Hollywood’s new focus on representation

Black Panther. (Courtesy of The Wrap)
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From streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon to the big screen, 2018 was a huge year for cinema, offering a myriad of great films. While box office dollar figures and percentages from movie review sites like Rotten Tomatoes often dictate the success of a film, Hollywood’s success in 2018 isn’t in the numbers, but rather its recent focus on watershed moments of representation.

Black Panther, the American superhero film based on the Marvel Comic character of the same name, was a highly anticipated movie in 2018—not just by Marvel fans, but by the black community in particular. Jamil Smith, in a piece for Time, explained why Black Panther was a major milestone.

“Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multi­faceted,” he said.

On the other hand, Boy Erased, an American drama based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, didn’t add anything new to the LGBTQ+ community according to Rich Juzwiak’s review in Muse. It did, however, continue to hold open the door for straight cisgender men and women to try to understand the hardship in the history of the LGBTQ+ community.

“The most bizarre lesson comes in the form of a mock funeral with one of the several undercooked queer-kid characters, during which he’s struck repeatedly with a Bible. It’s sad stuff, criminal really, but it seems handpicked to be digestible, to upset audiences just enough so that they can feel it but not so much as to carry it with them out of the theatre.”

At the tail end of the year, two addiction-related movies were released: Beautiful Boy, based off David Sheff’s memoir, and Ben is Back, written by Peter Hedges. Both films offer two angles that aren’t talked about or often seen through the process of drug and alcohol recovery: relapse and the impact of addiction on addicts’ families.

Beautiful Boy is the story of New York Times writer David Sheff (played by Steve Carell) as he watches his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) fall down the dark, winding road of drug addiction. From the opening scene of David Sheff visiting an expert on methamphetamine, it’s clear that this is not going to be like the Basketball Diaries where there are small traces of the other side of the story. As Nic falls deeper into the throes of methamphetamine addiction, viewers see not just Nic’s suffering, but the suffering of a powerless parent forced to watch their child deteriorate from an outside window looking in.

Nic leaves a treatment center referred to as the Olaff center, and when one of the counsellors calls David to inform him of Nic’s departure, she reassures him by saying “relapse is a part of recovery.” While it’s up to the individual in drug and alcohol recovery whether relapse is a part of their story, relapse is, in fact, a part of the recovery process for some. Seeing Nic’s story of multiple attempts at recovery is important; it speaks a loud and clear message to those giving it their best: even if you didn’t get it the first time, don’t stop trying.

Ben is Back follows a troubled Ben Burns (played by Lucas Hedges) who returns home from a sober living environment to his unsuspecting family on Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but his return isn’t met with mutual enthusiasm from Ben’s stepfather, Neal (Courtney B. Vance). Neal is adamant about Ben going back at first, but, since it’s a holiday and with pressure from his wife, he eventually decides to let Ben stay for one day: Christmas. The movie takes place over 24 hours, and Holly makes it as clear as Crystal Pepsi that he’s not to leave her side.

Similar to Beautiful Boy, an equal amount of spotlight shines on the parent rather than the character in recovery in this film. As the plot progresses, Ben struggles with triggers outside the sheltered sober living environment and the audience sees how Holly interacts with addiction and Ben’s recovery from a parental point of view. Like David Sheff, there’s a grapple with powerlessness as a parent. How do I help my child? Can I help my child?

According to the Government of Canada, in the first half of 2018, 2,066 apparent opioid-related deaths occurred. From January 2016 to June 2018, more than 9,000 Canadians died from illicit and opioid-related drugs. What is not represented in those numbers is how many family members were affected by addiction-related deaths.

Hollywood’s new fixation on representation begins to invite viewers to see the whole picture, rather than a fraction of the painting. It is important that all facets are represented, and Hollywood is an excellent mechanism to do so. While they don’t succeed perfectly every time, it’s nice to see they’re trying.