One of the most striking takeaways from this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) had nothing to do with a glitzy late-night bash, a seven-figure distribution deal, or even Johnny Depp. Instead, it was something hiding beneath the surface of a handful of high profile movies screening at the festival - something that might just tease a hugely important shift in the nature of modern Hollywood film-making.
A Handful of Movies Seem to Have Finally Worked Out How to Deal with Sexuality and Race
Now, considering Hollywood's long history of socially forward thinking movies and activism, that might not seem to be all that surprising a revelation - it is, on average, a far more liberal and progressive industry than most, after all. In the face of a society deeply divided on social issues, however - one in which outrage at the absurdly high rates of sexual assault and racial discrimination remains a polarizing issue, rather than a unifying one - the very idea of altering cinematic tropes and defaults to better fit the reality we all find ourselves living in is a more controversial move than it might initially seem.
That, though, is very much what seems to be happening. Take a look at Freeheld, for instance. In many ways, the Julianne Moore and Ellen Page-starring drama - about Det. Laurel Hester and her fight to have her domestic partner Stacie Andree receive the same benefits that a male spouse would - is a far less controversy-courting film than its subject matter, and topicality, might initially suggest.
Instead, the film plays out a whole lot more like an old-school and quintessentially All-American drama about rights, justice and freedom - think Erin Brockovich or A Few Good Men - than a scathing critique of inequality. Moore's Laurel Hester even makes that undercurrent of conservatism explicit, at one point reminding us that "the only thing I care about is justice for the woman I love." Page's Stacie hammers the point home late on, reminding us that she and Hester are "just average people."
In part, that's because a large part of Laurel Hester's fight has been pretty comprehensively won in the years since the real-life story took place, but the film is also arguing for a very different - and more Hollywood-friendly - approach to activism: to not actually want to be an activist at all, and to avoid the radical at every possible juncture. It strives to be normal, regular, ordinary - much as millions around the world oppressed by inequality do every day.
There's a similar process at work in The Martian, an outer space castaway tale starring Matt Damon. While in many ways a pretty straight-laced space actioner, The Martian also manages to continue the approach to on-screen space adventure pioneered by Star Trek: It makes diversity - both in terms of race and gender - so ubiquitous that questions of balance and representation can be replaced by genuine investment in the movie.
It's an unusual - and faintly ridiculous - thing to point out, but only around a third of the leading roles in the movie are played by white Caucasian men, something that remains highly unusual in either movies or TV. The fascinating thing about that, though? The movie remains riveting and hugely entertaining - living proof of diversity's lack of negative consequences.
Does that mean that Hollywood has, then, finally found a way to solve the fundamental problem of sexism, racism and general inequality?
Sadly, no. The thing is...
That's All Only Solving One Small Part of the Problem
Y'see, while movies like Freeheld and The Martian can very much be seen to be providing excellent examples of how to normalize issues of equality and diversity, and to make them tacitly accepted by parts of our society, they're also still subject to a whole lot of the stereotypes and inequalities of the world around them.
Freeheld, for instance, contains a highly problematic character in Steve Carell's Steve Goldstein, described by the Guardian as "a garish gay stereotype of comic relief." For all the film's subtle, complex and emotionally mature depictions of two women in love, it still struggles with a portrayal of a gay man that could easily be labeled grotesque. The Martian, it's worth noting, is packed full of casting diversity - but it remains hard to imagine it having been made with a non-white lead in the Matt Damon role.
Or, in other words:
Hollywood Hasn't Worked Out How to Deal with Sexuality and Race...Yet
With outlandish stereotypes, casting limitations and a whole catalog of inequality still very much present, it's impossible to say that where we are now is anywhere close to the end of a very long road - no matter the merits of the likes of Freeheld and The Martian. In a world where Cara Delevingne not being intensely scrutinized for having a relationship with a woman remains news, it's surely not yet viable to say that Hollywood knows how to deal with sexuality - much as an industry in which minority groups remain under-represented in movies by a factor of 3 to 1 can't be said to know how to deal with race. As Viola Davis put it in her acceptance speech at the Emmys a few days ago:
"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."
Things are, however, getting better, day by day, year by year. Much like Michael Shannon's character in Freeheld - a liberal, open-minded cop who still struggles with doing the right thing and living up to his own ideals - Hollywood is still trying to find a way to be the best version of itself. The good news? There're more and more reasons to be optimistic.
But that doesn't mean we're there yet.