Film and the Narratives of Pain

By: José Antonio Michelena

About the 2021 Oscar nominations

It is clear: 2020 was a terrible year, in which we were devastated by a pandemic. We suffer losses. We experience pain. That pain is in the air. He’s breathing. And cinematic art expresses it, even if it refers to other past and present realities, other pains, caused by injustice, discrimination, oppression, exclusion, wars: by ethnicity, skin color, gender, social group, religion, ideology…

The films nominated in the different categories of the 2021 Oscars echo that pain from a variety of performances that allude to uncomfortable, open, bleeding wounds, from the societies in which we live. As hard as those movies are (and they are) they should be seen. To remember, or to learn.

The pain of loneliness and loss (of the place of belonging, of the home, of the companion, of work, of the economy to subsist with decency) by a woman of mature age, near old age, is represented by Fern (Frances McDormand), the protagonist of Nomadland; but that pain can only be perceived from personal experience. That’s why his family and friend don’t understand why he doesn’t agree to live with them.

The answer is inside. In the solitude of his van Fern looks to a past where he was happy, at a time he will never return. His farewells of the year, between his memories and the cold, shouting Happy New Year in the parking lot without anyone responding, are expressions of deaf and deep pain.

But Fern is at peace with herself. Not so Cassie, the grieving lead character of A Promising Young Woman (Carey Mulligan). She feels guilty for not being able to help her friend Nina, raped and humiliated. Cassie finds no comfort in his pain and seeks him in revenge. The result is a very high-flying black comedy that deals with one of the great social issues of recent years: the desidy to sexual abuse.

Another type of pain is that felt by Martha, the protagonist of Fragments of Woman (Vanessa Kirby), who also suffers misunderstood and alone. Neither her husband nor her family understands the reason for her deep discomfort. They fail to understand the need to live the duel for the loss of the creature out of its womb, even if it has only been a few minutes in the world.

That great tormented man who was jazz singer Billie Holiday expressed like no one else the pain of her people, her own pain, in “Strange Fruit”: “Southern trees give a strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood on the root/black bodies swaying in the south breeze/strange fruit hanging from poplars.”

Abused by the violence of black and white men; pursued by the FBI for her song and her drug addiction (the pretext); and persecuted for her past, Lady Day carried the pain of being a poor black woman in a society crossed by systemic racism. That’s the reading left to us by the United States against Billie Holiday, a biopic of the last years of that wonderful jazz fruit, performed brilliantly by Andra Day.

The blues mother completes the quintet of the films whose actresses opt for the Best Leading Actress award at the Oscars, but unlike Billie Holiday, singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a controller. Her talent and strong personality allowed her to dictate the guidelines with producers despite being a woman, lesbian and black. His pain is contained, it doesn’t come out. It is Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the young trumpeter of his accompanying musical group, who assumes the account of pain: the nightmare of his mother raped by several white men and his father killed before completing revenge, will haunt him forever.

Anti-racial discrimination activism is at thematic center in two other films that grab three of the five Nominations for Best Supporting Actor: Judas and the Black Messiah, in which Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther party in Illinois (the Messiah) and Lakeith Stanfield represents a delator infiltrated the organization (the Judas); and One night in Miami, where Leslie Odom Jr epitomizes singer Sam Cooke.

Fred Hampton and Sam Cooke were killed early: the very young leader of the Black Panthers in the massacre carried out by police and the FBI, and the singer in strange circumstances at a snucking motel. Ten months before the musician was lasted, the fictional one-night meeting in Miami took place between him, Jim Brown (football star), Cassius Clay, and Malcolm X, at a Florida motel.

Judas and the Black Messiah and One Night in Miami have the virtue of showing us the human face of the African-American political organization, one of its leaders, and Malcolm X, within community activism and the family environment. This different version of the account of extreme violence they had offered us over the years is appreciated. Both Fred Hampton and Malcolm X were charged with their own pain and that of their brothers sacrificed and died for them.

Other nominated films offer various faces of pain. In Minari, to neglect the essentials to protect loved ones, from the wrong choices to achieve the American dream, from the strangeness of the immigrant in the face of a different culture; while the Father recounts the process of pain caused by Alzheimer’s, a disease whose shockwave crumbles everything around him; meanwhile the physical and psychological damage, but caused by another evil – the loss of a rock musician’s hearing – animates the plot of Sound of metal.

Pain is also present in Mank’s starring character. His lucidity and alcoholism do not free him from suffering. They accentuate it. His self-destructive vocation conveys pain. Mank is a torn jester, with a lot of pain inside, from the dimension of The Joker.

Finally, The Chicago 7 Trial is in connection with several of the named films. The struggles for civil rights, racism, corruption of justice, in the 1960s, are projected on the present. The list of deaths in the Vietnam War, at the end of the tape, is a colophon to remember the pain he left behind.

That very war, from its psychic and physical sequels, is reflected in Da 5 bloods, Spike Lee’s film that did not reach the race for the Oscars, although it did reach other relief awards, and which is also linked to A Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Mother of the Blues, and The United States against Billie Holiday.

It cannot be mentioned in this account, although it is also not nominated in any of the Oscar categories, to El mauritano. The suffering of its protagonist, a real character, fills the boundaries. That prisoner’s pain ordeal without cause is unspeakable.

Of course, this is an incomplete list of 2020 pain stories. Composed of the fragment of American film productions that favored the Hollywood Academy. In that country itself there are more examples that did not qualify in this elite, nor what to say in the rest of the world’s film production. Unfortunately, nothing indicates that cinema will no longer tell us new stories of pain this year and those that follow, because he is still there, nailed to reality, and expanding like a virus.

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