Art has always lit the way for the great march forward. Hollywood, purveyor of popular art and entertainment, has always had to tread a careful line between progressive art and conservative entertainment. You need to push enough boundaries to stay relevant but be familiar enough not to alienate your audience. It is not surprising then, that the last decade has seen the careful balance between liberal and conservative. While many traditional story tropes were told in brilliantly new postmodern ways, we saw other conservative (as in traditional) storytelling devices, like the sweeping epic of Brokeback Mountain or the biopic of Milk, being used to tell very forward-thinking stories.
The main area of “social progress” has traditionally been race relations, especially for the American audience. While race relations are no where near ideal, this decade has seen the continuation of a “colour blind” way of seeing race, rather than being respective and tolerant of diversity: progressive, but not too progressive. Is it any wonder that the subpar and clichéd Crash won the best picture, when the deserving Brokeback Mountain did not? Brokeback Mountain entered the Academy Awards race with more award wins for Best Picture and Best Director than both Schindler’s List (1993) and Titanic (1997) combined.
Many films are pushing a thin racial moralizing, like The Blind Side and Invictus, but the subject of same sex coupledom is still controversial. We are starting to see this change, but real-life contradictions like the designation of Harvey Milk Day and the passing of Proposition 8 show how far there is to come. Words and actions aren’t jiving. Same-sex marriage is the social controversy of this decade – the last institutionalized prejudice in the United States – where racial issues are not seen as controversial, even though they still exist. With that in mind, by the end of the decade, however, race issues were still a big part of films. We need to remember that before this decade, there was no black Best Actress, and Denzel Washington became the first black multiple Oscar winner. The complete and total lack of controversy that arose with Guess Who, the Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac remake of 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, seems remarkably demonstrative of where we’ve landed. The barrier has been broken, but we’re still crossing the boundary.
The Gender Divide
For most of the decade, women in Hollywood have followed the usual story: in performance, relegated to the roles of the mother, the girlfriend, the femme fatale, the ditzy romcom protagonist, and a whole host of other tired archetypes; in creation, relegated to the roles of art direction and production. Within the last year or two, we seem to be entering a transition period. Some actresses (a small group of amazing standouts) have been garnering attention for their complex and multi-faceted characters. While there is surely a wide talent pool for actress across the globe, there still seems to be a select few – Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet – that are consistently given the chance to fully flesh out the slowly increasing number of good female roles appearing in Hollywood.
Only at the end of the decade were we really beginning to fully accept the female auteur director. While small-but-important films (such Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Lone Scherfig’s An Education, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop Loss, and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice) have championed the female auteur, 2008 and 2009 were unprecedented for female directors rising to the marketable forefront of filmmaking, from Karyn Kusama of Jennifer’s Body to Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight. Say what you will about Twilight, it was still a better film than its male-directed sequel (Chris Weitz’s New Moon). However, the fact that when a director is female or a film has a good female role is still remarked upon as significant and not taken for granted is symptomatic of the fact that a gender divide still exists.