Category: Films about racism

Empire of Light (2022)

Empire of Light (2022)

Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)

In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.

Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.

Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.

Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.

Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.

Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.

Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters.  Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.

It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.

Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.

The Woman King (2022)

The Woman King (2022)

Punchy historical action epic is very entertaining (if not hugely original narratively) as well as being a triumph of representation

Director: Gina Prince-Bythe

Cast: Viola Davis (General Nanisca), Thuso Mbedu (Nawi), Lashana Lynch (Izogie), Sheila Atim (Amenza), John Boyega (King Ghezo), Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Santo Ferreira), Adrienne Warren (Ode), Jayme Lawson (Shante), Masali Baduza (Fumbe), Angélique Kidjo (The Meunon), Jimmy Odukoya General Oba Ade), Thando Dlomo (Kelu), Jordan Bolger (Malik)

It’s 1823 in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. The kingdom is trapped in the middle of a host of competing interests: most notably the rival Oyo empire and the European slavers controlling the region’s main port. Dahomey depends for its security on the Agojie, an elite group of women warriors commanded by their respected general Nanisca (Viola Davis). War brews between Dahomey and Oyo, and Nanisca is pushing King Ghezo (John Boyega) to end Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade. At the same time, a new Agojie recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) brings memories of past traumas flooding back to Nanisca – might she and Nawi have some lost bond?

The Woman King is a pulsating action film, a mixture of Braveheart and Black Panther (it even has a cold open, as the Agojie storm an Oyo village to save captured Dahomey citizens bound for the slave ships, that feels like a straight lift from the latter film’s opening). Proudly celebrating both women and black people (men are very much in secondary roles, while the only white character is a hypocritical slaver played with relish by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), it’s a punch in the solar plexus for what’s been a male-dominated genre.

Watching it I suddenly realised, half-way through, that if the film had been made 10 or 15 years ago, the plucky new recruit having to prove she belonged among the Agojie would have been played by a white actress. There would have been a flashback to the child being found by the Agojie and then a montage of her searching from fear to longing to emulate the women around her. Like Cruise in The Last Samurai, she would have become the best-of-the-best, accepted by her new black sisterhood. It’s a triumph that Hollywood no longer needs stories like this filtered through white eyes before they would even consider bringing them to the screen.

Instead, the focus is strongly on a story that wants to celebrate the rich culture and history of African kingdoms. Dahomey’s civilisation, advanced farming and irrigation, egalitarian culture and humane religious and spiritual practices, are shown in loving detail. Their tenuous position as a small kingdom surrounded by rivals is carefully presented, just as the corrupting nature of European powers is made clear. It is they who have turned slavery – an ever-present in African history – into an industry that dominates the African economy and has led to a subtle devaluation of human lives that many Africans openly collaborate in.

In this, Prince-Bythe’s tightly directed film juggles a coming-of-age story for Nawi with a coming-to-terms story for Nanisca. It’s a film that manages to present both in the context of a series of action set-pieces and exciting training montages (the Agojie effectively have to complete a massive obstacle course to qualify as a member of the sisterhood). To be honest, much in the film isn’t really that original, more a remix of set-pieces and ideas from similar films. What makes it stand out is the representation and the context where it is taking place.

It also allows impressive actors to take on roles way outside of public expectations. None more so than Viola Davis, whose pumped up physique shatters any perceptions of what you might expect. This is a tour-de-force role from Davis, as she plays a defiant and strong woman, secretly terrified of trauma in her own past (and worries about her own weakness) who leads by charismatic example, but is just as capable of unjust slap-downs. She’s a woman struggling to embrace all facets of herself, doing so in the spotlight of a whole country looking to her for leadership. It makes for a powerful performance from Davis, perfectly fusing her skill at playing matronly warmth, imperious distance and deep reserves of determination and courage.

There are similarly excellent performances from a uniformly strong cast, with Lashana Lynch a stand-out as a courageous fighter who surprises herself with her mentorship abilities. Thuso Mbedu gives a star-making turn as Nawi, a young woman who matches Nanisca for bull-headedness and suppressed self-doubt, who reveals herself as a natural leader. Shelia Atim is excellent as Nanisca’s level-headed trusted number two, while John Boyega walks perfectly a fine-line of a man teetering between being a wise leader and a playboy.

They are helped by a film that may lack originality in its plotting and structure, but makes up for that with its warmth for its characters, and the gritty, involving realism of its shooting. Prince-Bythe keeps the pace of the film running smoothly and stages each of the film’s many set-pieces with a dynamism that keep you on the edge of your seat. She also successfully manages to incorporate some searching material around Nanisca’s past traumas without being exploitative.

Historically, the film is a little dubious, walking a carefully curated line on Dahomey’s involvement in slavery (in many ways it might have been better if the film was set in a fictional kingdom inspired by Dahomey). It doesn’t dwell on the Agojie chaining up their captives to be shipped to the slavery markets. It pushes an anti-slavery message strongly – but ignores the historical fact that the real Ghezo continued in the trade until the bitter end. (Legitimate points could have been made about his right to the same compensation as plantation owners elsewhere.) There is a complex, difficult story here that the film romanticises into something with cleaner rights and wrongs.

But, with a history of poor representation and white-only-lens view on African culture in film, you can forgive a film aiming to redress that balance. Strongly directed, exciting and crowd-pleasing, with well-drawn characters played with real skill by a very strong cast, it might recycle many ideas from other films, but it does it with a compelling freshness.

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Little Tramp takes down Hitler in this iconic satire on the dangers of over-mighty strong-men

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin (Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Benzino Napolini), Reginald Gardiner (Schultz), Henry Daniell (Garbitsch), Billy Gilbert (Herring), Maurice Moscovich (Mr Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (Mrs Jaeckel), Grace Hyle (Madame Napolini), Carter de Harven (Bacterian ambassador), Bernard Gracey (Mr Mann)

They were born four days apart and had the two most famous moustaches of the 20th century. There the similarities end. One became the world’s most beloved comic, the other its most reviled bogeyman. Chaplin and Hitler were bound together in people’s minds for a decade before Chaplin turned his revulsion at Hitler into satire: The Great Dictator sees him play both a version of his Little Tramp (here reimagined as a Jewish barber) and a version of the Fuhrer (as a temper-tantrum-throwing, hatred-spewing, lunatic). But it also sees Chaplin effectively playing himself, capping the film with a famous humanitarian appeal to the audience for a little peace and understanding.

The Great Dictator is, just about, a comedy. A Jewish barber (Chaplin) serving in the front lines for Tomania during World War One, saves the life of officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) but loses his memory. In a veterans’ hospital for 20 years, he emerges into a radically different Tomania, now an anti-Semitic, fascist dictatorship ruled by the barber’s doppelganger Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again). Hynkel rants and raves about racial purity and Tomanian expansion and his stormtroopers march through the Jewish ghetto. The barber is saved from death, first by Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and then by Schultz, now a senior leader in the new Tomania. But, as Hynkel eyes up an invasion of neighbouring Osterlich, what role can the barber play in stopping his plans?

Chaplin said later, if he had known the horrors Hitler’s regime would perpetrate, he would never have made the film. That would have robbed us of one of the sharpest, most astute satires of power-hungry radicalism ever made. But Chaplin made his stinging assault on Hitler – painting him as both ludicrous and insanely dangerous – at a time when Hollywood was still nervously appeasing Germany to keep access to its film market, before the true horrors were known.

Chaplin’s film is chilling enough with what it does know. Its depiction of bullying stormtroopers is deeply unsettling, for all they are also comic buffoons. These jackbooted bullies march into the ghetto, swiftly escalating from daubing “Jew” on shop windows to beating and shooting innocents. Hynkel casually orders the execution of thousands and day-dreams of a world where Jews are no more. We see Jews brutalised. Chaplin doesn’t pull punches in demonstrating fascism is a dangerous cancer in the world, or that the likes of Hynkel are appalling in their ruthless heartlessness.

That makes it a mark of genius that Hynkel is also the centre of a ridiculous farce painting him as inept, childish and laughable. Chaplin achieves this by masterfully channelling Hitler’s mannerisms – no less than you would expect from the most gifted physical comedian in history. We are introduced to Hynkel at a Nuremberg-style rally, delivering a speech in a hilarious mix of gobbledegook and random German words (“Werner Schnitzel!”) delivered with a perfect parody of Hitler’s physicality. (Marking the film’s careful balance between jokes and seriousness, this includes a spit-flecked rant against “Der Juden”). His grandiosity is further punctured with coughing fits and clumsiness.

That’s nothing to what we see of Hynkel off-stage. Prone to carpet-chewing rants, prat-fall prone with the manner of a bitter, insecure teenager, Hynkel is a bully elevated into a position of power, clinging to the trappings of office to give him a feeling of personal worth. Residing in a presidential palace that’s a perfect parody of Speer’s grandiose architecture, Hynkel is both laughable and deeply dangerous. Chaplin gets this mixture of the sublimely ridiculous and terrifying in every scene: most notably in Hynkel’s famous dance with an inflated globe. He bounces and cavorts with this like a romantic lover (appropriately themed to Wagner) – but it all grows out of his near sexual excitement at the idea of conquering and purifying the world of Jews (and brunettes).

The Great Dictator bursts that globe, but it also bursts the bubble of puffed-up strong men in a way that’s still highly relevant today. Hynkel and fellow dictator Napolini (a perfect capturing of Mussolini’s mannerisms, mixed with a “mamma-mia” accent from Jack Oakie) are both buffoons, who can’t even co-ordinate shaking hands in between their ludicrous salutes. These buffoons have the power and coldness to kill millions, but are both idiots. Napolini’s state visit is a hilarious game of one-up-manship, from Hynkel’s feeble attempts to intimidate Napolini in his office, to the two of them pathetically pumping their barber chairs higher and higher (to insane levels) to try and look the tallest. They even engage in a childish food fight while bickering over who will have the right to invade Osterich. Vanity, childishness and homicidal nation-destroying all hand-in-hand.

To counter his brilliant deconstruction of Hitler, Chaplin deployed his Little Tramp character in a new guise, here re-imagined as a Jewish barber, but with the same mix of good intentions and bumbling clumsiness. There is classic Chaplin business – his shaving of a client perfectly in time to Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No 5 is pretty much perfection – but also darker material. The Barber is saved from lynching, nearly gets roped into a suicide attack on Hynkel and winds up in a concentration camp. This is the Tramp’s war: his decency used to point-up the hideousness of Hynkel even more.

And, in case we miss the point, Chaplin plays a third character in the final five minutes. With Hynkel in prison (mistaken for the Barber), the Barber-as-Hynkel takes his place to speak to Tomania. He’s got the Barber’s soul, Hynkel’s appearance… but his words are Chaplin’s. Talking direct to camera – just as the Barber glances at the fourth wall throughout – Chaplin makes an impassioned plea for peace, like the curtain speech of a classical actor. He was begged not to do it (it later lead to him being denounced as a Commie) – but Chaplin was making the film to make this point. It was all very well to make Hynkel look stupid, but equally important to put forward an alternative vision, one of hope and faith in mankind’s decency. The speech may be on the nose (probably a little too much), but Chaplin delivers it with the intensity of someone who passionately believes every word he is saying – and at least it serves as a culmination of themes and ideals the entire film espouses among the jokes, rather than a blast from the blue.

The Great Dictator is over-long (at over two hours), and some of its comic moments are more successful than others. But the sequences that deconstruct Hitler are almost perfect (and feature superb support from Daniell and Gilbert as lupine Goebbels and cry-baby Goering parodies) and the film balances hilarious farce, biting political wit, and an earnest despair at the horrors of dictatorship with just the right touch of hope.

Chaplin’s genius combined with his passion created a landmark, brave film. Few others could have balanced its tonal shifts with such deft skill and perhaps no other performer could have been both so funny and so appallingly destructive. Hitler banned the film, but succumbed to curiosity and arranged a private screening. No one knew what he thought of it – but he watched it twice.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Very thin romantic drama that finds very little to offer beyond it’s set-up of “love across the divide”

Director: Henry King

Cast: William Holden (Mark Elliott), Jennifer Jones (Dr Han Suyin), Torin Thatcher (Humphrey Palmer-Jones), Isobel Elsom (Adeline Palmer-Jones), Murray Matherson (Dr John Keith), Virginia Gregg (Anne Richards), Richard Loo (Robert Hung), Soo Yong (Nora Hung), Philip Ahn (Third Uncle)

In 1940s Hong Kong, Eurasian Dr Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) works at a respected hospital and carefully balances her relationship with the Chinese and Western expat communities. All of which is shaken up when she falls in love with American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden). As China’s civil war sees the country turn Communist – and with war rumblings in Korea – can this love across the divide survive prejudice, Mark’s estranged wife and the disapproval of her friends?

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing was a box-office hit and scooped no fewer than eight nominations (including Best Picture) in a weak year at the Oscars. It won two of them for its main virtues: the lush, romantic score from Alfred Newman and its title song (which became a massive hit). Aside from that, it’s a very slight romance (with a tragic ending) based on Han Suyin’s autobiographical novel (Suyin, who sold the rights because she needed the money, refused to watch it).

It’s very much a film of its time. The focus is at least as much on the locations and wide-screen framing as it is on story (it was made slap-bang in the middle of the era when these were considered cinema’s unique selling point over TV). Before the script was even completed, a second unit team was dispatched with the stars to shoot wordless sequences on location, all to capture that Hong Kong atmosphere. Writer John Patrick and director Henry King’s job was then to build a narrative framework using as many of these as possible, inspired by the book.

What they came up with is as conventional as they come: essentially, two charming, attractive Hollywood stars meet, flirt, fall in love and face the consequences. Despite the earth-shattering events around them, very little intrudes into the story. The outbreak of Chinese Communism gets name checked a few times – one of Suyin’s colleagues at the hospital is a proud Commie – but only a few moments are spent on considering the impact this might have on Hong Kong or the expat community. Similarly, the Korean War might as well have been started by people who just wanted to drag William Holden away from romantic bliss.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing has its chances to really tackle the racial element of this relationship. But bar a few small moments, it mostly avoids this. Sure, Suyin loses her job for largely unspecified reasons (the implication is there that it’s for crossing this racial divide), and she gets dragged across town to get a ticking off from the grand doyen of the expat community for flirting with a white man (although this could just as well be for the fact he’s separated but still married). But her Chinese family mostly accept Suyin’s relationship with little complaint, and far more easily than they do her cousin’s relationship with a foreigner (guess it’s because Mark is such a top bloke). The whole issue feels slightly swept, awkwardly, under the carpet – which just doesn’t feel true. For all its patronising heavy-handedness, at least Sayonara two years later really engaged with this theme.

But then, maybe it’s because Jennifer Jones doesn’t even look remotely Asian. Reportedly unhappy with her make-up, its toned down to such a subtle extent that honestly half the time she doesn’t look that different than she does in any other role. I suppose, today, we should thank our lucky stars they didn’t go the whole yellow-face hog, but it does look odd considering everyone else of even remotely Asian descent is played by an Asian-American actor.

Despite this, Jones is actually rather good as Suyin: intelligent, sensible and very surprised to find herself falling in love with someone so socially unsuitable for her as Mark appears to be. She’s compassionate, witty and knows her own mind, and if Jones is given a few too many speeches explaining Asian culture to Mark (or rather to the viewer), at least she delivers them with grace and gravitas. Holden is also good, even if he could play this dashing romantic role standing on his head.

Fascinatingly both stars, despite their convincing on-screen chemistry, couldn’t stand each other. As well as having incompatible working styles – Jones was details oriented, Holden more instinctive – they failed to bond personally. (Jones reported she ate garlic to annoy famed lothario Holden, while Holden claimed a bunch of flowers he purchased Jones to clear the air were literally thrown back in his face.) It, surprisingly, doesn’t come across on screen, and the film’s strongest moments by far are the romantic ones between the two leads.

Fortunate, as that’s the meat of a film that barely has anything else on its bones during its swift runtime. King directs with a professional competent flatness that doesn’t give any additional life to the project. Aside from some decent romantic moments atop the couple’s favourite hill and a swimming sequence (obviously imitating From Here to Eternity but without an ounce of that film’s dynamism and sexiness) there is little to keep drawing you back.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing settles for being a reassuring, lightweight romance, in which two handsome people, in luscious locations, fall in love. It offers very little outside of that, so basically your enjoyment of the film will be decided by how much that sort of thing wins you over. If you want more from your romances, it’s not for you.

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

Cameron’s monster-hit is an exciting slide of traditional story-telling, that had less cultural impact than you might expect

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoë Saldana (Neytiri), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Sigourney Weaver (Dr Grace Augustine), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacón), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel David Moore (Dr Norm Spellman), CCH Pounder (Mo’at), Wes Studi (Eytukan), Laz Alonzo (Tsu-tey), Dileep Rao (Dr Max Patel)

Why is Avatar so easy to mock? It’s the second biggest box office hit ever (Cameron holds slots two and three with this and Titanic:only Avengers: Endgame grossed more). But its cultural impact feels wide but not deep. As FOUR more Avatar films start to arrive from 2022, the question remains: why has no-one really talked about Avatar since 2009?

Perhaps it’s because there isn’t really much new or unique in Avatar, beyond the magic of its visuals and the magnificent showmanship of Cameron. For all the striking blue design of the aliens, their story was too reminiscent of too many other things. The script lacked punch, distinctive lines and unique characters. There was little to quote and few truly original pivotal moments that could be embraced by our cultural memory. Narratively and structurally, it’s all a little too safe, predictable and conventional.

 Avatar partly became a “must see” cinematic event, because it was the film that finally nailed 3D. Maybe it is the best 3D film ever made. I don’t know, I’ve only ever seen it in 2D. To be very fair, Cameron doesn’t fill the film with crappy shots of things pointing at the camera. Instead, concentrating on telling a cracking (if predictable) story and filling the screen with beautiful, imaginative imagery that works in any dimension.

Avatar’s imagery is so striking because it’s set on the magical alien world of Pandora. In 2154, with Earth’s resources depleted, mankind has struck out into the stars – and Pandora is a rich seam of an insanely valuable mineral called unobtanium (chuckles presumably intended). Pandora is a carefully balanced biosphere, peopled by exotic animals and 10-foot, blue-skinned natives called the Na’vi. Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, so scientists – led by Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) – use Na’vi “avatars”, operated by genetically matched humans, to explore. The mission is carefully balanced between science and financial exploitation by a sinister corporation, backed by mercenary army, led by the fanatical Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Into this magical set-up drops paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), taking the place of his dead scientist brother because he is a genetic match for a freshly grown Na’vi avatar. With this warrior background, Jake is welcomed by the Na’vi, becoming an ambassador to the people. But Jake’s loyalties split as he finds a purpose in Na’vi life he has long since lost on Earth – and as he falls in love with Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). When the company decide to destroy the Na’vi’s home to gain access to the rich unobtanium deposits beneath, which side will Jake back?

It’s not hard to guess. At heart, Avatar fits very neatly into a series of Dances with Wolves-esque films, in which a wounded and lost (white) soldier finds a spiritual peace and solace with a native people, eventually rising up to fight for their rights against his own people. Avatar also finds roots in The Mission, with the scientists as the missionaries fighting alongside the natives (although with much better results), the conclusion of Return of the Jedi and Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Not to mention more than a few stylistic and plot echoes from Cameron’s own Aliens (you can even hear them at several points in Horner’s score), from technology (those stomping war suits) and cocky marines lost in a world they don’t understand (except this time, we love to see them killed off).

Avatar doesn’t challenge you, presenting its humble message of environmentalism and peaceful co-existence within a familiar framework where military forces and corporations are very bad and enlightened missionaries and Indigenous people are good. It entertains because it’s told with such skill. Cameron, while never the greatest screenwriter in the world, knows how to marshal his clichés and standard narrative tricks into something exciting and involving.

It also helps that the stock characters he creates a played with such forceful engagement by the actors. Stephen Lang is a growlingly hateable racist, delighting in the prospect of genocide, while Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate boss is a snivelling opportunist who couldn’t care less about the impacts of his actions. Opposite them, Sigourney Weaver gives huge weight to a fairly standard irritated-boss-turned-mentor role as the head scientist, Sully’s bridge to learning the Na’vi way. As Sully, Sam Worthington is not the most charismatic performer but he has an earnest intensity and emotional honesty that helps us invest in his pre-Pandora misery and his growing love of his adopted home.

Cameron’s greatest achievement though is the vision he creates for the Na’vi. All are played by actors using cutting-edge (and still impressive now) motion capture. Cameron builds a whole world for these people: a language, belief system, culture and bond with the environment. Sure, it’s heavily inspired by Indigenous American culture, but it feels real. Its bought to the screen with grace and tenderness and gains a huge amount from Zoë Saldana’s committed and emotionally open performance as Neytiri. Cameron so successfully builds a bond between audience and the Na’vi that you feel your heart wrench to see mankind tear their beautiful world apart.

It’s that emotional connection Cameron successfully builds that helps make the film work. After all we’ve all seen effects stuffed films before, but they don’t all become monster hits. And if the film was a dog, all the 3D magic in the world wouldn’t have helped. Few directors have as much skill with threading emotional bonds within the epic as Cameron. He shoots Avatar with a stunning majesty, carefully placed shots and graceful, almost traditional, editing help to build a sense of magic and wonder around the awe-inspiring alien vista. Avatar has a lot of action, but it never feels like just an action film: it’s a relationship drama, inspired by the beauty of its setting, with action in it.

More people have mocked Avatar with comparisons to the visually and thematically similar Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest than have actually seen Fern Gully. Narratively it does little new or unique and offers very little surprises. But its visuals are stunning and Cameron’s superb direction knows how to engage you. Clichés last because they carry a sort of truth: Avatar uses these truths to help you invest in a gripping, if conventional, story. But it’s also why its impact over time has been so slight – there aren’t any new ideas for viewers to tie themselves to and almost nothing that stands out as a unique cultural reference point – even if the conventional plot helped make it a short-term monster hit. But it’s also why it still makes for enjoyable rewatching.

Sayonara (1957)

Sayonara (1957)

Racism gets exposed at clumsy length in this heavy-handed social issues drama

Director: Joshua Logan

Cast: Marlon Brando (Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver), Patricia Owens (Eileen Webster), James Garner (Captain Mike Bailey), Martha Scott (Mrs Webster), Miiko Taka (Hana-Ogi), Red Buttons (Airman Joe Kelly), Miyoshi Umeki (Katsumi Kelly), Kent Smith (Lt General Mark Webster), Ricardo Montalban (Nakamura), Douglass Weston (Colonel Crawford)

It’s post-war Japan and the American occupation forces have got very strict rules about what their soldiers are allowed to do with the native population: namely not marry them. Any suggestion of American soldiers finding themselves Japanese wives is frowned on at the very highest level. Something flying ace Major “Ace” Gruber (Marlon Brando) is about to find out when he’s transferred from shooting down commies in Korea. Airman Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is determined to marry Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) – and nothing commanding officer Gruber or anyone else can say will dissuade him. Meanwhile, Gruber finds himself falling in love with Japanese actress Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka) – and facing the exact same pressures to chuck her overboard as Kelly meets.

Sayonara is very much a Hollywood message film: that being interracial marriage is a fact to celebrate not condemn, with a subsidiary message focused on rehumanising the Japanese people for American audiences still holding strong memories of the Second World War. Like a lot of message films from the era though, its also slow, stuffy, self-important and more than a little dull – something its multiple Oscars can’t hide.

Shot on location, it often come across as a sort of Japanese travelogue which, for all its efforts to make the Japanese sympathetic, can only interpret them and their culture through a selection of cliches and generic expectations. The film is a parade of kimonos, lotos blossoms, tea ceremonies and geisha girls, all shot with a laboured flatness by Joshua Logan. Logan’s direction overflows with middle-brow earnestness, pleading for a little love and understanding, while shuffling together a series of stereotypical and predictable plot events. Logan also seems to struggle with the cinemascope frame, which frequently dwarves this intimate story.

It’s all told at a very slow pace: it’s remarkable that such a slim story manages to fill almost two and a half hours. Much of this is taken up with the romantic entanglements of Ace, half-heartedly engaged to General’s daughter Eileen Webster (a saintly understanding Patricia Owens, who practically asks to be thrown over), before a chance sighting on a bridge (of course it’s a soribashi bridge) leads to him falling head over heels in love with Hana-Ogi, hanging around the bridge every day and struggling his way through a Japanese phrase book so he can ask her out on a date (the dates, when they come, are like a travelogue of the most Japanese events you could imagine).

The languid lack of drive isn’t helped by Brando’s curious performance. Sayonara is the perfect example of what a mystifying actor Brando could be: here he was in a project that clearly meant a lot to him personally (he was a long-standing social campaigner), but he drifts through it with a lazy off-the-cuffness that suggests he’s only doing the film under protest. Only Brando could act in a passion project with such surly indifference (allegedly motivated by his lack of regard for Logan’s direction). Brando uses a non-descript Southern drawl, which he uses as an excuse to dial his mumbling up to 11. He slouches and ambles through every scene, barely raising his voice or lifting a finger unless it’s essential.

Because Brando seems so disengaged and bored by the whole thing (the only spark of energy he gives is when he playfully bangs his head on a low Japanese ceiling) it makes the film drag on without the stakes ever seeming to really mount. Ace is told repeatedly that he will have to chuck Hana-Ogi, but he shrugs it off with all the indifference of a laid-back hipster. I think Brando is straining to suggest that Ace has the soul of a poet, trapped inside his father-mandated time in West Point – there is a moment where he airily mumbles something about his dreams as a young man of finding something more. But the overall effect is more of an actor drifting through a long role with minimum effort.

You can’t say the same for Red Buttons, who plays Kelly with a great deal of commitment. Winning an Oscar, this first role was also his best, with Kelly having Button’s good-natured lightness but mixing it in with a fierce defiance and a touching pain when his wife suggests surgery to try and alter her facial features to appear more Western. Umeki also won a generous Oscar for a brief performance which gives her very little scope to do much beyond playing the quiet wife (I suspect the Oscar was partly for the film’s theme and reflects a weaker year of candidates). Miiko Taka is more impressive (and given more scope) as Hana-Ogi, all too aware of the pressures on her not to get involved, torn between her feelings and what she sees as her duty.

Sayonara as a whole though remains a flat, often rather uninvolving film that holds its liberal conscience so close to its chest that it manages to squeeze any trace of life out of it. Its liberalness only goes so far: Logan casts two Japanese actresses but has no concerns about recruiting a pale-faced Ricardo Montalban to play the only Japanese male with lines. It’s exploration of mixed-race relationships is solely focused on white guys marrying who they want. A truly daring film would have thrown in a flirtation between Montalban’s Japanese actor and Patricia Owen’s patrician General’s daughter. A Japanese man marrying the daughter of one of America’s own? Now that is a vision that would have really shook up 1950s America.

It’s not to be though. Instead, this is an overlong, overly serious, pleased with itself melodrama, coated in lashings of social awareness that is cursed with a languid central performance that helps make the whole film seem to drag on forever. Logan is unable to provide either any dramatic or political fire to the film and it settles all to often for safe, picture perfect shots of Japan. While you can admire the motives behind it, there is little to admire in the film itself.

Julia (1977)

Julia header
Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave play friends separated by time in Fred Zinnemann’s award-bait Julia

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Jane Fonda (Lilian Hellman), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia), Jason Robards (Dashiell Hammett), Maximilian Schell (Mr Johann), Hal Holbrook (Alan), Rosemary Murphy (Dorothy Parker), Dora Dull (Woman passenger), Elizabeth Mortensen (Girl passenger), Meryl Streep (Anne Marie), John Glover (Sammy)

Playwright Lilian Hellman (Jane Fonda) remembers her close childhood friendship with Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), the daughter of wealthy Jewish parents being bought up by her grandparents. As young women, their lives take dramatically different routes: Lilian finds eventual success with The Children’s Hour, with the support of her mentor and lover Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards); Julia travels to Vienna and then Germany where she becomes involved in anti-Nazi activity. Eventually, the need for money leads to Julia asking Lilian to smuggle funds over the German border.

That’s the meat of Fred Zinnemann’s old-fashioned, highly-genteel memory piece that also manages to make it sound far more exciting and interesting than the dry, worthy, middle-brow story that actually ends up on screen. What’s missing from the film almost completely is passion. This is a story that required fire: a sympathy for radicalism, or anger at the targeted cruelty and injustice of fascism. It gets none of this, instead offering a handsome reconstruction of period details, all filmed with a Golden Age glow, and a narrative focus that feels like it’s aimed at the wrong character.

It’s part of why this awards-bait drama hasn’t lasted in the public perception (it’s very hard to find a copy to watch – really striking for a film nominated for 11 Oscars and winning three, including two acting Oscars). There is very little really rewarding either emotionally or narratively here. The film lacks a real sense of danger or foreboding – even a scene showing fascist thugs throwing Jewish students off a balcony in Vienna is shot with a striking lack of edge or horror. And it unbalances itself by giving more time and priority to Hellman’s struggles to come up with a play “worthy of her” than it does to the title character and the real drama of her struggles. Redgrave is on screen for about 14 minutes. It’s effectively like watching The Pianist but entirely from the perspective of Emilia Fox’s character rather than Adrien Brody’s.

What we end up with is a film that feels old-fashioned, dry and respectable. It offers everything that will impress you, and reassure you that it is important film-making: a big subject, famous names, actors giving emotional performances, period detail, a tragic ending. But it lines these factors up in a way that never ever comes to life dramatically. There is a story buried in here about friendship – and Fonda and Redgrave are very good at selling a strong personal bond, especially considering their limited time on screen together – but what should be the heart of the story gets lost in a biography of Hellman, a digression into her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, and the lack of insight the film seems to have into the fate of Jews and outsiders in an increasingly fascist Europe.

The film’s only real sequence of interest is Hellman’s dash with money across the border and illicit meeting with Julia, a sequence involving coded messages, switching of hats and double-meaning conversation which fits with a spy novel. Zinnemann films this with a fine air of tension and intrigue – but it’s the only time the film stumbles to life.

I think Zinnemann struggled to find what really compelled him to tell this story. Which is a shame as a Julia-focused story – a woman struggling against a system – would have been meat and drink to the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man For All Seasons. Instead, his skill from those films of empathising with characters trapped in a desperate situation and forced to take a stand on principle, is lost. In the end he and the film find little to interest them in Hellman, the successful novelist who feels a middle-class intellectual’s guilt at not doing more to help, who is fundamentally a footnote in a far larger story of rising Nazi terror in Europe.

The film has also perhaps faded from public attention because subsequent controversy revealed that a large part of this true story was almost certainly self-aggrandising bull-shit by Hellman. A New York psychiatrist, Muriel Gardiner, claimed in 1983 that Julia’s story was her story and that she had never met Hellman (but they did share a lawyer). No trace of a “Julia” has been found in Hellman’s life, and no evidence at all that she ever undertook this dangerous dash into Germany. Zinnemann also fell out with Hellman, privately coming to believe she was “an extremely talented, brilliant woman, but she was a phony character” and said his “relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred”. Knowing that, it’s hard not to see the same distance on the screen.

Saying that, Jane Fonda is very good in the film, surprisingly fragile, uncertain and scared, and plagued with guilt that she cannot do enough to help her friend. Redgrave won an Oscar for her committed and passionate performance, which tapped into her radicalism and gives a slight character a great deal of depth (in her speech, the pro-Palestinian Redgrave made a famously controversial political speech denouncing “Zionist hoodlums”). Robards won the film’s other acting Oscar, for a professional turn as Hammett. In a very weak year for American film, Schell also landed an Oscar nomination for a brief cameo as a go-between Hellman meets in a Parisian park.

The performances are fine and the style and manner of the film is reassuringly middle-of-the-road. There is everything here to convince you this is an important film, apart from drama, purpose or conviction. Perhaps it’s so hard to find, because so few people have looked for it since 1977?

Fences (2016)

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis triumph in an overly theatrical version of August Wilson’s Fences

Director: Denzel Washington

Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Lee Maxson), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory Maxson), Russell Hornsby (Lyons Maxson), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel Maxson), Saniyya Sidney (Raynell Maxson)

Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage collector after his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player came up against the colour bar. Troy lives with his second wife Rose (Viola Davis). Troy had a troubled upbringing, turning to crime (and serving time in prison – lost time Rose quietly believes may have had more of an impact on his failed baseball career) and claims to have beaten Death in a wrestling match. Proud of his self-made status and certain, always, that he is right, Troy has difficult relations with his two sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a musician he believes is forever sponging money and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a teenager being scouted by an American Football team.

Fences follows a couple of years (with a coda that jumps forward five years) in the lives of these characters, and principally the impact that Troy’s mixture of pride, selfishness and bull-headed self-righteousness has on the family. It’s adapted from August Wilson’s award-winning stage-play, with a script prepared before his death by the playwright himself (earning him a posthumous Oscar nomination). Washington, Davis and most of the cast all starred in a hugely successful Broadway production of the play a few years before, and the film is a careful restaging of this production.

Perhaps a little too careful. If there is a problem with Fences, it is that it falls rather awkwardly between two stools. It’s neither particularly filmic – few of the scenes have been adjusted from the single-set locations of the play, and it’s filmed with an unobtrusive conventionality that makes it look and feel pretty similar to watching a National Theatre Live production – nor is it sufficiently theatrical. I can well imagine the power – and they are undeniably powerful – performances by the cast, principally Washington and Davis, would have blown you away live: but on screen, they can’t quite capture that same impact, in a film that feels slightly constrained by its theatricality.

Most of this comes from Washington’s determination that Wilson’s words would be the star, and all other factors in the production would service that. To that end, the film is a clear success – and you can’t argue Wilson doesn’t deserve a certain reverence, particularly as transfers of his plays to film had been almost non-existent before Fences. Wilson’s plays have rarely crossed the Atlantic, so watching this – a play I was not familiar with – I was enraptured by the working-class poetry of Wilson’s language, not to mention the empathy with which he explores his characters.

At the heart is Troy, a fascinatingly flawed human being. Played with huge charisma, which masks a deep bitterness, cynicism and self-pity, by Denzel Washington, Troy manages to be both admirable and destructive at the same time. You can’t not admire the way he has built his own life from scratch, or the “go-out-and-grab-it” balls that helps him become the first black garbage truck driver in Pittsburgh. He’s witty, warm-hearted and loves his family deeply. He’s also domineering, proud and so convinced his view is right that he sees no problem with cheating on his wife or forcing his children, often against their will, to conform with exactly his ideas of how they should live their lives.

So, he’ll tell his son that because Troy’s dreams of becoming a professional sportsman came to nothing, so will his: so there isn’t even any point trying. He loves his mentally handicapped brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), and rages at the Government that failed to support this wounded veteran – but he also takes Gabe’s disability payout and uses it to buy himself a house and charge Gabe rent for living in it. He’ll talk endlessly about putting duty and family first – but that fence of the title, which Rose asks constantly him to build, is a job he’ll put off time and time again in favour of holding court in his backyard. Troy’s built the family – but he’s also the main factor holding it back from moving forward any further. He’s a classic tragic figure.

Equally superb is Viola Davis as Rose, endlessly patient and caring, holding the entire family together and quietly and carefully cleaning up after Troy’s outbursts or bad temper. Davis won the Oscar, and Rose is a dream of a part a woman who closes her eyes to problems, believing she lives a perfect family life, until it is too late. When finally confronted with the selfishness of Troy’s actions, Davis’ emotional devastation – her resentment and fury at having benched her own dreams and desires to service Troy – is hugely moving, perfectly showcasing Davis’ skill to play deep emotions while simultaneously holding those emotions in.

These two actors are both extraordinary – and there are also fabulous performances from Henderson, Adepo, Williamson and Hornsby. What stops it from being an outstanding film though is that its more of a theatrical event pushed into a cinema. With the majority of the scenes taking place in Troy and Rose’s backyard, you can picture the single-set theatre production. The camera moves calmly from close-up to medium shot but does very little else. Very little has also been changed or reworked in the play – compare to Arthur Miller’s reworking of The Crucible or Peter Shaffer’s re-imagining of Amadeus for the screen. It’s a film with a slightly worthy, mission quality to it. But as a showcase for the play – and the performances – it’s very fine.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman drive through the South in Driving Miss Daisy

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Hoke Colburn), Jessica Tandy (Daisy Werthan), Dan Aykroyd (Boolie Werthan), Patti LuPone (Florine Werthan), Esther Rolle (Idella)

Retired Jewish teacher Daisy Wethan (Jessica Tandy) crashes her car while trying to drive down to the store. Her wealthy businessman son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) decides she’s too old to drive herself, so hires black chauffeur Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) for the job of Driving Miss Daisy. At first Daisy resists this new servant in her life but, doncha know it, over the next 23 years the two of them grow closer together as they deal with the ups-and-downs of life and find out that, heck, under the surface maybe we are all more alike than we think.

It’s been a recurrent theme that some films (like Shakespeare in Love or The Greatest Show on Earth) have found themselves actually diminished by the burden of being an “Oscar Winning Film”. Driving Miss Daisy joins them, an impossibly slight little puff of air film which could be blown away by the faintest breeze. It won out in a year where the most exciting movies of the year (sex, lies and videotape and most strikingly of all Do the Right Thing) failed to get nominated. It seemed a particular slap in the face that a film which looks at racial relations with such a cozy, nostalgic view as this one should triumph in the year Spike Lee made a film that exposed how close America was to racial tensions erupting into violence (worst of all this wouldn’t be the last time for Lee).

Driving Miss Daisy wants no part of that though. This is the Downton Abbey of racial dramas, a nostalgic and overwhelmingly “nice” film that uses odd-couple drama to make us feel good about ourselves. In this vision of the south, the Whites (and I am not buying the film’s pained attempts to suggest anti-Semitic mutters here and there is on a par with lynching) are mostly paternalistic masters, and the blacks forelock tugging servants hoping for a better life but grateful for the support of their betters. There isn’t a single black character (bar Hoke’s niece who appears wordlessly in the final minutes of the film) who isn’t a domestic servant, and not a single white person who isn’t genteel (bar a single racist cop 52 minutes into the film).

Not a single black character is ever angry, complains about injustice or is anything less than patient, noble and humble. It’s all part of a film designed to make us feel better about the South’s appalling record of racism and segregation by presenting it as exactly the sort of genteel Gone-with-the-Wind-good-old-cause fantasy many people remain comfortable with today, where black people needed to be looked after because (as even Daisy puts it in the film) they are basically children.

Now saying that, the film is of course light, fluffy, inoffensive and (there is no better word for it) nice. You can sit down and let the gentleness wash over you, no problem at all. I can see why it was a word-of-mouth hit in 1989, and why the Oscars gave it the big one. It’s well made and very faithful to the Pullitzer winning play it’s based on. Beresford’s genteel direction lets the dialogue and actors do the work (he didn’t get a nomination – though even he modestly said later he didn’t really feel he deserved one).

Freeman and Tandy do decent work with these incredibly simple characters. Tandy could have played this cookie-cutter “cantankerous-but-loveable-old-lady” role standing on her head. But she does it well (again, drawing those Downton parallels, this is exactly the same role Maggie Smith has in that series) and nails a little speech where she wistfully remembers visiting the sea then stops as if embarrassed by her self-indulgence. She won the Oscar.

Freeman here (and in Glory) invents a screen persona. He’s kindly, worldly-wise (but not bookly wise – he ain’t never had time to learn readin’), patient, long-suffering but full of dignity. But, with his repeated “Yassums”, his non-complaining acceptance of his position and status and his deferential nature, he’s pretty close to a sort of fantasy Uncle Tom-ish figure. Sure, Freeman can sell those quiet moments, where it’s clear Hoke has learned to bury feelings of fear (his brief confrontation with a racist cop – and his controlled fear – is the film’s most effective moment) but the whole performance feels like a carefully constructed lie.

It’s in line with the film, where the black experience has been cut down and filtered in such a way to make white people feel good about themselves. Because we can watch the film and go “oh yeah I’d be like Daisy and Boolie, they’re so sweet” and we wait 52 minutes before an unpleasant character turns up and uses the n word – and then he’s mean to Daisy as well for being Jewish and heck gosh darn it we are all the same after all, what a relief, pass the popcorn. You come out of Driving Miss Daisy and you have learned nothing.

Worse than that, you’ve been shown a cuddly fantasy world. We never see Hoke outside of the setting of his master’s homes (there is no other way of putting it) and learn nothing about his life or experiences. We see him melt the heart of an already-fundamentally-decent woman, but their relationship always has boundaries. Driving Miss Daisy would be fine as an escapist piece of fluff – but time has shown it increasingly to be a film designed to make us feel reassured that history wasn’t as distressing as it might have been. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.