens in North America and a total of 132 worldwide. After the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy, his film seems torn from the headlines: Far-right terrorist Anders Breivik killed eight people by exploding a van bomb in Oslo, Norway on July 22, 2011, then drove to an island Workers’ Youth League summer camp to gun down as many people as he could, killing 69 children and their supervisors.

Greengrass actually made the film in response to the UK’s Brexit June 2016 vote, when he abandoned his usual tentpoles (see: the “Bourne” franchise) and began researching the global refugee crisis. When other films got there first, including Italy’s Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea,”  he turned his attention to Islamist terror and the rise of nationalism.

While watching Breivik’s trial in 2012, Greengrass felt the hairs rise on his neck. “His worldview, his rhetoric, his analysis is now absolutely mainstream,” he said. “All that stuff about the elites, them being traitors of the people, and democracy being a sham. That’s standard populist right-wing rhetoric now across Europe and the U.S. That’s why I thought to make this film. If you look at it clearly and unflinchingly, you find truths in there that are much broader than the moment itself. It’s in the DNA of our times. There we were — and where we are headed.”

Paul Greengrass

Anne Thompson

Greengrass’ script focuses only partly on Breivik and his motives for the terrorist assault. “This borderless world will encourage immense population movements and throw up inequity and economic instability,” said Greengrass. “We are now seeing the reaction — it’s an unprecedented move to the right. Wherever you look across Europe and U.S., the wind is with the forces of nativism, nationalism, and protectionism.”

However, Greengrass believed that the saving grace of this tragedy was the way that Norway handled it, from then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (now the secretary-general of NATO) who listened to Breivik, the young survivors who recovered from their wounds in time to speak eloquently at the trial, and the defense lawyer who felt it was his duty, despite threats and permanent harm to his career, to represent a reprehensible criminal. Greengrass checked with all parties before he began writing; they encouraged Greengrass to share their stories.

These characters are heroes to Greengrass, who cast local bilingual Norwegian actors to perform in mildly accented English and shot the $15 million feature with a local crew in a more restrained, less percussive style than his more commercial entertainments. He expertly weaves the dramatic threads that lead to the climactic trial, where the sides face off in a moving verbal duel, as a wounded but articulate teenager looks the evildoer in the eye and tells him why might does not make right.

He sold his small-scale movie to his old Universal executive Scott Stuber at Netflix, who offered a limited global theatrical release and access to 130 million eyeballs in 190 countries. “If the movie had played arthouse, not many people would see this film,” Greengrass said. “I want young people to see it. They’re the ones who we want to reach. Netflix is the right platform for this film. It offers a way to get this film out there that only it can do.” (According to Netflix the film has pulled a global audience of 14 million on the site, far more than your average arthouse release.)

What’s unclear is whether Netflix’s bulked-up awards team can push the movie into the Oscar race. While Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” has exploded on the festival circuit, the reception to “22 July” was huge in Venice but more muted in Toronto. Netflix plans to reopen the film in December and put Greengrass back on the  & A circuit. It sits at 69 on Metacritic.

Spike Lee and John David Washington

As a hit summer movie ($48 million domestic) with an 83 Metascore, “BlackKklansman” is in better shape for the Oscars. When Spike Lee read an early adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s memoir “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime” (sent via producer Jordan Peele), he immediately knew what to do with the story of a young black man who became the first police officer in Colorado Springs. Not waiting for an official deal memo, he squeezed it into an already-crammed schedule and churned out the script with his “Chi-Raq” cowriter Ken Willmott. “From the beginning, it was a period piece from the 1970s,” Lee said. “We had to connect it to today.”

The writers assessed the script’s strengths and weaknesses. “We found spots in the story that spoke to the current situation,” said Willmott. For example, the Donald Trump catchphrase “America First” started in the 1920s as the Klan’s slogan, then the American Nazi slogan in the 1930s. “We think it was one of the things Steve Bannon found and gave to Trump,” said Lee. “I don’t think that guy thought of that or knew the historical reference where it came from.”

Read More: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Review: Spike Lee Detonates a Funny and Righteously Furious ‘Fuck You’ to Trump — Cannes 2018

The colorful and hateful dialogue spewing out of the mouths of David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK, and Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, familiar from “Ballers” and “Monster”) is extraordinary to hear. “That’s how it works, in the ’70s and today,” said Willmott. “It’s the most truthful stuff in the film.”

While Grace welcomed the opportunity to look at race relations from a new point of view, speaking words of hate was neither cathartic nor fun, he told me at a recent awards party. At his audition with Lee, he felt obliged to apologize beforehand. Lee encouraged him to let it fly. And so he did.

“We didn’t have to put the words of the past in their mouths,” said Willmott. “This is how the Klan talks. A lot of the dialogue was in the Stallworth book.”

Focus did initially question the film’s coda, which Lee insisted on adding after wrapping principal photography. He watched the August 10 riots in Charlottesville in horror while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, and saw the death of Heather Heyer. Once he obtained permission from Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, Lee felt empowered to include footage of the car that ran her over.

“That’s the ending, end of discussion,” he said. “Those terrorist groups and the real David Duke should join the Writers Guild of America. They wrote the ending for us. They wrote a better ending.”

For both Conly and Edgerton, “Boy Erased” is an agitprop call to action, along with website StopErasing.com and the four-part Radiolab podcast “UnErased” set to debut opening day November 2, as conversion therapy is still legal in several states. Per the Williams Institute, some 700,000 LGBTQ Americans have submitted to “ex-gay” therapy. Edgerton wants to “get the ‘wrong’ people to see the film,” he told one New York screening crowd. “Films like this, they preach to the converted. Sadly, the film as we’ve made it has grown even more into relevance. But in hindsight, it would be wonderful if the film had no relevance whatsoever.”

Christian Blauvelt contributed reporting to this article. 

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