January 31, 2023

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Managers focus on institutional capacity

5 min read

Power and privilege are often part of the same formula—one almost inevitably leads to the other. This awards season’s films examine the phenomenon in myriad ways: from the real to the fictional, and within institutions as diverse as the military and the classical music community. The directors behind “The Inspection,” “Bhakti,” “The Woman King” and “Her” explore these dynamics thematically and visually while shepherding their characters through four different but equally powerful stories.

For “The Inspection,” director Elegance Bratton, whose film is based on his life experiences, joining the Marines gave him a purpose and place he never would have had otherwise.

“People assume I named myself,” Bratton said, though he didn’t. He admits it raises assumptions before anyone even looks at him, but intersectionality doesn’t do much for a gay, black man. “[This is] My experience as someone born on the fringes of privilege. [It’s how] I can equip myself with the skills I need to survive the onslaught of what it means to be myself in the world we all share.”

The military gave Bratton, portrayed on screen by the character Alice French (Jeremy Pope), an inherent sense of inclusion from wearing the same uniform as his fellow recruits. But if the Marines necessarily provide a hierarchical structure of power, it is more than the uniform and the affirmation of “yes sir” to superiors that reinforces their well-established structure.

“You also have a culture of men judging each other’s bodies, and certain body types are privileged over other body types, features and appendages … but one thing that is certain is that we are all oppressed by our status as employers,” Bratton says. “And for me, it was normal.”

French, like his real-life counterpart, was kicked out of his mother’s home for being gay, a story that is all too real for LGBTQ+ youth. The nonprofit organization Schools on Wheels estimates that 2.5 million children in the United States experience homelessness each year. “The French may not just be me,” notes Bratton, “but I was French.”

Comparing the military to other male-dominated spaces brings further revelation. “The Marine Corps is like the Harvard of manhood,” Bratton says. “As an out black gay man, you’ve been to all kinds of male spaces … where men come together to find romantic connections, and then you assume that the other side, this heterosexual male space, is something you’re going to fail at … [and] It’s so arbitrary because once you get into a space with straight men, you realize, oh my god, it’s just like a gay bar, except none of these people want to have sex with each other.”

Bratton’s film suggests that masculinity and femininity are arbitrary. “This whole movie is trying to assert the possibility that being a ‘real’ human being is a problem for every human being,” says Bratton. “Alice learns … that forgiveness can be a source of male strength.”

If “Visit” reexamines stereotypical masculinity, “The Woman King” complements it. The film, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is also based on a true story, about a group of women warriors whose strength on the battlefield is not as socially acceptable as men’s.

Prince-Bythewood immediately knew that “it was important to establish these women as skilled and athletic and strong and powerful.”

When asked about the imagery to make audiences reconsider the role and power of black women in war, Prince-Bythewood cited a famous quote by Malcolm X: “The most dishonored person in America is the black woman.”

Establishing this apparently unique dynamic in a historical setting was particularly meaningful in the context of contemporary notions of social power and privilege. “That feeling [of] Invisibility and lack of respect and lack of protection [in life], it’s in your head, it’s embedded, and yet to be able to see yourself again in a way that you’re actually reverent” is powerful, says Prince-Bythewood. People who are typically underrepresented don’t see themselves on screen, but then carry that sense of empowerment out into the world.

Prince-Bythewood focused on blocking to expand on those thematic elements. When Naniska (Viola Davis) is introduced, she is “alone, emerging from the grass, which I think is a powerful image, but certainly sets the tone that this is our leader, this is our hero.” Often, Naniska is flanked by two of her lieutenants so they stand out visibly as a group, suggesting the three stay together.

This kind of categorization is taught at a young age in school: notice what doesn’t belong, or what stands out, and then examine why.

Director JD Dillard used a similar approach in “Devotion,” a film based on the true story of Korean War hero Jesse L. Brown (Jonathan Majors). Often, Brown stands further back than others in group settings. Or, a wide master shot shows everyone except Jesse, who appears only in reverse.

“It’s a great way to keep Jesse on the perimeter,” Dillard said. The same applies to the use of hats and sunglasses, and who does and does not wear them. “Every step of the way, out loud and subconscious dialogue, [we find] Way to tell that story visually.”

He recalls a picture they saw during research where Jesse is the only one wearing a green flight suit while everyone else is in beige. “That’s not to say there was any foul play,” which just seemed significant. “We don’t have an answer as to why.”

Sometimes, questions just lead to more questions. Todd Field, writer and director of “Tár” has created such a powerful fictional world that one of the most searched things about the movie on Google is if it is true. (It’s not.)

Field envisioned her lead character Lydia Tarr (Cate Blanchett) as a woman with the understanding that audiences would settle for different expectations. “We are looking at a particular direction [gender of] A person who holds power for a very, very long time. It wasn’t even a question… [and] We’re supposed to be about how we’re supposed to be,” Fields said.

Historically, none of the major German orchestras or the five major American orchestras have ever had a female principal conductor. “[Lydia] What he sees as a continuum of power and the drug addiction is patriarchal power, not matriarchal power,” Field said. “Tár” also examines whether power corrupts, regardless of who is at the helm, distinguishing those who often have it.

Big questions linger long after all these films are over. Does giving responsibility to a woman constitute matriarchal power? Is a female warrior inherently feminine? Is a gay Marine inherently masculine? More broadly, does the transfer of power become transformative?

It is essential for the medium to ask the audience to form their own conclusions, even as the medium hints and makes its own assumptions. Shakespeare declared in “Hamlet” that play thus holds up the mirror of nature. Such films require, and inspire, viewers to be brave enough to accept and take a long, hard look at the truths they reflect.

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