2016 has been a mediocre year for mainstream American film. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some excellent work. But the product as a whole has been mired in redundant sequels and superheroes, and the blandness of the output is cause for alarm.
But there is also cause for hope. This is all anecdotal for now, but it seems to me that there have been more promising movies from African American and female directors – many of them first-timers – than we have seen in quite a while. After the year concludes, we will get more concrete data to either confirm or reject this opinion. We will see the breakdowns. We will see what projects are in pre-production for 2017 and who is attached to them. We will see the award programs (showy and of overemphasised importance) and will look at how many underrepresented groups gain admittance to the upper reaches of American film studios (submerged and of enormous importance).
For now, I want to focus on one small slice of this underrepresented population that did get some strong attention in 2016. In three films, a diverse collection of filmmakers told stories about the mute black child.
Not literally mute. The lead characters in The Fits (Toni), Kicks (Brandon), and Moonlight (Chiron, AKA Little and Black) can all speak. But for various reasons, some of which remain unexplained, they often choose not to. They are quiet characters. None of the films posits that this self-induced muteness is inherent to modern black culture. Indeed, Toni, Brandon, and Chiron all have friends who are veritable chatterboxes. In part, this may be due to the cinematic imperative toward character and action. It is harder to craft drama when nobody is talking. Not impossible, as J.C. Chandor showed us a few years back, but harder nonetheless.
The heroes in these three movies are all outsiders. Toni, on the brink of puberty, would rather box with her brother and his friends than dance with the girls. The two boys, Brandon and Chiron, are physically small, a serious issue for adolescent boys. Chiron is also homosexual, which further isolates him and makes him the target of bullying.
Their response is fairly common. They mimic the behaviour of their older, more socially accepted acquaintances. Toni joins the dance squad, Brandon turns to violence to retrieve the beloved shoes that have been stolen from him. Chiron will also turn to the type of violence he has witnessed and experienced in one of the more stunning moments of the cinematic year – a scene highly reminiscent of the final frames of 2014’s The Tribe, another movie in which muteness is central to its entire world view.
But it would be unfair to homogenise these movies too much. One of the primary values of these films is that they show the diversity of marginalised characters. In other words, not all poor black kids are the same, and not all storytellers have the same things to say about them.
In The Fits, first-time director Anna Rose Holmer, is far more concerned with what it means to be a socially awkward girl on the verge of adolescence than what it means to be a black socially awkward girl in that same position. She has pointed out that the movie was never conceived of as being about black characters. And though the finished film is very much rooted in the specific black culture of its urban Cincinnati rec centre, where the Lioness dance team beckons the curious Toni, it could have easily been set in white suburbia. The Fits is about the mysteries of womanhood as experienced by these characters. Contrary to what I suggested a few moments ago, there is not even the suggestion of poverty. These girls come from the middle class (though there is a rather eerie allusion to the poor families of Flint Michigan at one key moment.)
But there’s no sense denying that Toni is black and that her self-imposed muteness is real. She is brought out of her shell by her constantly-speaking friend Beezy, and eventually Toni feels comfortable enough to express her personality, good and bad parts alike, through her words. But she remains a quiet character, preferring to let her physicality stand in for her voice more often than not.
Brandon, in Kicks, rarely opens his mouth to speak. When he does, we learn that he is articulate and smart. His diminutive size appears to have influenced him to keep quiet. Unlike the others, we actually do hear a lot of Brandon, but it is via voice-over, thoughts that only the audience can hear. Director Justin Tipping, another first-timer, may overplay this voice over. Brandon actually becomes somewhat less interesting than the other reticent heroes because he talks to us a little too much.
Brandon is given the opportunity to let his actions speak for him in the second half of Kicks, and it is there, away from the early voice over, that we see the potential tragedy of his muteness. Like Toni, Brandon expresses both positive and negative sentiments when he finally speaks. Based on a lifetime of fleeing bullies, he turns into a bully himself when alone with a more vulnerable child. He shows both bravery and selfishness to degrees which could easily get him and his friends badly hurt. Though the line may not be overt, Tipping definitely suggests that Brandon’s inability to speak early has direct impact on the dangerous decisions he makes later.
Chiron is also small and bullied, and his dawning homosexuality further isolates him. Like Toni, he is encouraged to open up his thoughts and feelings by a talkative friend, and the relationship that develops between Chiron and Kevin over the course of the film is among the most nuanced and fascinating relationships 2016 cinema has to offer.
Part of director Barry Jenkins’ strategy in Moonlight is to show the effects of muteness over time. Taking away someone’s voice is not a short term problem. In the second section of Moonlight, the teenaged Chiron reacts in a manner reminiscent of many powerless characters in film. It is violent and terrifying. But it is in the final section, when we meet the physically transformed Chiron, now known as Black, that Moonlight has its greatest impact, for it is here that we see what we rarely get a glimpse of in mainstream American film. Black is no longer the mute victim, but the scars remain. He is physically powerful, but still guards his words carefully. Most of all, he has been through violence and abuse, but at his core, he simply wants what everyone else … black or white, victim or bully, rich or poor … wants. He wants to be seen. He wants to be heard. He wants to be loved.
Perhaps if storytellers gave a little bit more voice to the voiceless, we would come to recognise that is not only the purview of kings and superheroes. It is just as true for those who have been silenced up ‘til now.