How Movies Handled The Social Reckoning of 2018

This year's films tackled reactions to injustice and moral failing.
Rewind Reckoning

The words “forgive” and “sorry” were ones moviegoers encountered frequently in 2018. Themes of apology, confession, and atonement appeared in heavy intellectual films, bombastic thrillers and domestic dramas alike. One literally had the word “forgive” in the title. Acknowledging past wrongs even showed up institutionally, with studios taking steps (baby steps, admittedly) to tell more diverse stories onscreen.

Some of this may have been coincidences. But given the seemingly endless waves of revelations, outcries and political frustrations over the last two years (not to mention the decades of high-profile discussions about social injustice before that) it’s hard not to see this as part of a larger trend. On a number of fronts, the movies of 2018 felt like they were attempting to reckon with the societal ills that define our present age, and respond to the revelation that we are not the people we thought we were. It felt like it all added up to a collective cultural statement: “We need to change.”

One of the ways the movies addressed the need for social change was by taking a long-overdue gamble on diverse casting and underrepresented stories in some of the year’s biggest films, often in movies that also addressed issues of social injustice. The Hate U Give combined a mostly-black cast with a story about Black Lives Matter, told from the perspective of Amandla Stenberg’s Starr Carter, an eyewitness to the police shooting of her childhood friend. Rather than give into the stereotypes of black culture often sold through mainstream media, The Hate U Give featured complex characters, a loving and supportive central family, and questions of identity and code-switching that defined its heroine’s journey.

Marvel’s Black Panther let a black director and writer, Ryan Coogler, tell an empowering story where people of color got to be the heroes. Black Panther also used its platform to address the effects of systemic oppression on people of color. Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, one of 2018’s most interesting villains, was driven by his anger at a lifetime of injustice, and a destructive desire for revenge and supremacy that masqueraded as radical liberation.

Even the light, fun Crazy Rich Asians forced audiences to confront their norms and biases. Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel was a high-profile success, with a cast made up almost exclusively of Asian actors, the first movie since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club to do so. The New York Times asked “Why did it take so long to see a cast like this?” but years of Hollywood whitewashing in movies like Aloha and Ghost in the Shell answers that question for us. Alongside the enjoyment of Crazy Rich Asians (as well as The Hate U Give and Black Panther) came a recognition that for years, stories like this have been appropriated, co-opted or simply ignored.

There were also movies that addressed ideas of atonement and moral reckoning more abstractly. In Peter Hedges’ addiction drama Ben is Back, the further Lucas Hedges’ titular recovering opioid addict gets into his visit home from rehab, the more he understands that the pain he’s caused those around him (and the scars it’s left on him) won’t go away with a simple apology, no matter how sincere. But through his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), we see unconditional love that is practical and fiercely committed to the hope that things will get better.

In Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was hardly sorry for the actual crimes she committed, forging and selling literary letters from authors like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Rather, the need for forgiveness suggested by the title (also a reference to an Israel-forged Parker quote) referred to the relationships Lee had broken through her cynicism and distrust of others. Lee was able to patch things up with her partner in crime, Jack (Richard E. Grant), and the end of the film suggested that she was on her way to turning over a new, healthier emotional leaf.

Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale brought up the idea of confessing wrongs in a way that echoed the moral themes of the writer and director’s previous work on Angel, Daredevil, The Cabin in the Woods and The Good Place. The characters of El Royale each had their own dark backstories, which came together in a cataclysmic climax. In Goddard’s Quentin Tarantino-by-way-of-Agatha Christie tale, being honest with yourself about moral failings becomes vital for survival, and the sooner you address them (though it’s never too late), the more likely you’ll be able to move on with your life.

First Reformed painted a more bleak picture. Paul Schrader’s meditative tale of doubt-riddled pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) tackled theological questions of humanity’s inherent sinfulness (an idea harkening back to Schrader’s own Calvinist roots) and whether our destruction of the Earth has put us beyond the point of salvation. Here, it wasn’t an issue of whether we should atone for what we’ve done to each other and the world around us, but if that’s even an option anymore. The question of whether we can still be forgiven, and the church’s seeming disinterest in doing anything to address it, tortures Toller, and Schrader, who leaves the issue boldly unresolved in the film’s final moments.

2018’s documentaries also looked at the roles we’ve played in creating our current divided times. Travis Wilkerson’s fascinating, and often terrifying, documentary memoir Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? got personal with injustice. Wilkerson dove deep into his family history to investigate his great-grandfather’s murder of a black man in Alabama in the 1940s, for which he was never convicted. Wilkerson’s guilt over this story, his family’s reluctance to come clean about it, and the stunning threats he encounters trying to uncover the truth, showed how little society has changed since the days of great-grandpa Wilkerson. It also depicted the rot of unaddressed evil that spread through generations of a family.

Fortunately, in the midst of all this darkness, another documentary not only reminded audiences of the importance of morality and emotional honesty but gave us a toolkit for how to practice it. Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor painted a portrait of iconic children’s show host Fred Rogers that showed the power of kindness and seeking to understand everyone we encounter. Mister Rogers taught us that even though we do wrong sometimes, we are still capable of goodness, and we are still worthy of being loved. Won’t You Be My Neighbor reminds us that once we understand this about ourselves, it becomes our duty to extend that same understanding to our interactions with others. Change is still possible, but if we’re going to move forward, the journey starts within.

Abby Olcese: Writer, dreamweaver, visionary. Plus cat mom.