Spread The Love: Why We Need to Support Diversity In Films Beyond STAR WARS

Meryl Streep's turning in a great performance in an enlightened film that nobody is seeing.

Ricki and the Flash is an incredible movie – full of life, warmth and extolling the virtue of forgiveness in the face of questionable life decisions. It’s directed by one of our greatest American filmmakers (Jonathan Demme) and written by a woman (Diablo Cody) who has become a specialist in sketching mature, complex roles for actresses in smaller studio movies. The picture plays like an amalgamation of Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and Cody’s Young Adult; a fusing of sincere tolerance with barbed wit to create a companion to both of these wildly contrasting character pieces. At its center is Meryl Steep, a bona fide acting goddess, representing something of an abnormality at your local megaplex – a fucked up, boozy broad who has stumbled her whole life but is never actively condemned by this work of art that holds her as its beating heart. It’s a great role in a great movie played to absolute perfection.

Ricki and the Flash is going to fail at the box office – despite having a respectable opening per screen average and only dropping 31% in its second weekend – the victim of a studio unsure how to market an adult product amidst a summer maelstrom of CGI dinosaurs, post-apocalyptic car crashes and cape-donning superheroes. Now before you begin rolling your eyes, know that this isn’t going to be a testy diatribe about big spectacle having a chokehold on summer ticket sales. Plenty of other writers have spilled words decrying this near forty-year tradition already. Instead, what this writer has chosen to question is why, at a time when inclusive storytelling is a hot button topic of numerous think pieces and Twitter debates, we’ve chosen to mostly ignore a movie that’s not only written by and stars a woman, but also features a middle-aged interracial couple, openly gay characters and carries weighty subtext regarding class perceptions and gender roles in American society? Like Demme’s other familial masterwork (make no mistake: Rachel Getting Married is one of the GREAT motion pictures of the past twenty years), Ricki and the Flash is a melting pot movie that works to represent our current culture in a realistic fashion, offering critiques while remaining spectacularly moving for its duration.

The set up is simple: Ricki Rendazzo (Streep – portraying a character based on Cody’s mother-in-law) fronts The Flash, a dive bar cover band made up of San Fernando Valley geriatrics. She’s dead broke. Her tattoos are fading. She hates Obama. She reluctantly works days at a Whole Foods knockoff. In short, her life’s a bit of a wreck. Out of the blue, Ricki receives a phone call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), letting her know that one of her three estranged children, Julie (Steep’s real life daughter, Mamie Gummer), was just left by her husband and is in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Ricki’s wealthy, corporate ladder-climbing ex can’t handle it all by himself, as his second wife (Audra McDonald) is in Seattle, tending to her own ailing father. Thus, the rocker is forced to fly home and face not only the motherly responsibilities she abandoned when Julie was an adolescent, but also her son’s sexuality, and another’s impending wedding that was completely unbeknownst to her. Needless to say, it’s a bit of an emotional journey, but not in the way audiences necessarily expect.

In his mixed review, Devin hits on some of the reasons Steep’s character is a breath of fresh air in a modern studio movie:

Streep is terrific as Ricki, full of boozy life. She redefines being a senior, and Ricki is fully sexual and physical and alert and alive. In lesser hands Ricki would be unlikable - she simply never accepts that maybe leaving her family wasn’t the right choice - but Streep charms.

That refusal is intriguing; women never get to be the aging fuck-ups in movies, it’s always men leaving their families to find stardom or their dreams. Am I having a sexist reaction by finding Ricki’s lack of regret so irritating? I think I’m reacting more to a trope being busted - the prodigal son/father is supposed to return home to learn family is more important than work. The fact that Ricki never comes to this conclusion makes the seas of formula on which Ricki and The Flash sails choppy; that’s a good thing… when handled well. I’m not sure Ricki and The Flash handles it well.

I would take Devin’s sentiments regarding Ricki’s relationship with her children a step further, in that Ricki doesn’t simply regret pursuing a “musical career” (which is a very loose term here) instead of her familial “duty,” but is actively pushed to admit that traditional motherhood wasn’t a role she was supposed to play all along. Supporting Ricki’s choices is Greg (Rick Springfield – yes, the one who sang “Jessie’s Girl”), Flash guitarist and the man who wants a reluctant Ricki to call him her “boyfriend” (meta!). The relationship between Greg and Ricki could’ve easily veered toward cliché – the story of a guy who steers this wayward woman wrong, and whom she rejects in favor of a “normal” gender role in life. However, Demme and Cody take the opportunity to develop a tenuous union between two fuck-ups, as Greg sees an adrift companion who isn’t afraid to belt out Lady Gaga songs in an attempt to stay “hip.” She’s powerful and majestic and he stands in awe, even if her onstage political banter gets to be a bit much.

***Caution: Minor Spoilers Ahead***: There’s a moment in the third act where Greg lays out his failed marriage and strained relationship with his children, letting Ricki know that she’s not the only who has misstepped. Greg painfully caps his plea with: “I love my kids…don’t you?” A lesser movie would utilize Greg’s spiel as a “come to Jesus” moment, resulting in Ricki running off to the responsibility she never tended to. Instead, Greg’s confession becomes a painful reminder that our roles as human beings may not necessarily fit into pre-checked, conformist boxes, and we need to embrace our own flaws, no matter how others perceive them. It’d all be hippy-dippy bullshit if it weren’t for the distilled humanity on display, and Springfield sells it with every ounce of soul he’s got in him.

This theme of embracing one’s role later in life extends to Audra McDonald’s Maureen, who had to fill in for the absent Ricki after she married Pete. McDonald finds the tricky balance of being both stern and comforting, attempting to understand Ricki’s presence in her family’s home while also asserting that she’s now the matriarch of the clan she left behind. It’s an astonishing supporting performance that McDonald pulls off with only a handful of scenes, climaxing in the movie’s most heroic act of charity and forgiveness toward its main character. But one of the great unspoken subtexts in Ricki and the Flash is that Maureen is a black woman, taking on a motherly role in a white family, and the movie never once overtly addresses it. This could be viewed as Demme embracing his usual post-racial mindset (Rachel Getting Married prominently features interracial couples without so much as batting an eyelash, as well). Yet when combined with Ricki’s onstage Republican banter (she gripes about letting “you know who” in the White House, quickly apologizing to the Flash’s African-American keyboardist), McDonald’s casting could also be seen as a playful jab at Ricki’s somewhat racist tendencies (she later embarrassingly refers to her son’s Asian boyfriend as “looking like Bruce Lee”). It’s a subtly progressive comment on white American seniors that is never stated, but rather achieved through casting a role that could’ve easily been filled by a white actress with a person of color instead.

While the main motivator on my part is to get you to go see a movie I fell madly in love with (seriously, I spent roughly the last twenty minutes streaming tears of joy), it’s also a lamentation regarding the current state of film discourse and support. Over the weekend, the first cast still for Star Wars: Rogue One was released at D23, along with announcements that blew the hair back on Jedi enthusiasts everywhere (Mads Mikkelsen! Alan Tudyk!). Yet not everyone was pleased, as this initial photo placed Felicty Jones (who has been confirmed as the picture’s lead) front and center…and flanked her with nothing but men. Cries of “only one woman?!?” rang out across the Twittersphere, while Forbes reporter Scott Mendelson penned his own #hottake. While Mendelson praises the movie’s diversity in terms of how it represents different races, he takes issue with what he terms “Smurfette Syndrome”:

As nice as it is that Felicity Jones will apparently be the outright lead in the second upcoming Star Wars movie, it will be even better if the film doesn’t fall prey to “Smurfette Syndrome,” whereby Ms. Jones’s character is notable specifically because she is the lone woman in a story otherwise populated by men. The problem with this concept, even if the intentions are good, is that it teaches female audience members (and male audience members) that females being in said adventure situations is not “normal” and should be treated as “unique.” And let’s be honest, this should not be a tough problem to solve. You’re making a film about a group of what looks to be eight rough-and-tumble mercenaries or Rebel Alliance warriors? How about you make sure that maybe two or three of them are women just because females happen to make up around 51% of the population and happen to buy more movie tickets these days than males do? Again, it’s not a crisis, especially as we know little about how the film will turn out, but the cast reveal is a disappointing nugget to an otherwise pretty terrific day for Star Wars.

Here’s the thing: these worries aren’t unfounded. We should want demand well-written, diverse roles in all of our entertainment, both big and small. However, this demand should be shown in more ways than just tossed off criticisms regarding our biggest franchises. The choice of target is easy to understand: in our current culture of cinematic anticipation, unmade tent poles like Star Wars have the greatest visibility, and thus will attract the most feedback, both positive and negative. It’s the nature of the beast and what attracts readers. However, these complaints come off half-hearted if those who air them don’t also put their money where their mouths are and support movies whose creators are actively meeting their demands. For example: though Mendelson* gives Ricki and the Flash an admirably well-written positive review, the next two times he mentions the movie are only to report how poorly the picture is doing at the box office, complete with the line: ”oh well, at least Shaun the Sheep and Ricki and the Flash were quite good.” Wait…what? Where’s the think piece urging people to get up off their asses and see these “quite good” motion pictures? Studios only speak one language: money. And if we’re not out dialoguing with the box office in the dialect they understand, this means there’s no motivation for them to listen to your grievances regarding diversity in our entertainment. Futhermore, if said gripes are only leveled at the movies that garner traffic, they come off like opportunistic  grabs instead of genuine concerns.

Another great recent example of a movie striving to break the mold in terms of representation is Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a street level indie dramedy that intimately follows the lives of trans* working girls. Tangerine is bold and beautiful and bursting with the same love for people of all races, creeds and colors as Demme’s film. But beyond what’s on screen is what voices co-writer/director Sean Baker has chosen to incorporate during the making of his iPhone opus. Tangerine is exemplary because its primary listened to his stars** and ensured that their unique perspectives were integrated into the story, thus resulting in not only representation in physical form, but in worldview as well. This is an aspect of the concept of representation that often gets grossly left out of the discussion – the need to not just fill a “quota” (for lack of a better term), but also translate the experiences of marginalized individuals into storytelling. To wit, it’s not just about seeing women, people of color or LGBT persons up on screen, but also viewing the world through their eyes. That’s what great cinema is: a transportation into another individual’s headspace that allows the viewer to know the universe as they do, if even for ninety fleeting minutes.

Obviously, Ricki and the Flash and Tangerine aren’t operating on equal playing fields (not to mention even existing in the same universe as Star Wars), as one is a 2000+ screen release from Sony, while the other has popped up in major market arthouses for limited engagements (here in Austin, Tangerine played a single night special showing at the Ritz Drafthouse). Unfortunately, folks in Kansas aren’t going to have the opportunity to be graced with Baker and collborators’ often hilarious, touching vision. But this still doesn’t provide an easy answer for the disinterest in Demme and Diablo’s idiosyncratic studio picture. Do film writers and viewers only care about diversity in big budget blockbusters? Highly doubtful. Yet it's difficult not to be discouraged by a flood of vocal discontent whenever one of these movies’ cast list or plot synopsis is announced, only to watch diversity-touting motion pictures failing to receive the same amount of coverage. The blame doesn’t simply fall on theater-goers, as writers also have to make a conscious effort to spread the love to pictures they think are both quality motion pictures and a wealth of diverse worldviews.

In better news, the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton is a major triumph, utterly crushing its competition with a $20,000+ per screen take that added another notch to Universal’s 2015 Champions Belt (though recent stories regarding abusive omissions have tainted this victory somewhat). Universal continues to recognize that there’s a much bigger, broader audience than white-bred America, and that diversity is to be embraced on our biggest cinematic stages. At this point, there’s no arguing that the Fast & Furious franchise’s popularity is a great signifier of the world’s acceptance of an ethnically varied cast. Nevertheless, we need to support all films – big, mid-range, small and micro-budget - sporting themes of diversity and acceptance. Ricki and the Flash is one of these films. Tangerine is another. It may be too late to catch those in theaters (I just checked, and the Drafthouse I saw Ricki in is already jettisoning the movie this weekend), but it’s a fact that should remain constant in both our cinematic consumption and discourse.

Ricki and the Flash is an imperfect picture. Yes, the movie is jangly and rough around the edges (keeping with Demme’s usual style). Yes, some of Cody’s trademark zingers clash with Demme’s intrusive, naturalistic camerawork. But the core messages of the movie transcend its minor flaws. Demme has yet again crafted a film that favors loving those around you and forgiving transgressions instead of damning sins of the past, all while gifting Meryl Streep one of the best roles of her already intimidating career. These are overarching lessons any human being should take to heart and walk out of the theater brimming with hope for the future. Even if you disagree with everything else that’s said in this article, do yourself a favor and see Ricki and the Flash whenever you finally get the chance. This movie’s love will not let you down.

*I would like to take this moment to say that Scott Mendelson is one of the best writers out there covering the film business and that this piece is in no way a snipe at him, but merely an example in a greater conversation. I have nothing but respect for the man and what he does.

**Baker originally intended his film to be a darker drama until his two stars urged him to push the narrative into more comedic arenas.