Netflix Makes Sublime Films Like Atlantics Widely Available—but Only if You Know How to Work the Algorithm

The 2019 Movie Club, Entry 16.

A man stairs straight ahead in a car. Text in the corner says, "2019 Movie Club."
Amadou Mbow in Atlantics. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mk2 Films/Netflix.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.

Dear friends,

Well, I suppose it falls on me to decide whether to end this discussion on a note of Karen-esque cautious optimism or Bilge-like possibly apocalyptic pessimism. The very fate of cinema lies in these woefully unmanicured hands! I’ll try to be gentle.

The fact is that movies have been in some state of crisis or another since I started doing this job some *cough* *ahem* years ago, and they haven’t gone anywhere. You can make an argument that the industry is becoming more monolithic and measurably worse for it, and you can make an argument that it’s becoming more democratic and accessible in the streaming era—but what’s most accurate would be to point out that both of these things can be and are probably true at the same time. One of the most frustrating aspects about the internet’s tendency to casually assign moral weight and roles of heroes and villains (maybe we have been watching too many superhero movies after all) to every discussion is that it flattens out the inconvenient complexity of the situations we’re talking about.

Netflix, for instance, has been both at war with the theatrical experience and responsible for reopening the last surviving single-screen cinema in Manhattan after it closed in August. It’s made work from filmmakers from marginalized backgrounds—like Mati Diop’s sublime Atlantics, the first film from a black woman to be in competition in the long history of Cannes—available on an unimaginably wide global platform. The trade-off is that unless you’ve properly trained your algorithm, you wouldn’t  know that work is there at all. The problem with a digital world bent on giving us more of what we’ve already established we like is that we miss so much that we might, if given a chance to. Especially when it comes to something as definition-defying as Diop’s combination ghost story, romance, and exploration of the migrant crisis from Senegalese shores.

Disney, courtesy of the Fox merger, now oversees a huge back catalog of movies to which it has been capriciously cutting off access for most repertory theaters; it also launched its own streaming service with a wider showcase of older titles (with disclaimers about “outdated cultural depictions”) than Netflix has had an interest in offering in years. It has doled out milestones of representation, but only at its own incredibly conservative pace with its bottom line in mind, and often by way of revising its own work to sell it to audiences again in mildly updated form.

To describe these companies as saviors or destroyers of anything is to credit them with a more cohesive agenda than I think makes sense—they’re behemoths who happen to be reshaping the cultural landscape as they lumber in pursuit of the largest possible audience. I do think, to your point, Bilge, the ideal audience for these media giants and their competitors would be one that only consumes their product—one that, in the darkest scenario, just sits at home and gorges on a never-ending stream of content like a foie gras goose. At this point, Netflix’s biggest rival is Disney, but as CEO Reed Hastings said in 2017, in the kind of statement that surely didn’t sound as sociopathic in his head as it sounded out loud, the company’s real competition is with sleep.

I dunno, though. To use Karen’s metaphor, we aren’t lemmings, or to use mine, geese. The least pollyannaish counter I would offer to all this viewer doomerism is that people are just more fickle customers these digital days, and that one year’s hugely dominant platform can always become the next year’s Friendster. But I also find myself getting weary with how seldom we talk about having control over the things we consume and how we consume them, and how easily we shrug off agency in the face of convenience. Because that is, really, what we’re talking about here, with regard to going out to the movies (especially indies and imports that don’t come couched in the context of the familiar). It feels, to me, like it is a shift on par with ordering delivery online or shopping for incidentals using Amazon Prime or all of the other little frictionless additions that have attempted to insert themselves into our lives. It hasn’t necessarily gotten harder to do what we used to do before. It’s just gotten easier to choose otherwise, even if it comes with consequences we may not like all that much.

It’s not like there’s a moral imperative to see a movie in a theater. I do it because I love it, because losing yourself in the dark, alone but together with a room full of people, is a genuine pleasure. I do it for the same reason I buy my meat at the local butcher shop in my neighborhood and go to the bookstore nearby whenever I can—because I prefer the experience, and also because I want to live in a world in which these things continue to be around. I don’t mean this to sound intolerably smug, or like I’m trying to bulldoze over people who don’t have or can’t swing this choice. I happen to, and I try to exercise it whenever I can, because it doesn’t seem impossible that we’ll turn around one day and find it’s all gone, replaced by streaming services and ghost kitchens and multinational e-commerce conglomerates delivering whatever you need via drone. You’d never need to leave home, and anyway there’d be nowhere to go.

I did get to have a lot of great viewing experiences this year. I went to see the Wachowskis’ beautiful, bat-shit Jupiter Ascending in 3D at the Alamo Drafthouse at a half-empty screening attended mostly, it felt like, by people I knew. I watched a buoyant Jean-Michel Basquiat make his way around a bombed-out-looking early ’80s Lower East Side in Downtown 81, all while sitting in the Metrograph, which is located in a quiet corner of the now considerably swankier neighborhood. At the Hamptons Film Festival, I was just blown away by Yoon Sung-A’s documentary Overseas, a deeply empathetic portrait of Filipina women in training for stints abroad as domestic workers, a movie that I really hope gets theatrical distribution. And earlier this month, I went to my friend Estelle’s annual birthday held, in a family member–enabled flex, at the Criterion offices. I was there for the first half of her chosen double feature—Moonstruck, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager, and which I nevertheless remember better than some things I’d seen the week before. We giggled over the late, great Danny Aiello’s fumbled proposal, and wept over Olympia Dukakis’ kitchen table “ti amo,” and swooned at Nicolas Cage’s wild-eyed speech about how love ruins everything: The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! God, what a privilege, to get to see movies together. It’s one I hope everyone has more of in 2020.

Fingers crossed,

Read the next dispatch here.