LF Reviews - Movies on Empowerment
Updated: Apr 5
Movies on empowerment are great, but who is being empowered?
Written by: Steven Prysunka
Cover image: Bijou Karman, The Atlantic
There has been an ongoing battle for representation in film. If we zero-in on Hollywood films, specifically big budget movies that purport to empower women, we can see a slow trend in progressive filmmaking, but they are not devoid of their problems. Until recently, most blockbuster films were lacking a female lead, and even when they had one, they were often written, directed, produced, etc. by men. Can a film really be all that empowering if it fails to include the efforts of the group it is meant to empower? It can have a veneer of empowerment, and they can still be good films and you don’t have to feel guilty for liking them, but without the representation behind the camera, you often get something like Kill Bill or the more recent Atomic Blonde. Both are revenge tales where lots of bad men get killed by exceptionally skilled women but ultimately the storytelling is male-centric. Film theorists have studied this extensively. For example, male directed movies often suffer from inadvertent problems like the ‘male gaze’ where the camera composition choices force the audience look at the females in the movie the way a man does and often makes them seem like they don’t have agency or makes it harder for the audience to relate to that character.
Societal movements and trends are making waves in the film industry as well - with more focus on female storytelling and true female representation. Even the biggest franchises now (finally) have movies like Captain Marvel (only took 20 Marvel movies) and DC's Birds of Prey, not only focusing on women, but also written and directed by women. After seeing Birds of Prey with my girlfriend, a Film Studies major, she noted that little standout moments added to the film. For example, the film ends with the women heroes bonding over margaritas rather than the usual walk-off into the sunset (as Batman does) is wholly telling of the fact that it was written by a woman.
Most popular films until recently typically lacked the POV of the demographics they attempt to portray, and ultimately end up being a reflection of societal biases and norms rather than true reflections (with no fault of the Director, etc.) However, Hollywood is improving and there are some fantastic films being created and recognized - films that showcase empowered storytelling and an equally empowered production effort that tells a more authentic story.
Here is my list:
Directed by Barry Jenkins
This film tells the story of an African American man named Chiron and his struggles with life and sexuality from childhood to adulthood. Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2017.
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
This could seem like an odd choice being a comedy, but I think it says something. This story encircles a group of women who are financially debilitated post the 2008 crash, and decide to stick it to the sleazy Wall Street elite through dubious actions. Plus J Lo, Constance Wu, Cardi B and Lizzo are in it, so that's fun.
The Farewell (2019)
Directed by Lulu Wang
Based on Wang's own life, this film stars Awkwafina as Billi (which won her this year's Golden Globe for Best Actress in a comedy). Billi is dealing with job rejection while balancing her Chinese traditionalist values with her American upbringing. In short, it is a tale of self-discovery - worth a watch.