Celebrating David O. Russell is not the Point of “Joy”
David O. Russell didn't get nominated for an Oscar. That's okay. This might even be good.
When a friend begs me to go see a movie, I admit, I relent easily. I want to be social, and I want to interact with her in the framework of something that matters to her personally. The problem is that under this policy, I have been subject to such atrocities as Step-Up 2, Alien Resurrection, and John Carter.
In high school, this policy netted me seven viewings of Titanic. In six of these I waited in the lobby until the midpoint of the film. The only part I liked was when the ship started sinking. I’ve never been keen on James Cameron’s sense of dialogue. I always love his visual choices and action sequences.
So when my roommate wouldn’t relent on seeing this controversial biopic about a woman who sold mops, that a lot of critics don’t like, I said yes. I squeezed into the second row of a packed small-viewing room at a popular chain cinema and quietly sipped a Cherry Coke. I walked out of the cramped theater liking it much better than I thought I would.
Joy is a complicated film. It’s steeped in the politics of the world in which the protagonist, based on entrepreneur and mogul Joy Mangano, finds herself, and it’s steeped in the politics of the contemporary screenwriting and directing world. These politics have included a review embargo, the question of exactly how much credit a female screenwriter should be receiving, and the politics that have surrounded Jennifer Lawrence as she has worked to earn more responsibility and financial compensation throughout her career. There are two points I can clearly take away from my viewing. The first is that we desperately need more films directed by women. The second is that we desperately need stories that give better opportunities for ensemble casts for the sake of popularizing a more intersectional feminism.
When we dabble into the idea that the medium might be the message in and of itself, as Marshall McLuhan once posited, it’s easy to see why.
The medium that is drama allows us to empathize with people who are very different than ourselves. The protagonist, in the hands of directors and screenwriters–and in the interpretation of talented actors–has had the power to influence us in modes of social change. In the past, effective biopics, ensemble films, and star vehicles alike have managed to achieve this end in means that start full-on counterculture movements.
This paradigm has been documented in many historical traditions over the course of humanity’s existence. It’s one of the primary reasons we tell stories. It’s why activists like Cherrie Moraga and
Bertolt Brecht told their stories through the medium as much as the Greeks, the griot, or anyone in corporate culture tells theirs through diverse media.
David O. Russell is an excellent filmmaker in this capacity–despite the fact that some critics believe that his interpretation does not succeed. I’m willing to agree to disagree. I was enthralled by Joy’s struggle to exist with family, friends, and adversaries in business. He had me with this film the same way that he had me with The Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Sad underdogs fake it until they make it. And when they do, they’re better, stronger people. I can’t argue with that story. Most of us live it out in one way or another. That said, I don’t think he needs or deserves an Oscar nomination. An Oscar nomination for this film is problematic, despite the fact he’s very, very talented.
The problem here isn’t that the stories told in Joy, or any other David O. Russell film aren’t compelling. It’s the entire situation that surrounds this film, and the institutions ready to post critical acclaim in one situation over another shows us exactly where the industry’s weaknesses lie.
We can’t continue to tell the stories of women or other people who have had to make choices about how they engage with systems of interlocking hierarchies that exclude them without also changing the way we tell them. We can’t do it effectively without further engagement from those who have lived the experience. And we are not going to do it well without creating opportunities to for those who have lived the experience to lead the way.
There are only two things I’d change about Joy. The first, is that I’d want Jennifer Lawrence to stop defending David O. Russell so much. I don’t care if he worked hard for you. The problem is with the academy, and a network of people who keep insiders high and outsiders out. But J-Law, please. For the sake of feminism, I want you to think about how much directing and producing you might be ready to bring to the table, and how much credit you might already deserve if this film is really your film.
The second is that I would have loved to see more of Dascha Polanco and all of the factory workers, plumbers, K-Mart Customers and the women inventors/entrepreneurs that were one-off moments. These are people whose stories were cut short for the expense of one tale. If this starts happening, perhaps influential people of color like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee might decide to end their Oscars boycott. Maybe not. Only they know what enough justice in this area looks like. We also need to start talking more about Annie Mumolo, and what part she had in writing this film. It does not defy reasoning to imagine there is much work for which she’s not getting credit.
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by Kate M
Kate Morgan is a raconteur who went rogue after turning her pen to write for several ventures in the start-up and entertainment worlds. She became addicted to critical theory when she took Foucault into her bones at the University of Texas in Arlington, after being poisoned and left for dead by Arlington Memorial Hospital in the period before the FDA had black box warnings on Cipro. Through a near-perverse sense of grit and determination, she fought neurotoxicity and poverty to earn her Master's degree. She has been an activist, scholar and person made of sinew and meat. She defies most other definition and convention.