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Stream of the Day: How ‘Secrets and Lies’ Makes a Political Statement About Race by Ignoring It

A film that was ahead of its time, Leigh's most accessible work promoted new insight into matters of race and class.

"Secrets And Lies"

“Secrets And Lies”

Moviestore/Shutterstock

With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.

To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for the next two weeks, this column will be dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.

Mike Leigh’s unflinching depictions of real life are what make his films so complex and captivating. His keen awareness of character, setting and tempo result in remarkable sequences that pull from the drift of everyday life. And his infatuation with class and tense family dynamics is palpable in every one of his films. Over the course of his five-decade career, however, he’s never done this better than is 1996 masterpiece “Secrets & Lies.” Given its plot, most would assume that it revolves around race relations, but it actually ignores race almost entirely, and, as a result, delivers a more complex assessment of it.

“Secrets & Lies” stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a young black professional who, following the death of her adoptive parents, decides to track down her biological mother, whom she later discovers is a white woman — and the matriarch of a family in total chaos. Of course, there’s much drama to be extracted from this revelation, and the result is a pleasantly surprising film that avoids low-hanging racial themes that other films on similar topics would likely pounce on. Instead, the movie focuses on the way these human beings relate to each other in a broader sense.

The film is significant for what it avoids, as well as for what it didn’t feel necessary to state — that blackness refers to a clearly defined kind of identity. Hortense is an educated black woman, living an elegant life in a fancy neighborhood in London. Her birth mother, Cynthia, is a single, white, working-class woman, who lives in a tumbledown apartment with her rude daughter, Roxanne. But what Leigh chooses to emphasize is Cynthia’s working class struggles over Hortense’s skin color, which is immediately noticeable.

The inference would be that Leigh is implying that class trumps race, itself the subject of countless volatile debates. But he’s doing something more than that, as he lays out in this shrewd statement during a 1996 interview with Salon, which was in response to criticism he faced for not directly addressing race and intolerance in the film:

“I think that’s a complex thing. I think it [race] remains very important [through the film] — and here we are talking about what the film is saying. However subtly, it continues to be an issue. The audience would inevitably begin by meeting Hortense and immediately classifying her as a black person — this is what racism is about. As you get to know her, you simply forget that she’s black because you get to know her and it ceases to be an issue. Now that’s what happens to the characters. When it comes to the crunch, on the whole, the thing that worries anybody least is the fact that she’s black. Again, the idiots in some quarters have come out waving their flags and saying ‘Well, it shirks its responsibility and why aren’t they intolerant towards her, why didn’t they behave negatively’ — as though everybody would be racist in the world, which is not the case in 1996. I know, and this is built into the structure of the film, that a lot of people make the assumption that she is going to be reacted to in a racist way. But finally, we make what is a very unequivocal political statement which is: ‘We are all people.’ It seems incredibly obvious to say that in 1996. It’s not a very sophisticated a thing to say, and maybe it’s sort of a wishy-washy liberal thing to say, but actually that is what it’s all about. That, actually, other things transcend this and that is as it should be. In that sense, you could argue that I am presenting something as I think it should be. That’s how they should behave.”

Additionally, when asked about why he wanted to tell this particular story, Leigh shared his desire to account for young black people who weren’t being properly represented in British cinema and TV at the time.

Throughout the film, the white characters ignore Hortense’s obviously dark skin, except for when they first meet her, and are reasonably puzzled. But Cynthia soon recalls the particulars of the pregnancy, and doesn’t hesitate to embrace Hortense as her child, even admitting a resemblance between the two of them.

Any antagonism in the film is strictly familial, not racial: between Cynthia and Roxanne; Cynthia and her younger brother Maurice; Maurice and his unhappy wife Monica; and finally between Monica and Cynthia.

Leigh’s focus is more on the breakdown within Hortense’s biological family, and situates her difference not in her race, but in her humanity, morality and courage, when her presence helps recreate family ties and re-establish bonds of communication.

The action culminates at a family gathering to which Hortense is invited, where she facilitates the laying bare of all the family’s secrets and lies, as Cynthia reveals the shameful secret of Hortense’s accidental birth and subsequent placement up for adoption.

“Secrets & Lies” is full of surprises. It subverts stereotypes and questions easy assumptions, and promotes new insight into matters of race and class. In a sense, it was a film ahead of its time, released 12 years before Barack Obama became president of the United States, and a beloved symbol of advances in race relations.

Setting aside its subversive power, there are other reasons to watch the film, most notably for its performances. As with almost any Leigh work, it’s filled with great ones, thanks in large part to his well-documented methods of working intimately with his actors long before the existence of a script to construct their characters. The results are incredibly believable and, combined with the unceremonious photography of cinematographer Dick Pope, the movie has an almost docu-drama feel to it.

It’s therefore no surprise that Leigh, master of unflinching character studies, earned some of the best reviews of his career for “Secrets & Lies.” The filmmaker’s biggest box-office success in the States ($13 million) is also one of his most accessible films, boasting a typically authentic sense of place and character. Leigh’s London is as distinctive as Spike Lee’s Brooklyn.

The film won the 1996 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which was a remarkable feat considering the caliber of films it was in competition with that year — “Breaking the Waves,” “Fargo,” and David Cronenberg’s “Crash” among them. It also received five Oscar nominations at the 69th Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Actress for Blethyn, Jean-Baptiste for Best Supporting Actress (making her the first black British actress to be nominated for an Academy Award), Best Director for Leigh, and Best Picture. Almost 25 years later, those achievements may seem like a distant memory — which is all the more reason why “Secrets and Lies” deserves a second look.

“Secrets & Lies” is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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