This is my second annual compilation of films and tv-shows that made a conscious effort to recognize gender and race issues in an intersectional, inclusive, and original way. This year, I decided to add other major media events that stood out, such as Beyoncé’s launch of her video album Lemonade, and Barack Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ellen Degeneres. I felt particularly good about this project, when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced that beginning in 2019, works that do not demonstrate inclusivity in their production practices will no longer be eligible for the awards at the annual BAFTAs, often considered the U.K. equivalent of the Oscars. As consumers, we have a lot of power in deciding which films succeed at the box office. Personally, since I started to scan the annual cultural productions for intersectional feminist values, I stopped consuming works that are offensive, discriminating, sexist, racist, or otherwise disrespectful.The advantage of putting this list together with comparative data is that patterns begin to emerge in the choices of entertainment many filmmakers, actors, and comedians choose to produce each year. You will find a lot of the same usual suspects as last year. Of course, this list is not complete, despite my best efforts, but I am always open to suggestions and things I missed the first time around. So, here we go:
Broad City Season 3 (Comedy Central, February 2016) – The third season of Broad City (produced by Amy Poehler) makes you laugh out loud and giggle at the silliness of the adventures the protagonists get themselves into, but they also make you think about race, gender, privilege, relationships, friendships, and all the other important stuff. In one episode they end up at Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters and gush over her in complete admiration – that was great to see!
Girls Season 5 (HBO, February 2016) – This season opens with Marnie’s wedding and all the characters (male and female) going through extreme introspection and voicing their fears and insecurities, as well as their pent-up feelings about each other and life in general. The nature of friendships (not only among the female protagonists, but also the male characters) is foregrounded throughout this season. The kind of honesty that the characters verbalize with each other is rare in mainstream entertainment and takes the show to a new level, as we watch the characters mature and grow up. Season 6, the last season, will start in February.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS in the United States and on The Comedy Network in Canada, February 2016) – Hosted by the Toronto-born comedian and former The Daily Show with Jon Stewart team member, the witty and intelligent Samantha Bee is one of the very few female late-night hosts (along with Chelsea Handler) who combine politics, humour, and a no-holding-back-for-fear-of-not-being-liked approach to comedy (trail-blazed by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey). She was particularly good in her election coverage.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Broadway Video, Little Stranger, March 2016) – Adapted from Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2011), directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who made and wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), and produced by Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey, this is a film about a female reporter in Kabul, encountering constant sexism both from the locals and the Americans stationed there, but nonetheless kicking ass at her job and even orchestrating a rescue mission to save her reporter boyfriend. There is a moment at the end of the film when Tina Fey’s character is leaving Kabul, and knowing she does not want to return, she looks at everything for the last time, quietly contemplating her experiences as she is taking her leave. We see her as a transformed woman, who has become a successful foreign correspondent, and simultaneously experienced personal growth, emotionally and in her career. Her heroic deeds are acknowledged in a peaceful and solitary contemplation, as well as in meaningful conversations with the people she formed bonds with as she says her goodbyes. An inspiring and empowering journey of female self-actualization and empowerment despite gruesome patriarchal bullshit all around. Available on Netflix.
Hello, My Name is Doris (Haven Entertainment, March 2016) – Directed and co-written by Michael Showalter (the producer and co-writer of They Came Together with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd from 2014), this film is about a middle-aged single woman who sacrificed her personal life to take care of her elderly, hoarder mother, and who finds herself alone after she passed away, living a hoarder’s life, and falling in love with a new young colleague, who rejects her when she makes a move on him. But this brave act propels her to re-evaluate her life and make a new start for herself.Masterfully acted by Sally Field, who combines the tragic and comic sides of her character so well in every scene, this film has an emotional spectrum that is rare in mainstream cinema.
Beyoncé, Lemonade (HBO, April 2016) – Ever since her public “coming out” as a feminist circa 2013, particularly with her song “Flawless” that featured a spoken-word section by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Queen Bey has allowed us to watch her raise her feminist consciousness and gradually transform into an empowering force for black feminism, the #blacklivesmatter movement, and into one of the most inspiring artists of our generation.Lemonade is a power-house of female experiences, ranging from jealousy and anger to forgiveness and love. Particularly inspiring are the songs “Daddy Lessons” (“Came into this world, daddy’s little girl, daddy made a soldier out of me… tough girl is what I had to be”) and “Freedom” (“Hey, I’m a keep runnin’ cause a winner don’t quit on themselves!”), which she performed live this year, continuing to blow us away with her talent.
The Meddler (Stage 6 Films, April 2016) – Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, writer of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and director of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), who also wrote the original song “28” in the closing credits of Drew Barrymore film Whip It! (2009), The Meddler is a clever and touching mother-daughter narrative, as both women learn to cope with post-relationship solitude. Susan Sarandon plays the recently widowed mother, Marnie, who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), who quickly becomes overwhelmed with her mother’s overbearing care and attention, while she struggles with a recent break-up. As Marnie begins to re-channel her kindness and care towards other people who are more in need of her assistance, she starts helping them and her life regains meaning and substance again. In one scene, Marnie tells Freddy, a boy she drives to night classes, “Sometimes a person seems like they don’t care, but they’re just not as strong as you are. […] Be extraordinary!” In another scene, Marnie points out to Zipper, her new romantic interest, who has a tense relationship with one of his daughters, “Everybody knows their mothers love them unconditionally, but fathers have to say it out loud, I think.” The film is an uplifting and insightful view of how we deal with loss, grief, change, and different kinds of relationships in our lives. Available on Netflix.
Alice through the Looking Glass (Disney and Tim Burton Productions, May 2016) – Alice is back to save the Hatter, and she is even stronger, more independent, and even more feminist than before. Despite the eek-factor of watching Johnny Depp in anything after watching him throw phones at Amber Heard’s face on YouTube (there is a brief scene where the Hatter turns against Alice despite her best intentions to help him, which seems beyond creepy in light of his violent outbursts against his ex wife), the film is overall quite enjoyable, and Mia Wasikowska is a joy to watch in the role of the more mature Alice. Written by Linda Woolverton, who wrote Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast (the first Disney film to be nominated for an Oscar), and directed by James Bobin, the co-creator of the Ali G. Show, Borat, Brüno, and Flight of the Conchords, this is a pretty good sequel with a strong female knight-in-shining-armour as the film’s main protagonist (despite the marketing efforts to foreground Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter on all promotional materials), who can not only help herself, but also save Wonderland again with everyone in it.
Chelsea Weekly (Netflix, May, 2016) – This is Netflix’s first 30min talk show hosted by stand-up comedian and author Chelsea Handler, who does not hold back, and constantly calls herself and other out on their shit. She is refreshingly blunt, honest, unpretentious, smart, feminist, and very funny. Each episode has a funny, silly, and educational or consciousness-raising component. Chelsea invites great, inspiring guest, and does not shy away from self-deprecation when talking to highly-educated and accomplished people. The short segments and interviews retain even the shortest attention spans. Season 1 is available on Netflix with three episodes each week.Season 2 will be back in April.
The Good Wife (CBS and Netflix, September 2009 – May 2016) – This year concluded the final, seventh season of this show that managed to combine a smart law, detective, and relationship drama under one roof, with strong and inspiring female protagonists, a diverse cast, and the acting genius of Alan Cumming. Created by Robert and Michelle King and produced by the brilliant Ridley Scott, the series focused on the wife of a high-profile male politician following the events of a public sex scandal, inspired by prominent American scandals involving former president Bill Clinton and North Carolina senator John Edwards, as their wives stood silently beside their husbands when they publicly admitted to sexual or political misconduct. This is the story from the wife’s perspective, and what she makes of her life after the scandal. Each episode is a new law case that illuminates racial prejudices, corruption, and sexism ingrained in the American legal and political systems. All 7 seasons are available on Netflix.
Ghostbusters (LStar Capital and Village Roadshow Pictures, July 2016) – Directed by Paul Feig (the creator of Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy) and produced by Ivan Reitman (the Canadian producer of the first two Ghostbusters films) this is a great film, despite all the bad publicity stirred up by sexist web trolls and racists, who did not want to see this film rebooted with four women in the lead roles. Watching this I realized I really enjoy watching women kick ass and do things well. These four women are really good at their jobs, are witty, and can save the world from maniacs who unleash ghosts on the whole city. I also enjoy seeing women being smarter, more capable, and more impressive than the dudes around them (“safety lights are for dudes!”), whom they only keep around as eye candy. This movie got a lot of criticism, both from the dudes and trolls who didn’t want four women protagonists, and from the feminists who didn’t think the film pushed the feminist agenda far enough. But for a silly-scary-funny summer blockbuster that was trying to appeal to all types of audiences it was pretty entertaining. And just like last year’s Star Wars, it proves, how fun it is to watch women fight and win, and even save some men.
Equity (Broad Street Pictures, July 2016) – This film is made entirely by women about an industry dominated by men with fragile egos and emotions (Wall Street), within an industry dominated by men (Hollywood) who do not care to tell women’s stories and don’t fund them. Written by Sarah Megan Thomas and Amy Fox, directed by Meera Menon, and produced by Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, as well as several female Wall Street investors, this film tells the story of a senior investment banker, Naomi Bishop (brilliantly and powerfully played by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), who finds her career undermined by scandal, corruption, betrayal, and a system that constantly undervalues female expertise and power. The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, and was released in the U.S. in July 2016. In one scene, when Naomi exposes her boyfriend’s betrayal and sabotage of her work, he tells her that no matter what happens to her client, she will be “fine;” to which she replies, “I was never supposed to be fine, I was supposed to be a goddamned rainmaker!”
Snowden (Endgame Entertainment, Wild Bunch, September, 2016) – Directed by Oliver Stone and written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, this film is a German-American co-production and is based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. It opened with a screening at Comic-Con on July 21, before premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, with a wide North-American release a week later. The film portrays the life of Edward Snowden before and after the events of June 2013, when he leaked classified NSA documents to The Guardian, revealing the illegal and global cyber-surveillance performed by the U.S. government after 9/11 (depicted in Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras in 2014, which won the Oscar for best documentary film in 2015, and is available on Netflix). Similar to last year’s best picture winner Spotlight, this is a well-made and well-acted suspenseful, investigative drama based on recent real-life events that affect us all. The film has personal and political depth, as well as an emotional one, as we watch courage unfold in the face of corruption. In October 2013, Gordon-Levitt identified himself as a feminist, giving credit to his mother, a feminist activist in the 1960s and 70s.
Queen of Katwe (Disney and ESPN Films, September, 2016) – Directed by Mira Nair, the creator of Mississippi Masala (1991), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), and Amelia (2009), and starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, and introducing Madina Nalwanga, the film depicts the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy from Katwe, who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at World Chess Olympiads.Adapted from an ESPN magazine article and the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster by Tim Crothers, the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and had a wide release on September 30th. The story is a powerful depiction of hope and despair, struggle and mastery, hardship and empowerment. HAB and Young Cardamom recorded the song “Number 1 Spice” that will have you dancing in your seat! In one scene, when Phiona is losing faith and beginning to despair, her teacher Robert Katende reminds her that even when we fail, “what matters is when you reset the pieces and play another game.” This is an inspiring coming-of-age and mother-daughter narrative, with two strong female protagonists and a male ally who helps them both to thrive and grow.
The Denial (September 2016) – Based on the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005), and directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, 1992 and L.A. Story, 1991), this film tells the true story of the university professor Deborah E. Lipstadt, who included WWII historian David Irving in a book about Holocaust deniers (1993), and is sued for libel by Irving in Britain in 1996, where the burden of proof is placed on the accused. Lipstadt and her legal team fight to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred. After Irving denied the Holocaust in two speeches given in Austria in 1989, the Austrian government issued an arrest warrant for him and barred him from entering the country. In early 1992 a German court found him guilty of Holocaust denial and he was subsequently barred from entering Germany. Other governments followed suit, including Italy and Canada, where he was arrested in November 1992 and deported back to the United Kingdom. After the libel suit, he was also liable to pay all of Penguin’s costs of the trial, estimated to be as much as £2 million. When he did not meet these, Davenport Lyons moved to make him bankrupt on behalf of their client. He was forced into bankruptcy in 2002 and lost his home, though he has been able to travel around the world despite his financial losses. The film had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, and was released in the U. S. on September 30th.Lipstadt was a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 1994 she was appointed by Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, serving two terms. When watching this film, it was striking how recent these events were, and to what extent ridiculous old white men can still get away with utter bullshit and still retain public power (or be elected to office).
Moonlight (October, 2016) – Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this film tells the coming-of-age story of a young man dealing with his dysfunctional home and school life in Miami during the “War on Drugs” era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life, as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.Shot in Miami, it first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. With stellar performances by Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali, the film also has striking cinematography and soundtrack. Nominated for 6 Golden Globes.
Presidential Medal of Freedom (November 22, 2016) – In 2013 President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gloria Steinem and Oprah. In 2014 to Meryl Streep, and in 2015 to Barbra Streisand. This year, he honoured Ellen DeGeneres, the award-winning comedian who has hosted her daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show since 2003 with her humor, humility, and optimism. In 1997, after coming out herself, DeGeneres made TV history when her character on Ellen revealed she was a lesbian. In her work and in her life, she has been a passionate advocate for equality and fairness.
Loving (Random Films, November 2016) – This is the most moving and consciousness-raising film of the year! Like Ava DuVerney’s Selma (2014) two years ago, this film makes you stop in your tracks and think about all the privileges you take for granted on a daily basis. I watched this film the day after I saw a TED Talk on queer love and marriage, and realized to what extent straight white people (myself included) take love and marriage for granted, while others have to bitterly fight for the basic rights to love and stay together. Inspired by Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story (2011), written and directed by Jeff Nichols, produced by Colin Firth, and masterfully performed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Their lawyer Bernie Cohen is played by comedian Nick Knoll (Amy Poehler’s partner), in his first major serious role on the big screen, and he holds his own next to the other high-caliber protagonists. In a scene towards the end of the film, when Bernie asks Richard Loving what he should tell the supreme court judge on his behalf, Richard answers, “Tell him I love my wife!” Nominated for 2 Golden Globes.
Miss Sloane (FilmNation Entertainment, November 2016) – Directed by John Madden, who is known for making films with strong female leads, such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Debt (2010), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), this film tells the story of Elizabeth Sloane (masterfully played by Jessica Chastain), the most sought-after and formidable lobbyist in D.C. Known equally for her cunning and her track record of success, she has always done whatever is required to win. But when she takes on the most powerful opponent of her career, the NRA, she finds that winning may come at too high a price. Jessica Chastain managed to outdo herself in this film – she plays an insomniac powerhouse strategist, who is both brilliant and borderline psychotic (similar to Claire Danes’ character on Homeland) in her pursuit of her goals.
Moana (Disney, November 2016) – In the last few years, Disney began making animated films with strong and inspiring female protagonists, including Frozen (2013), last year’s Inside Out (2015), and Zootopia (2016), whose narrative quests do not revolve around men (they all pass the Bechdel test). While still featuring entertaining male characters, such as the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, The Rock), the film is about the relationship between Moana, (voiced by Hawaiian native, Auli’i Cravalho, for whom this film is a debut) and her Gramma Tala Waialiki (voiced by Rachel House), both of whom have a passion for the ocean and adventure beyond the confines of their island and their community. In many ways, this story is a Bildungsroman as well as a quest narrative (traditionally denied to female heroes), as the protagonist tests and pushes her own limits, learns essential survival skills along the way, overcomes her own fears and limitations, and returns to her community and family as a wiser and empowered heroine, and a true leader. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the makers of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992), the film features music written by Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina.
La La Land (Gilbert Films, December 2016) – Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, creator of Whiplash (2014), the film tells the story of an aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, who learned to play piano and dance for this role), struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. In a non-traditional breaking with romantic conventions, this film explores the difficulty of sustaining relationships and careers simultaneously, and and why we still believe in love and dreams despite the gut-wrenching daily struggle to make ends meet. The musical cast includes musician and self-proclaimed feminist John Legend. Whiplash composer Justin Hurwitz created another masterful soundtrack, with songs, such as “City of Lights” (nominated for a Golden Globe) and “Audition / The Fools Who Dream” that will stay with you for days and weeks afterwards. The audience members kept whistling the melody while exiting the theatre. Winner of 8 Critic’s Choice Awards. Nominated for 7 Golden Globes.
20th Century Women (Annapurna Pictures, December 2016) – written and directed by Mike Mills (creator of Beginners (2010) with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer), it premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 8, 2016.and was released on December 28, 2016. Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, it tells the story of Dorothea Fields, a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie, and enlists the help of two younger women to help with Jamie’s upbringing. Abbie, a free-spirited punk artist who rents a room in their large house, gives Jamie feminist books to read and teaches him about clitoral stimulation, orgasms, and how to talk to women, and Julie, a teenage neighbor and Jamie’s childhood friend, teaches him about love and friendship. Mills took inspiration from his mother and sister to create the characters of Dorethea and Abbie, stating, “It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters, so I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy. So I wanted to make a movie about that.” The film is nominated for 2 Golden Globes.