Roma and class, race and gender in film

I used to see a lot more movies than I do these days and often felt that the best pictures were overlooked but this year, what seems like the hands-down favorite to win the Academy Award, Roma, could not be more deserving.

What made Roma stand out is not just its artistry but the messages about class, race, and gender. Alfonso Cuarón – who was the writer, director, DP, editor…probably even his own PA – grew up privileged in Mexico City. The story is based on a woman who worked for his family. It would have been so easy for him to gloss over or exploit the myriad of ways that classicism, sexism, and racism pervaded his home life but instead, he shows how the young indigenous housekeeper, Cleodegaria (Yalitza Aparicio), experiences constant degradation and profound loss – and keeps on going.

This is not a story about heroism; it’s a social commentary, a damning one that is deftly acted, written, directed and shot. The art direction is impeccable.  It’s easy to get caught up in the details, such as the way Cleo’s employers attempt to park their oversized 1970’s automobile in a garage that is the size of a sardine can. Every scene in this film has a purpose and overtly or subtly depicts how power imbalances manifest in seemingly small acts. Sometimes Cleo is treated as a member of the family, especially by the kids, but the dynamic is omnipresent even if she is seemingly treated well.

It also says something about alienation. Cleo is an outsider, a poor indigenous woman from a rural part of Mexico, who came to the capital for economic opportunity, and in the little she says, we can sense her disconnection. But so is Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her employer, who seems even more empty. They are both discarded by men and in a sense that bonds them but they’ll never really see one another as equals and that is an underlying tragedy of this story.

However, Cuarón’s not asking us to pity them for being female in a chauvinistic society, instead empowering their characters by imbuing strength and sanity, without turning them into cold, rigid…yup, bitches. We’ve all seen that film before and that in itself shouldn’t be seen a triumph. Even with the class divide, Cleo and Sofia can relate to one another as woman to woman, who understand that in spite of their gender’s lesser status, they are at heart badasses who will be fine, man or no man, in their lives.

Then there is Crazy Rich Asians. One of the most “popular” movies of 2018. It does the opposite of Roma: glorifies the uber rich, portrays women as bitter backstabbers in their efforts to capture men’s attention and for all its talk about having an entirely Asian cast, Prince Charming himself is half Caucasian. I actually sat through it twice because it made a rich topic for a pop culture critique I wrote for a class last semester. Years ago, I remember watching Roger Ebert discuss his dislike for Blue Velvet. Gene Siskel suggested that he see it again and examine his intense negative reaction. Since I wasn’t a big fan of Blue Velveteither, I heeded Siskel’s advice and realized that my disgust was part of David Lynch’s brilliant intent. That is not the case with Crazy Rich Asians…it was just as shallow and offensive during the second go round. 

I had a conversation with a young woman a few months ago, and she told me it didn’t matter what I thought because the movie wasn’t made for me but for heteronormative women in their 20’s, Asian or not, which I felt was a damning indictment of large swaths of our country. I know quite a few people who fit into this target audience and I’m happy to say that they are not vacuous and superficial, nor did those who even bothered to see it think much of the movie, so I don’t buy this argument. 

It’s not that the film is without merits; Awkwafina shines in the role of the wealthy but not crazy rich college roommate who, like many of the films viewers, knows that these people are ridiculous but is still willing to play along. It’s entirely possible that there is something here I’m not getting because I’m not Singaporean Chinese but if I watched a similar movie called Crazy Rich Lesbians I’d be really offended by the representation and characterization. That is one of the reasons why I thought the L Word was awful. Enough of that…see Roma

I’m still on the fence about Blackkklansman. I walked out of the theater thinking, “Wow, that was great,” but then I started reading up on the story and character that inspired the film and discovered it is a fantastical version of the actual events, with made up main characters and bogus storylines. This critique by Boots Rileyis pretty spot on yet if you can dispense with reality and just enjoy the acting and compelling albeit mostly fictional story, it’s very good. But not as good as another movie that came out about cops and race, Monsters and Men, which has pretty much flown under the radar. 

I went to see Monsters and Men with my father at the Angelica in New York last September. Unbeknownst to us, the writer and director, Reinoldo Marcus Green was on-hand for an interview and Q&A afterward and hearing him discuss why he made the movie and the issues it covers flushed it out. His story is about fictional characters but is based on the realities of racial profiling and police brutality. It shares the same star as Blackkklansman, John David Washington, who inherited his dad’s talent. Instead of pushing a one sided indictment against the police, it offers a more nuanced view, showing the complexity of characters who are just trying to live their lives and fulfill their dreams even though they have to deal with institutional and cultural racism daily. That’s not to say this is a pro-cop film…at all…Just see it. 

I’m a little surprised If Beale Street Could Talk isn’t garnering more attention. I saw it while I was reading The New Jim Crow, so the blatant racism and fuckedupness of the criminal justice system was front and center in my mind. Yes, this is a disturbing flick but it’s also incredibly beautiful, the entire cast is authentic and raw, of what I’ve read, hardly strays from James Baldwin’s story.

Getting back to Roma, I can’t help but wonder if the members of the Academy, many who are quite wealthy and no doubt have dynamics under their own roofs with domestic workers that mimic Cleo’s experience, will actually get it. Or maybe voting for Romawill in some way make them feel less complicit or absolved of their guilt. 

Really, it doesn’t matter which movie wins, not in the long run. Crash won in 2005 but Brokeback Mountain is more deeply etched in our minds. Rocky took home the Oscar in 1976 but will it have a longer shelf life than All the President’s Men or Network? What’s significant that many of these movies prompt us to ask questions about class, race and gender…but no one did it as well as Alfonso Cuarón and that is why Romashould win.