The new millennium began with dire prognostication, incessant paranoid rants about an apocalyptic technological crash and collapse of global markets. We were stockpiling canned food and water in our cellars, and few of us were partying like it was 1999.
There were no green lights in the film industry foretelling this momentary fear that gripped the collective consciousness. What did it matter anyway? There would be no movies documenting this hoax we played on ourselves, but there were other fears to come.
After the virtual dust settled, Hollywood enjoyed a new year that seemed to speak to a renaissance in the industry, led by indie golden boy Steven Soderbergh. The Best Picture class of 2000 featured not one but two entries (Erin Brockovich, Traffic) from the all-American wunderkind who looked ready to fulfill a decades-old dream of creating a director’s collective with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and David O. Russell.
Yet with that dream deferred, a pair of footnotes remained.
Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable stands as a unique sign of the approaching times. The underperformer, at least when paired next to his The Sixth Sense juggernaut, offered a superhero origin with allusions to an American society unable to honestly look at its own reflection or see the road ahead. It’s the slow, creeping discovery of a powerful secret one man conceals even from himself and the sinister steps taken by another in order to force action.
For all its innocence and skilled mythmaking, Unbreakable is about a nation precariously teetering on the edge of grace. An argument could be made against green-lighting the next two installments of Shyamalan’s intended trilogy: Who wants to see the nation broken and its likely futile attempts to rebuild?
Let us not forget that 2000 announced the arrival of another Coppola voice, one with the promise of shining bright in the family constellation. With the skillful adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, Godfather III scapegoat Sofia Coppola fearlessly emerged like an embryonic phoenix on the verge of a seismic rise with greater heights to scale.
Then came the height of fear. But before 9/11, the industry scrambled to save itself from the internal strife of a crippling labor dispute. During the summer of 2001, studio executives were stockpiling scripts in anticipation of a writers’ strike that could quiet the cash registers at the multiplexes.
But there would, indeed, be no words for what was to come on Sept. 11. The terror attacks hit home. How would film capture this scene?
As is the case for movies, the response is necessarily delayed due to the time needed to secure green lights and get productions rolling, edited, marketed, etc. In the meantime, audiences were left to read into the post-dated film slate.
The Academy praised A Beautiful Mind above all others, but my Top 10 list that year — my first as a paid critic — featured a film that I’ve begrudgingly grown to admire more as my disdain has increased. The much-anticipated Steven Spielberg presentation of what was originally a Stanley Kubrick project, A.I. , sparked an ongoing personal debate for me regarding Spielberg’s decidedly uncomfortable stance on race relations.
While critics addressed his child-like return to form in retelling the Pinocchio story, the bitter taste of historical race-based stereotyping left me cold. That artificially perfect blonde creations are substituted for black folks doesn’t make lines like “once you’ve had mecha, you won’t go back” go down any easier. Fear of a black planet, indeed.
How could this have happened during that celebrated year when Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) made history by overcoming Hollywood’s fear of our success and claiming the top performance awards? Maybe because all the love talked about that night was little more than narcissism and an industry and a country trying to pat themselves on the back.
But let’s get back to that other looming fear.
We still weren’t ready to confront terror face-to-face, so we tried to flank it with an end-around play in 2002. Two of New York’s finest, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, brought audiences as close as we could stand at that point to the true heart of New York and, by extension, the country. Gangs of New York gave us the epic struggles to build the city’s enduring foundation, while The 25th Hour captured rage and confusion in the aftermath of the attacks. Both films survive as imperfect testaments to our still open wounds.
Yet again I’m drawn to another instance of Spielberg’s not-so-subtle failure to recast the country’s dilemma with race in Minority Report. The kinetic pace, along with the suitably determined and bankable face of Tom “Terrific” Cruise, attempts to drive fast and furiously past compelling questions of race that could have elevated the discussion while serving as an entertaining vehicle.
At least acknowledge that, even though your film takes place in the future, it’s set in Chocolate City. Where are the teeming masses of black folks that give the city its nickname? Forget the fears of dips in the box office for a moment, please, and do the right thing.
By 2003, love began to override the fear. Jim Sheridan found redemption and hope In America, and Sofia Coppola fully joined the family business without getting Lost in Translation. As a country and a people so used to looking outside of ourselves, ready to fix situations or set the moral standard, these films dared to expose our humanity. We still aren’t ready to focus the lens on our terror, but we are peeking at our reflections in the frame.
Last year, Hollywood made a slight return to loving with a second significant shower of accolades on African-American performers at the Academy Awards. Are we a more unified people now in this new millennium? Has fear moved us to embrace one another more openly?
The greatest fear in the film industry is the same as it ever was. All of the social commentary and moral debate boils down to bottom line considerations. Does high art pay high dividends?
I fear not, but we’re only halfway into the first decade of this brave new millennium. And change is bound to come. Someday. (tt clinkscales)