What does it mean to be an outsider? We have seen this question often in American culture, from books like Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man to Netflix series like “Stranger Things” and “The End of the F**king World.” In the past year, five films, all of which have received awards and nominations this season, have highlighted this theme even further.
Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is one of the most frightening depictions of racism today. A young African-American man is invited by his white girlfriend to spend a weekend with her family in a fashionable suburb. He asks her if her parents know that he is black, and she assures him that it won’t matter to them. She even mentions that her father has claimed that if Obama were to run for president again, he would definitely vote for him. When they arrive at the family home, he is greeted warmly. But when he looks around and sees the black housekeeper and the black gardener, something seems off. That night he finds out that the parents are anything but tolerant of black people. He soon realizes that he is trapped inside the house and may eventually undergo some very violent treatment at the hands of his girlfriend’s family.
Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is one of the most frightening depictions of racism today.
Stephen Frears’s “Victoria and Abdul” depicts the friendship between Queen Victoria and a young clerk, Abdul Karim. Abdul arrives from India to deliver a medal to Her Majesty, who has been declared “The Empress of India.” She takes a liking to him and asks him to stay in England and become her close companion. She has never really recovered from the death of Prince Albert and the subsequent death of her servant, John Brown, with whom it was rumored she had a 20-year affair. Abdul stays on and eventually teaches her the Urdu language of his people and the Quran. Her household and inner circle, especially her son Bertie, are opposed to this unusual arrangement, which Bertie believes goes against their religious beliefs and the class system. Often unable to hide their racist attitudes, they remind Abdul that he is an outsider.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright, tells the story of Winston Churchill at the beginning of his days as Prime Minister at the onset of World War II. It may come as a surprise to viewers that Churchill, although appointed by King George VI, was considered at the time an outsider by the former Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and by Viscount Halifax, a man of great influence in Parliament. They oppose him because he, unlike Chamberlain, does not want to negotiate with Hitler and wants to go to war with him. It is an uphill battle to persuade the country’s leaders to go to war.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright, tells the story of Winston Churchill at the beginning of his days as Prime Minister at the onset of World War II.
Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” recreates the decision by Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, to publish the Pentagon Papers. Under her helm, the Post published the documents, which revealed that four presidents had lied to the U.S. public about the nature of the government’s involvement in Vietnam. Two scenes in particular depict her outsider status. When she meets with the paper’s bankers, she enters a room filled with older white men; and when she arrives at the New York Stock Exchange to find out whether The Washington Post can go public, she encounters an even larger contingent of white men waiting to meet with her, the only woman in the room. While the main conflict in the film is about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, there is a subplot about her struggle to be accepted as a real power in the national press. The fact that Spielberg made this film in less than a year suggests that, after the 2016 election, he wanted to depict a time when the First Amendment defended the right of a newspaper to defy an order from the White House to stop a release of damaging information.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” Elisa, a cleaning woman who works at night at a secret research facility in the early ’60s, becomes attracted to an amphibious creature brought from Latin America who the scientists say is worshipped by Amazon natives. They plan to use him as a possible agent in their upcoming experiments in space travel. The women is mute and can only speak in sign language, which results in her being quite isolated at work as well as in her living situation. She empathizes with the creature, who needs to live in water to survive and speaks no discernable language. She teaches him sign language, and they develop a very close relationship that turns into a romance. The story becomes quite suspenseful as these two outsiders fight for their survival.
Other films have elements of the outsider motif as well. Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” centers on a teenager who feels marginalized in her hometown of Sacramento and distant from her mother. Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” portrays a woman whose daughter has been brutally murdered. She feels that the sheriff and his staff are not adequately searching for the murderer. And Tonya Harding, the stunning figure skater heroine in Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” feels that she is treated as a “redneck” because her family is poor and lower-class.
These movies are appearing at a time when our country’s leadership is treating many groups as outsiders who do not belong in the United States: Muslims, immigrants, racial minorities, the L.G.B.T. community and the residents of Puerto Rico. Movies that highlight what it means to be an outsider in 2018 focus attention on the injustices of our own. One can only hope that the filmmakers’ voices can be heard and lead to right action.