The movie industry doesn’t move quickly. Films take time to finance, time to get made, and time to be marketed. They’re not fleet enough on their feet to be responsive to of-the-moment events, which is why, in the midst of a shitshow as all-consuming and gut-wrenching as our current presidential election, the gap between what’s happening in the world and what’s playing in your local multiplex can feel Grand Canyon–sized.
But that doesn’t mean that a movie can’t or won’t be positioned as relevant, especially when stressing a title’s social or political importance can give it a boost at the box office and during awards season. A movie’s perceived meaningfulness — in terms of the weighty themes it tackles, or what it means for representation, or which parts of history it brings to screen — can be helpful for marketing, for making buying a ticket seem like supporting a cause, whether the picture actually deserves a sheen of substantiality or not.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and as we arrive toward the end of a year in which the country tore itself to bits, one of the ironies of the upcoming Oscar race is that the movie that currently has the best shot at winning Best Picture is Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s resolutely innocuous musical La La Land. It’s a lovely and winsome love story between two showbiz strivers, and it reflects the turbulence of 2016 only in providing an escape from it. Most of the rest of this season’s spread of serious cinema is at least lightly aligned with a cause.
Here’s a look at how the fall’s important (or sometimes just self-important) movies address the issues we can’t escape.
2. Hidden Figures
Based on a true story? Sure is — that of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and scientists who worked for NASA during the space race.
Themes it’s touting: Racism and sexism. Like the title suggests, Hidden Figures is about people who have effectively been rendered invisible by most tellings of this moment in history. It’s about the black women who helped launch astronauts into orbit, even though it meant working in a part of the country that required them to be segregated in their own department and to sit in the back of the bus, and even as they were underestimated because of their gender. It will arrive in theaters months after a presidential candidate told a black community they were living futureless lives and asked “what the hell [they] have to lose,” not to mention his degrading women in “locker room” talk. Hidden Figures is one big intersectional retort, delivered while wearing some sweet period outfits.
Telling marketing moment: The trailer stresses the many indignities these women had to deal with, as well as their resilience and their senses of humor. But it’s the promotional panel Fox arranged at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to promote the presumably still-being-finished movie that speaks most pertinently to the value of its putting empowering representation on screen. After seeing clips from the film for the first time alongside the audience, Henson cried, saying, “It’s so important, right? I’m a girl from the hood, OK? I didn’t grow up with much. So all I had was dreams and hope. If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist. Not to say that I have a bad journey, but what I’m saying is that nowadays, this is all kids of color feel like they have: sports, rap, acting. And there’s so much more important work to be done.”
3. Hell or High Water
Based on a true story? Nope — it features an original screenplay written by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan.
Themes it’s touting: White poverty and the predatory financial institutions hovering over it. Hell or High Water is about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who embark on a bank robbing spree to get enough money to pay back a reverse mortgage their mother, who recently died, took out on the family farm to pay for her medical bills. It’s one of the only bigger films this year to brush up against some of the white working-class issues media outlets have been so focused on in an attempt to explain the rise of Trump, its characters desperate to just hold on to what they have in a West Texas filled with dead businesses and debt relief ads. Conveniently, the brothers in Hell or High Water channel their rage toward the finance industry rather than redirect it at immigrants, which softens the movie significantly, but also makes it go down easier as a thriller.
Telling marketing moment: While a lot of Hell or High Water’s marketing stresses that it’s a heist movie, and a righteous one at that (“Justice isn’t a crime,” the tagline insists), there’s been some tentative surfacing of its larger relevance. The third trailer, in particular, starts with Mexican–Native American Texas Ranger Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) talking about how “all this was my ancestors’ land, ‘til these folks took it.” Now the banks, he adds, are taking it from them, with Pine’s character describing poverty as a disease passed along through generations, one he’s willing to go to jail to save his children from.
4. The Birth of a Nation
Based on a true story? Yes, on the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
Themes it’s touting: The horrors of slavery and a moment of violent revolt against them. Nate Parker’s passion project has, at this point, petered out — any momentum it may have had as an Oscar prospect, box office hit, or cultural phenom ended when revelations about an alleged sexual assault in Parker’s past, the victim of which killed herself, re-emerged (not to mention a series of wincingly awful interviews Parker gave on the topic). But before then, The Birth of a Nation was being saluted after its rapturous reception at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as potentially the year’s most urgent movie, portraying black characters rising up against white oppressors in swooping Hollywood style — as Parker himself put it, a “black Braveheart.”
Telling marketing moment: Fox Searchlight has walked a wobbly line between tying the film to larger activism in and on behalf of the black community, and self-promotion. The studio held voter registration drives at certain theaters during screenings of the movie, but also used screengrabs from the debate to lightheartedly push the opening date. While the movie creates a continuum between the behavior of slave patrols stopping black people on the road to harass them and present-day police violence, a TV spot more callously spliced footage from the movie with photos from Black Lives Matter protests — depending on where you stand, either calling attention to or attempting to co-opt the movement.
5. Miss Sloane
Based on a true story? No, it features an original screenplay from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera.
Themes it’s touting: Gun control…sort of. What’s fascinating about Miss Sloane is that it’s a drama about a lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) working to push through gun control legislation. But the film, which hasn’t yet had its world premiere, appeals to angle itself, House of Cards–style, to be about the game rather than the cause. It’s a film centered on a hot-button political issue — a key one for Hillary Clinton — but it leans away from any whiff of being political itself.
Telling marketing moment: The first trailer presented Chastain as a bloodless, ruthless force intoning in voiceover, “I was hired to win — I use whatever resource I have.” But it’s the poster, with the actor looming large over a black and white Capitol building, that hammers in that the film is about politics in general, not anything specific.
6. Patriots Day
Based a true story? Yes, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as adapted from the book Boston Strong.
Themes it’s touting: America under attack, Blue Lives Mattering. Patriots Day is about a real and still raw tragedy, which provides its own emotional heft while speaking to welling anti-Muslim fears about terrorists among us. It’s also the second film this year from star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, the team behind Deepwater Horizon, another dramatization of a real-life disaster.
Telling marketing moment: The trailer for Patriots Day opens with no fewer than four shots of American flags in the Boston area, and it’s set to a mournful rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It is, in other words, well in line with the poster, in which shoelaces form a tattered-looking American flag. While the movie will reportedly also encompass the manhunt that follows the bombing, what’s stressed in its early marketing is the trauma of the country being under attack. Also, the quiet heroics of the police, in everything from the wholesome home life of Wahlberg’s character, to the glimpse of a grieving J.K. Simmons getting a hug, to the shot of a Boston Police patch between title cards about how “some moments define our spirit.”
Based on a true story? Yes — of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a couple whose marriage was considered illegal under Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. Loving v. Virginia, their landmark civil rights case, invalidated laws against interracial matrimony.
Themes it’s touting: Racism and becoming an activist. The story of the Lovings isn’t just significant for the legal decision that followed and caused a national change. It’s also a way for the film to explore the rhetoric that was used to defend legislation so explicitly racist, and to contrast it with the warm domesticity of the home that Richard and Mildred ultimately create together. The path the couple takes — going from regular folks trying to live quiet lives to the confident faces of a landmark civil rights battle — forms the backbone of the movie.
Telling marketing moment: Loving is a movie made of small moments, allowing its actors (particularly Negga, who’s luminous) to tell the story of defiance, a long legal fight, and triumph through their expressions more than through words. Given the nostalgia throughout the election for an era when America was, presumably, still “great,” the film presents a potent reminder of the racist reality of just a few decades ago. In light of that, the film’s #VoteLoving campaign, which tried to tie a get-out-and-vote theme to Loving without actually doing more than push a hashtag, is unfortunately wan in comparison.
8. Hacksaw Ridge
Based on a true story? Yes, that of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector and Seventh-day Adventist who enlisted as an army medic in World War II and received the Medal of Honor for saving over 75 lives in the Battle of Okinawa.
Themes it’s touting: Maintaining religious convictions in the face of institutions that would have you compromise them. This movie is Mel Gibson’s latest — and it’s his bid toward resuming Hollywood legitimacy after multiple booze-fueled incidents of homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and domestic violence. It depicts combat as brutally violent and also terribly exciting, so describing it as an anti-war movie doesn’t feel entirely accurate. It’s more about sticking to what your faith insists is right, which comes across as heartfelt and teary when espoused by an adorable Garfield risking death in the heat of a firefight, although less so when you think about how it’s also the argument used by bakers refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding.
Telling marketing moment: Garfield is shown on the poster in one of several Christlike poses his character strikes throughout the movie, carrying a fallen comrade over his shoulders like a cross.
Based on a true story? No, it’s adapted from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Themes it’s touting: Black manhood, as shaped by poverty, homophobia, and failing institutions. Moonlight is a devastating film about a boy growing up poor, black, and gay in Miami. It’s poetic, and not driven by story, the sort of fare that tends to be too delicate for the Oscars, at least without a hook like having been filmed with the same cast over 12 years. Then again, the success of Boyhood is its own argument for Moonlight’s awardsiness. It’s a stunningly directed coming-of-age story that gleams with cinematic achievement but that doesn’t presume its own universality. It’s a testament to how film benefits from varied voices.
Telling marketing moment: Moonlight’s timing has, in some ways, been its best (unscripted) marketing trick. It arrives at a moment when audience hunger for black artistry from black filmmakers is being felt even in an industry stubbornly resistant to change, and it speaks to that desire, eloquently.
10. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Based on a true story? No, this is an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel of the same name, about a 19-year-old Iraq War vet (Joe Alwyn) brought home to participate in a halftime show after an incident during combat makes news and leads to him and his fellow soldiers being hailed as heroes.
Themes it’s touting: Supporting the troops (without going so far as to outright condemn war). Billy Lynn struggles with PTSD and longs to come home. At the same time, he feels a surreal disconnect from everything around him and is conflicted about abandoning the squadron he feels deep loyalty toward as the only people who understand him and what he’s experienced. It’s a sensation director Ang Lee tries to heighten with an unprecedentedly high frame rate and resolution, as well as 3D, bringing techniques associated with spectacle-heavy franchise movies to a drama.
Telling marketing moment: The interviews Lee has done have all focused on the technical breakthroughs of the film’s production, its look and feel rather than its content, the satirical edge of which has been blunted from the book. “It’s just good to look at,” Lee told the New York Times of his visuals. What the movie’s trying to say remains an open question.
Based on a true story? Yes, that of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who landed a plane in the Hudson River in 2009 after a collision with a flock of geese threatened to crash it.
Themes it’s touting: Government dragging someone down. The “Miracle on the Hudson” may have been a great news story, but as the stuff of a feature-length film, it seemed a little thin. Sully the movie — which screenwriter Todd Komarnicki adapted from Sullenberger’s own book, Highest Duty — amped up the drama by turning the National Transportation Safety Board analysis of the incident into a witch hunt in which Sully almost ended up getting punished for his feat of flying. Real-life investigators protested the representation as inaccurate, but the choice allowed for a narrative in which oppressive regulatory bureaucrats try to crush a humble hero for taking action.
Telling marketing moment: In the IMAX trailer for the movie, director Clint Eastwood says of the movie and Sullenberger, “Until I read the script, I didn’t know the investigative board was trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing. They were kind of railroading him into ‘it was his fault,’ and that wasn’t the case at all.”
Based on a true story? No, it’s an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1983 play. Denzel Washington, who directs the movie, also stars alongside Viola Davis, both in the roles for which they won Tonys in the Broadway revival in 2010.
Themes it’s touting: Black manhood over different generations, as shaped by slavery, segregation, and racism. When the rights to his play were first picked up by Paramount in 1987, Wilson insisted that any adaptation of his tour de force needed a black director, to the studio’s uncomprehending dismay. “Therein lies the crux of the matter as it relates to Paramount and the film Fences,” Wilson wrote in Spin in 1990, “whether we as blacks are going to have control over our own culture and its products.” As Hollywood continues to take a hard look at itself and who gets to tell stories within it, the fact that it took almost three decades for the adaptation to actually get made proves that its very existence is significant.
Telling marketing moment: Fences doesn’t need to make a case for its own prestige. The first poster says plenty with only a black and white image of Davis and Washington and their names above the title. It is, among other things, a solid proposal in the face of #OscarsSoWhite.