The Movie Club

The best screenwriting of 2017.

Entry 14: Instead of racing to work with Woody Allen, actors should consider racing to work with these writers instead.

Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Mike White
Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Greta Gerwig, Mike White, and Jordan Peele.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by © Lacey Terrell, Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb, Steve Dietl - © 2015 Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Classics, and Nicole Rivelli - © WHILE YOU WERE COMATOSE LLC.

Dear Clubbers,

Early in 2017, a Netflix documentary that I wrote based on my book Five Came Back was released. (It is three hours, in three parts, and for the record, my feeling about whether it is a movie, a TV show, or something else has evolved all the way to: Whatever, just watch it.) After a career of writing about movies and TV, this was my first step over the line into the world of trying to create something on film (that is, as one cog in a huge collaboration), and I thought I might come to Movie Club brimming with some pearls of wisdom gleaned from my voyage to the Other Side. Here they are: 1) Making a documentary is hard. 2) Writing a movie is hard.

With that in mind, I’m going to use my final post in this series to salute a bit of the best work I saw in both areas. We could have devoted this entire week to praising documentaries—Dana and Amy and Kam, you’ve championed Wormwood and Casting JonBenet and The Work—so I’m going to go to bat for a movie that has stayed with me as filmmaking, as storytelling, and as an act of personal courage, Strong Island. In 1992, a black man, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., was killed in Central Islip, New York, by a 19-year-old white man, Mark Reilly. Reilly was arrested, but an all-white grand jury declined to indict him. Ford was the brother of Yance Ford, the director of this film, which is the story of how a tragic loss followed by an injustice can ripple outward for decades, a shock wave that never stops reshaping a family. Ford alternates first-person on-camera testimonials, backstory, footage of fruitless attempts to get answers (the movie begins with a brusque, emotionless rebuff from a lawyer who point-blank refuses to revisit the case even for a moment), and, most memorably, a portrait of Barbara Ford, a mother who has lived decades in grief and forces herself to bear witness as a final, brave attempt to give her story meaning.

Strong Island is moving—how could it not be?—but sometimes when a story is personal and painful, we can forgive certain filmmaking crudities and narrative lapses. There are none in this movie. Yance Ford has clearly thought hard and sharply about the most effective, meaningful way to tell a story that turns out to be more complicated than it first appears, and even the withholding of one crucial piece of personal information (which is about the withholding of one crucial piece of personal information) seems strategically and thematically appropriate. Strong Island is a documentary that, as the best documentaries do, grapples thoughtfully with issues of writing. That’s true for films as explanatory, powerful, and lucid as Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City and Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, and it’s true for a movie as intuitive and virtually wordless as Bill Morrison’s entrancing Dawson City: Frozen Time, a meditation on the permanence and impermanence of what cameras capture, and of film itself. It too is a story, beautifully told.

One of the last movies I watched on a screener in preparation for this was Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. It is bad; the script is first-draft terrible, no need to belabor it. And I’m not going to use this space to berate the actors who signed on to this project or onto his next one. But I will say that as an actor, if your attitude is  “I would do anything to be in X’s movie,” rethink X. Woody Allen, who doesn’t even show most actors the whole script, has held that slot for more than long enough.

So my new year’s wish is that for X, actors substitute Greta Gerwig, who made sure, in Lady Bird, that even characters as peripheral to the action as Stephen McKinley Henderson’s mournful high school drama teacher felt like full human beings who could have wandered in from, or off to, their own movies. Or Jordan Peele, who if anything has not gotten enough credit as a writer adroit and attuned enough to find distinctive and credible voices for actors as wildly varied as Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Allison Williams, and Lakeith Stanfield. Or Mike White and Noah Baumbach, who (in Brad’s Status and The Meyerowitz Stories, respectively) set the table for Ben Stiller to explore, in two completely different and equally persuasive ways, the middle-aged man’s terror of being a loser. Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter arguably did much the same thing for James Franco (age 39) playing Tommy Wiseau (age who knows?) in The Disaster Artist. These writers are generous to their characters while being unsparing of them; actors should salivate at that. And if Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon call, get back to them without delay: Writers who can make Ray Romano and Holly Hunter into such a completely credible, believably idiosyncratic couple that you’d want to see them paired again, as Nanjiani and Gordon do in The Big Sick, are to be treasured. It starts on the page—and that’s real. It’s not just something that Reese Witherspoon and Keanu Reeves say before they present the writing Oscars.

Dammit, I was going to get all the way through Movie Club without bringing up this year’s Academy Awards. But as I write this, the weeklong voting period has just opened. We’re less than two months away from an Oscars ceremony for which awards will be voted on by a substantially altered membership reshaped in the past several years as a response to the academy’s lack of diversity. They’ll be picking movies, as we noted at the start of this, considered within, if not shaped by, a mood of resistance, and struggling to honor an industry whose toxic misogyny and sanctioned abusiveness has been making front-page news for three months now, news that shows no sign of abating. There is no cordoning these ceremonies, or the movies they honor, off from the world in which they’re presented. And there shouldn’t be. In the spirit of guarded hopefulness, I will say that excites me. I hope the movies give us a ton to talk, think, and argue about over the next year. It’s been a joy touching base with you all about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.