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January is an interesting time for movies. Amid a wasteland of new releases, the Oscar nominations celebrate the previous year’s so-called prestige cinema. Meanwhile, recurring statistics prove a horde of mostly white men ruled the box office, again. Then the Sundance Film Festival ushers in the upcoming year’s indie crop, much of which hopes to be part of the Oscar ballot that will greet us one January later. There’s a lot going on! Which makes it a great time for reflection, particularly when it comes to matters of inclusiveness, both in front of and behind the camera.
As these things go, progress is often one step forward, two steps back. I sat down to praise the refreshingly diverse crop of Oscar nominees and the wealth of female-fronted Sundance movies, then a U.S.C.-Annenberg study said the past decade’s highest-grossing movies boast about 24 male directors for every one female, and only 5.6 percent of those men were black. It seems like some survey with equally damning statistics makes headlines every few days. Adding insult to the week’s injury, it was announced that aggressor Mel Gibson will soon headline a movie about police brutality, because that seems wise. The world of Hollywood spins madly on.
Let’s slip our optimism hats on for a second. Based on what the Oscar nominations and Sundance slate portend, there’s good reason to feel encouraged about Hollywood’s future, even if there’s still ample work to be done.
1. The number of female-directed Sundance films increased.
As the Sundance Institute reported, women comprised an average 25 percent of American directors featured among the past 13 years’ lineups. This year? The number climbed to 34 percent, according to IndieWire. A different woman directed each of the four parts in the horror anthology “XX,” while Gillian Robespierre returned with her “Obvious Child” follow-up. “Pariah” auteur Dee Rees broke out with her Oscar-worthy WWII race drama “Mudbound,” and Netflix bought “UnREAL” creator Marti Noxon’s anorexia dramedy “To the Bone” for an impressive $8 million. Eliza Hittman (the gay coming-of-age drama “Beach Rats”) was the first woman to win the grand jury prize for directing since Debra Gelnick (”Winter’s Bone”) in 2010. Pascale Lamche (Winnie Mandela doc “Winnie”) and Maggie Betts (1960s-set nun drama “Novitiate”) also outpaced their male counterparts to score some of the festival’s top awards.
2. Anecdotally speaking, most of the buzziest movies revolved around women.
The hands-down breakout stars of the festival play two young rappers: Chanté Adams portrays real-life New York MC Roxanne Shanté in “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and Danielle Macdonald had Sundance audiences cheering her on as a teenage New Jersey hip-hop hopeful in “Patti Cake$.” Elsewhere, “Daily Show” correspondent and dope podcast queen Jessica Williams flaunted her first starring vehicle with the progressive rom-com “The Incredible Jessica James,” while “Band Aid” provided a great showcase for “Life in Pieces” star Zoe Lister-Jones, prizewinner “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” featured an ass-kicking Melanie Lynskey, and “Thoroughbred” united Sundance veterans Anya Taylor-Joy (”The Witch”) and Olivia Cooke (”Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) for a thrilling dark comedy about murderous suburban teens. But it wasn’t just a playground for the young: Recognizable character actress Lois Smith and the under-seen Geena Davis teamed up for the sci-fi probe “Marjorie Prime,” and Mary J. Blige proved her serious acting chops playing a poor homemaker in “Mudbound.”
3. On the sixth day of Sundance, we learned the Oscar nominations are, relatively speaking, so diverse.
Much has been said about the refreshing breadth of this year’s Oscar roster, even though there is still plenty work to be done in achieving parity in Hollywood (especially in non-acting realms). For the first time in history, all four acting categories feature at least one nominee of color. Assuming Emma Stone (”La La Land”) has Best Actress locked up, there’s a good chance the other three prizes will go to black performers. Denzel Washington (”Fences”) could topple Casey Affleck (”Manchester by the Sea”), who is reeling from the renewed attention paid to a 2010 sexual harassment settlement. And the supporting fields look like near guarantees for Mahershala Ali (”Moonlight”) and Viola Davis (”Fences”), both of whom will presumably challenge President Trump’s discriminatory policymaking in their speeches. To top if off, “Hidden Figures” could very well win Best Picture. Of course, Asian, Latinx and Native American representation is still sorely lacking ― Dev Patel (”Lion”) is the only nominee of color who isn’t black.
4. If Sundance is any indication, next year’s Oscars will be diverse too.
Here’s an unexpected rub: The festival’s likeliest Oscar contender, “Mudbound,” sold to Netflix, which has yet to mount a successful campaign for a non-documentary. The traditionalist Academy still prefers old-school theatrical distribution models, or at least that was the case when “Beasts of No Nation” came up empty-handed in 2016. Will the tide turn? With “Mudbound,” perhaps. It’s a sweeping, audacious wartime drama that could christen Dee Rees the first black woman Best Director nominee. Meanwhile, Rees or Luca Guadagnino could be the first openly gay person to garner Best Director since John Schlesinger (”Midnight Cowboy”) in 1970, assuming Guadagnino’s lush summertime romance “Call Me By Your Name” finds awards favor. One of the festival’s standout performances was Lakeith Stanfield, who rises above the uneven “Crown Heights” to play a Brooklyn teenager wrongly convicted of murder in 1980. And Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-American star of “Silicon Valley” and “Portlandia,” should eye a Best Original Screenplay bid for the semi-autobiographical romantic dramedy “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with wife Emily V. Gordon.
Follow Matthew Jacobs on Twitter: @tarantallegra