the art and the artist

By Joshua Price

Given that awards season is now well underway many film fans will already be placing bets on or speculating who will take home a slew of Oscars and Golden Globes. A naïve person might assume that the best films will earn the most awards – anyone more familiar with the nature of awards will know that every year plenty of worthwhile films are overlooked due a lack of funding for proper campaigns or politics (in particular, the difficulty of some filmmakers’ complicated lives).

The latter of those reasons seems particularly relevant this year, with three award-favourites being put in a problematic position due to the history of the directors. On the surface ‘Sully’, ‘Birth of a Nation’, and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ are films that seem likely candidates for numerous awards; they are all uplifting, inspiring, and based on true stories with historical relevance – all attributes that awards juries eat up. The directors, however, have made matters complicated.

‘Hacksaw Ridge’, a gritty and brutal war film is based upon the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield who himself was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for ‘The Social Network’). Doss was a conscientious objector who refused to bear arms, yet was awarded the Medal of Honour for single-handedly saving the lives of over 75 of his comrades while under constant enemy fire during the Battle of Okinawa in World War 2. Director, Mel Gibson, despite being the recipient of numerous Academy Awards for ‘Braveheart’ has since been marred by numerous controversies – accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, domestic abuse as well as his alcoholism and various legal issues (to name but a few).

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Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger
Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger

‘Sully’ is based upon the Miracle on the Hudson incident in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 airline passengers by successfully landing on the Hudson River. Oscar favourite and widely loved Tom Hanks stars but director Clint Eastwood carries some baggage, recent baggage. Having appeared at the Republican National Convention and endorsed Donald Trump for President, Eastwood’s reputation as an esteemed actor and director has become a bit more controversial.

Perhaps, the most uncomfortable of all is ‘Birth of a Nation’ – intentionally named after the 1915 silent film by D.W Griffith that has gone down in history as one of the most unapologetically racist films ever made. Having received a significant amount of criticism for not having a more racially diverse field of nominees the Oscars are certainly looking for ways to redeem this by nominating a slew of more diverse filmmakers. The answer seemed to be in Parker’s film as it burst onto the independent festival scene; Parker’s inspiration to make the film out of a frustration for the lack of roles available for black actors made it seem the obvious and perfect candidate. But, it came to light that Parker had been charged with rape and sexual harassment in 1999 and was adjudicated under some shady circumstances, which has cast a serious shadow over the film.

Many approach these situations with a simple statement – “It (the controversy) is about the artist, not the art”. The sentiment is rational and one that I confess to using many times, especially when explaining why I love films like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Annie Hall’ despite the controversies surrounding Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Reviewing or watching a film is not about passing moral judgement on those who made it. As long as the filmmakers are not forcing their ideology onto the viewer then we should be able to put it aside, right?

The problem with this ideal is that art is often best analysed when it is put into context alongside the artist. In fact, when it comes to the examples listed, there are far more interesting discussions waiting to happen on why each filmmaker chose to tackle their story. ‘Sully’, a story about being scrutinised for one’s actions in an impossible situation and an overly complex modern world was all brought to life by a filmmaker known for deconstructing masculine icons from the cowboy, police officer, soldiers and in this case an heroic airline pilot. Then you have Gibson’s film, a faith based piece soaked in violence and brutality in a complex and dangerous world…this by the same director who brought us ‘The Passion of the Christ’ – chances are Gibson is choosing projects which give him a personal attachment to the source material.

Art is at its most interesting when analysed within the context of its maker’s broader body of work and the state of the environment to which they were delivered. Some of the most interesting filmmakers (and artists) of all time were seriously damaged individuals – Alfred Hitchcock was a controlling obsessive, Sam Peckinpah was a temperamental misogynist – their films reflected their flaws.

Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ marks his first directorial outing and so we do not have a broad body of work to compare it to. However, there is definitely something to discuss about the fact that this controversial person is the film’s writer, director, producer, financer and has cast himself as the lead role – a role he portrayed as the epitome of heroism and the only character to be anything other than a two dimensional background addition. If ever a movie invited an examination of its maker it is this one, to ignore him would be to ignore the writing, directing and main character. If you do that you don’t really have a film left to analyse.

Ultimately, while art should be judged based on its quality and not social morality, it is almost impossible to separate the art and the artist – they are inherently linked. By no means should you punish a film for the actions of its maker, but at the same time when you take into account those actions in the context of the film that is often when you discover the most fascinating aspects. 

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