Critics Need To Stop Calling Films Vital

On Tuesday, September 5th, 2023, Leonard Mack walked out of prison to the sun shining on his face on his 72nd birthday. He had spent 47 years wrongfully incarcerated for the rape of a high school girl in 1975. Leonard's wrongful conviction became the longest to be vacated based on DNA evidence in U.S. history.⁠ Basking in the bittersweet moment of the start of the end of a life, Leonard looked out to the crowd ahead of him, proclaiming, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free", a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have A Dream speech in 1963. 

In 2014, Ava DuVernay's Selma was released, with David Oyelowo portraying the legendary civil rights activist. The film won one Oscar for Common and John Legend in the Best Original Song category. The only other nomination it received was the big one - Best Picture. The horrifying revelation to come alongside that was in the year 2015, Oprah Winfrey became the first African American woman nominated in the Best Picture category for her role as a producer on the film.

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, just weeks after Eric Garner was shot and killed in Staten Island, New York. Their stories were the seed for Black Lives Matter, and the marches in Ferguson were documented extensively while the world remained in uproar over the legacy of slavery as if it hadn't been persevering for centuries. If you Google reviews of Selma, you'll find the word "vital" littered everywhere. The release of Selma felt vital in an uprising - an awakening - that felt like a tide of change until that tide grew tired and trickled slowly back out to shore. 

DuVernay's latest, Origin, premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival. Based on the book by Isabel Wilkerson titled Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the film draws parallels between America, India and Nazi Germany, unpacking the history of racial hierarchies. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson, and the film currently sits at a respectable 85% on Rotten Tomatoes from 13 reviews. One look at the reviews, and you see the word "vital" right there once more on the first page. 

Without even scanning through the reviews of DuVernay's previous works (13thWhen They See Us), it is almost guaranteed you'll see that word across multiple critics' dissections of her films. Her filmography was scattered across lists in 2020 when George Floyd was killed in the same way Michael Brown and Eric Garner were years prior - at the hands of police - and DuVernay became a go-to for all people looking to dip their toe into learning about topics such as white supremacy and abolition for the first time. She makes tough topics digestible and compelling, an observation I had at the age of 18 when I saw Selma in the cinema in my Conservative hometown, where not one person in the screen moved an inch until the credits had stopped rolling - a rarity. 

DuVernay has always told "vital" stories, so why are we still - in the year 2023 - calling these movies vital? Because nothing has changed. 

Perhaps the most dismal fact of all is that it never will. Critics, audiences, everyone have grown too comfortable with their own discomfort. Their emotional reaction to a movie is not enough to get them to mimic the behaviour of the agents of change they gaze upon with glistening eyes. Audiences care for a day, perhaps a week, maybe a month if we reflect upon 2020, but they rarely have the capacity beyond that. In her book, Wilkerson acknowledges this, saying, "The country was losing the capacity to be shocked; the unfathomable became just another part of one's day" when reflecting upon the cultural mood during the term of the unsavoury, unnamed president. 

Wilkerson is right and fair in her assessment. Waking up each day comes with a tidal wave of horrifying headlines that suffocate you until you lie back down at night, ready to do it again the next day. The ripples of change had a chance to burst through the floodgates in 2020 when the world united through multiple sweeping tragedies. For a moment, we all stood in solidarity, vowing, this time, we wouldn't let the legacy be that the world stood by idly while injustice reigned supreme. 

The feet that once left home to follow the steps of justice were forced back to the means of control. Lockdowns faded, offices opened, commutes rumbled, life returned. People no longer had the time to extend a hand to their neighbours.

By definition, vital means "absolutely necessary; essential". At what point does the use of this word become redundant? For years, DuVernay has been giving audiences a hand to hold in acknowledging their own culpability, and for years, audiences have been shouting back in her face that her work is "vital". Vital for who? Likely you. Vital for what? In getting you to take the action you wish others would take for you.

In his book Sailing Close To The Wind, Dennis Skinner wrote, "You can't be pessimistic if you want to change the world. Optimism is central to left-wing politics. You're asking all the others to believe in the ideal of attaining equality for all...So you've got to be upbeat, or you'd be crushed by disappointments along the way". He's right, as he often is. 

Cynicism is a nasty thing, but cynicism creeps into my heart every time I hear another critic use "vital" to make a movie seem like it's going to be the one where people finally wake up. As someone who has spent a few years around the North American justice system, I can tell you that media is powerful. But that power is fragile without an angry audience ready to go to war. When "vital" films fade into obscurity an opportunity is missed. If Selma didn't make you get out of your seat, if 13th didn't make you get out of your seat, if When They See Us didn't make you get out of your seat, I am almost certain Origin isn't going to make you get out of your seat. Does this make the film less vital? Perhaps not. But the irony of critics throwing around language they do not intend to be moved by is not lost on me. 

It's a privilege to sit in a room during an exclusive festival in a season where actors and writers are fighting for their fair dues and write your review, call it essential viewing and do nothing. The issues benefit from our apathy. A film cannot be vital and not move you to fight for what you know needs to be done. To try, at least, is noble. To lay in wait for someone else to do the work you acknowledge needs to be done is cowardly.

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