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Pop Stuff: Masculinity In Motion

In casting conventional masculinity aside or putting it on trial, Hollywood can embrace a long-overdue reckoning with what we tell men they need to be, something we often overlook on the path to empowering women, even as the two go hand in hand

Soleil Nathwani Jan 23, 2021

Riz Ahmed in 'Sound of Metal.' Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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It seems fitting for an industry that awards gold-plated statuettes of a buff, naked, sword-toting man standing atop a film reel, to cherish a certain kind of manhood. In years past Hollywood has handed Oscars to actors for playing men that are larger than life and fall into a handful of categories – the great leader, the phenomenal talent, the tortured antihero, the formidable champion. Consider the vaunted courage of Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln, Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill (The Darkest Hour) or Colin Firth’s Prince Albert (The King’s Speech). Rami Malek’s Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody and Eddie Redmayne’s Hawking in The Theory of Everything wowed by exalting genius. Matthew McConaughey’s foul-mouthed outlaw, Ron Woodroof, in Dallas Buyer’s Club was the transformative, tortured-hero role that elevated him from ‘dude’ to dramatic star. And what of the moment in The Revenant when frontiersman Hugh Glass is driven to eviscerate his horse and climb inside the carcass to survive the blistering terrain? Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for the role after several worthy nominations because Glass faced down death against unthinkable odds. 

These Best Actor winners, all of the last decade, paint a picture of the kind of masculine greatness we elevated until we began to re-think patriarchy. Again. Hollywood’s most recent Best Actor trophy was awarded to Joaquin Phoenix for The Joker, a character who encapsulates toxic masculinity and is squarely rejected by society. In retrospect, perhaps the moment portended a change; Hollywood was coming around to the idea that the male aggression it had propped up was in fact, absurd, a joke. Recent discourse has fueled an examination of gender expectations, of the traits we encourage in boys and men and cleared the way for a bounty of performances from actors in 2020, and hopefully beyond, that strip the conventions of manhood from the man to reveal a more fragile humanity. As evidenced in portrayals from legends of screen to rising stars, male leads are shedding dual cloaks of invincibility and eminence. After having won an Oscar almost three decades ago for his chilling portrayal of a serial killer who skinned his female victims, Anthony Hopkins’ much-awaited performance in The Father sees the veteran actor play an aging man struggling with dementia, in what many believe to be his best role. In the wildly anticipated The White Tiger, newcomer Adarsh Gourav spectacularly inhabits the role of a lower-caste servant in Delhi, giving the lie to the Bollywood hero. These lauded performances shine by evoking an everyman in place of a great one.

Crucially, in a year where Trumpian became an adjective associated with belligerent machismo, cinema’s most illuminating male roles have been performances from men who have spent their careers examining vulnerability. Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun and Chadwick Boseman delivered by leaning into limitations, giving male leads features beyond prominence and power to look to. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone in Darius Marder’s feature debut Sound of Metal, an Amazon release that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. As a drummer who suffers hearing loss in his prime years, Stone’s life comes apart as his deafness threatens to tear him apart from it. Steven Yeun is unforgettable as Jacob Yi in Lee Isaac Chung’s soon to be released Sundance winner Minari. He plays a father of two struggling to build a life in 1980s rural America, turning in a devastating portrait of a man dogged by failure. The late, great Chadwick Boseman is a stirring picture of one man’s struggle in the film adaptation of Pulitzer-winning, Black playwright August Wilson’s work Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix release. As Levee, an ambitious sessions musician, Boseman embodies the painful contradictions that shroud the Black experience. In exposing body, mind and soul, this trifecta lead us to reconsider the twenty-first-century hero. 

In the opening moments of Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed electrifies. We see a man fully and completely at home in himself and in control of his body as he thrashes his drum set under the spotlights of a pulsing concert while a woman roars out a tune. Ruben is all virility; torso and biceps throwing themselves into the music while his soulful eyes and angular jaw register the song’s momentum. Ahmed, who learned how to drum for the scene, which was filmed during an actual concert, inhabits the role so completely that the punk metal sounds take on a trance-like quality. In the next sequence. the trance continues, albeit at a more meditative pace. Ruben wakes up the following morning aside the singer, who we learn is his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). In their cramped but homey RV, he performs a well-worn routine – making breakfast, putting on the coffee machine, doing squats. The sound design, a rich complex world brought to us by Nicolas Becker (Gravity and many more), is constructed to make us feel like we are living inside Ruben’s head. We hear the whirr of the smoothie maker, the drip, drip, drip of the coffee, the crack of his knees, the swish of the needle as he turns on the record player. We are right there with him until he wakes Lou and internal and external coalesce.

In the film’s subsequent sequences, we become aware that Ruben is losing his hearing as a parallel sonic experience. The next day there is no drip from the coffee machine, voices become muffled, there is a deafening silence between his ears making that night’s gig unbearably disorienting. Interior and exterior become dissonant as Ruben, a heroin addict who has been clean for four years as he established a life on the road with Lou, comes to the terrifying realization that in losing his hearing he stands to lose an identity and a reality he has fought hard for. Lou convinces him to visit a rural, sober clinic for deaf people run by the kindly but stoic Joe – a role that hits close to home for actor Paul Raci, who himself is the hearing son of deaf parents. When Ruben lapses into a rage during the trip, Lou aware and afraid that Ruben is slipping back into a dangerous cycle, leaves him at the center to grapple with the decisions he must make. In a tearful goodbye, where he promises to return to her, it is clear that the man on the other side of this won’t be the same. 

In another actor’s hands, Ruben’s journey runs the risk of striking a shrieking note of melodrama amid personal tragedy. Director Darius Marder was right to believe that Ahmed was up to the challenge of learning to play the drums and then immersing himself in a community of deaf actors to convey the particular devastation of Ruben’s sudden hearing loss. For Ahmed’s part he gravitated to a role that many might have considered too risky after scaling blockbuster heights in Jason Bourne, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Venom. The resulting performance, for which Ahmed just took home a Gotham Award, feels as heartbreakingly restrained in its quiet moments as it is mightily credible in its explosive ones. Ahmed, as with many of his prior roles including Trishna, Nightcrawler and The Night Of, for which he was the first person of South Asian descent to win an Emmy Award, is able to stand precipitously on the knife-edge of the absurdly real but often terrifying manifestations of our dark edges as human beings. As Ruben tries to come to terms with his fury over navigating the world as a deaf person and struggles over the decision to have cochlear implants that would cost him his RV, he realizes that he is grappling with a new self that compromises everything he believed identified him; his endurance, his music, his home. Ahmed’s biggest coup is in bringing to light Ruben’s self-actualization through his perceived weakness, the realization of a full identity through the shedding of a constructed one. As the film progresses he allows this to sink in for us as if leading us into a meditation ourselves. 

Ahmed, who learned American sign language to act alongside the cast of deaf actors, has expressed his appreciation for a project that exposed him to deafness as a culture and not a disability and for the process of having to act without spoken words as a gift that brought him closer to himself. Perhaps it is because understanding identity and striving for authenticity have been the threads that run through all of Ahmed’s work that his performance here sparkles so brightly. In many ways, 2020 was the year Ahmed came to manifest his selfhood in the public sphere with remarkable clarity. In March of 2020 Ahmed, also a talented musician, rapper and wordsmith, released his album and accompanying short film, The Long Goodbye, a beautiful and unapologetic account of what it is to be Brown, British and Muslim, at a time when nations, particularly his own by birth if not ancestry – Brexit-Britain – seemed to be failing many. Just weeks prior, in February Mogul Mowgli, the story of a British-Pakistani rapper coming to terms with both identity and illness, directed by Bassam Tariq and co-written and produced by Ahmed, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Already in 2021, Ahmed has signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios for his production company, Left Handed Films, which has a mission to stretch cultural inclusivity. The calm with which Ruben accepts, indeed chooses, his fate at the close of Sound of Metal, the quiet resilience with which he is able to let go of his prior life, brings an unexpected comfort that is consistent with Ahmed’s oeuvre, one which has repeatedly shown us that labels do not define us, we define ourselves.

Steven Yeun in ‘Minari.’ Photo: A24

Steve Yeun in Minari, similarly calls forth the idea that our expectations of ourselves can be roadblocks and that by pushing up against them and failing, we gain a new lease on life. Director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film, which centers on a Korean-American family moving states from California to Arkansas in 1980’s America to look for a fresh start, could have been just one more interesting take on the immigrant story. It emerges as an immersive look at life in remote, rural America that is rife with a specificity that can only come from unlocking lived experience. Yeun plays Jacob Yi, father to a young son afflicted with a heart murmur, David (breakout star Alan S. Kim), and a teenage daughter, Anne (Noel Cho) and husband to Monica (Yeri Han). Monica, sensitive but pragmatic, resents her husband uprooting their family to pursue his ‘American Dream’ of owning fifty acres of farmland in order to be his own boss. She bristles at exchanging a predictable, striver’s life in California for a house on cinderblocks in a field, a long trek to the nearest hospital and miles from other people, let alone other Koreans. To appease his wife, Jacob brings his mother-in-law Soonja (a brilliant Yuh Jung-Youn) to live with them. The family is variously strained as Soonja tends to home and children while the couple slog on a chicken sexing farm and Jacob spends every spare hour tending his fields. 

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The financial and marital difficulties that drive things to a fierce breaking point in Minari occur as David’s relationship with his grandmother, a push-pull between the old and new, tradition against modernity, motherland versus homeland, is foregrounded. Yet it is Yeun’s presence as Jacob, looming large in the background, struggling and failing and carrying the future of his family precariously with him, that lends heft and grandeur to a humble story. Although Jacob has minimal dialogue with the other characters, in his eyes as he surveys his land, in the initial suspicion with which he treats the Pentecostal farmhand and in the slump of shoulders after back-breaking work, we see the reserve and silent struggle that defined many immigrant fathers of the time. He stuns in his careful reveal of the flip side of the outmoded, conservative father-figure that appears so often in contemporary content, in the guise of woke-ness. Chung and Yeun, both Korean men with immigrant fathers, imbue the story with their distinct, dramatic child’s-eye vision of a parent. Chung has said that his own father’s fascination with the promise of America was spurred by two iconic James Dean films – Giant and East of Eden and has stated that in making Minari, his most personal film, he sought to have it reflect and re-imagine these classic frontier films. For his part Yeun as Jacob is a Dean of his time – a hero of the American outback and a much-needed update to the ‘all-American’ family fabric. 

None of this is surprising. Yeun is an actor with incredible range who is no stranger to dismantling stereotypes. When he rose to fame playing Glenn Rhee in the post-apocalyptic, horror television series The Walking Dead, he was widely credited for working to smash the geek-kid tropes of Asian Americans by portraying the closest thing the zombie show had to a romantic-hero and becoming something of a sex symbol. After leaving the show, in its seventh season, he pursued non-commercial fare and took on roles in critically acclaimed films including Bong Joon Ho’s Okja and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You before winning plaudits for a lead in Lee Chang-Dong’s Cannes Critics’ Prize-winner Burning. Driven by experiences of having to code-switch in his youth, the term that describes the way marginalized people who assimilate into White culture must toggle between their public and private personas, Yeun was determined to pursue authenticity in his roles and bring a fullness to them. His turn as the wealthy, mysterious Ben in Burning, poles apart from Minari’s Jacob, still sizzles with the same remarkable screen presence because Yeun’s interpretation of the characters brings a piercing veracity to the performances. 

Much of the impact of Minari lies in the candor with which the film tackles marital conflict and failure, still taboo topics in many Asian families, through Yeun. Chung hones in on what it is like to fail your family when Jacob ostensibly falls short as both bread-winner and partner. In a wrenching scene Monica, frustrated with Jacob’s persistence with the farm despite a number of setbacks and concerned with David’s health, issues an ultimatum. She will go back out West with the children and he can stay or come along. Yeun masterfully registers the gamut of Jacob’s shock, anger, defiance and ultimate sorrow over pushing his family away, as the camera rests on his barely moving face. The day continues to be one of reckoning. That evening, flames engulf the barn that houses the farm’s precious harvest. Jacob and Monica try desperately to save the crop before Jacob shifts course and leads Monica to a safe distance from the barn. The dramatic climax of an otherwise self-possessed film, recalls Steinbeck. Flames diffuse the tension that has been simmering inside Jacob from the moment Monica declared in their new home, ‘This isn’t what you promised’. The shadow of a man embracing his wife against a raging fire, draws a flood of palpable relief and emotion that we were not aware we had shored up. Yeun collapses before his family to emerge with a sensitivity that signals conventional emasculation enabling unconventional empowerment. In Chung’s critically lauded novel American story, Yeun shifts the notion of the American man. 

In a luminous and devastating turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman is as fiery as Yeun is subdued, His presence in the film as the fictional character of Levee opposite Viola Davis who plays Ma Rainey, dubbed the ‘Mother of the Blues’, crackles with the energy of a live wire. It is a different Boseman here from the one who had a remarkable career in the prior decade, before losing a private battle to cancer last year at the too-young age of forty-three. Boseman, who was propelled to superstardom in Black Panther, a film that smashed box-office records and made history on multiple levels, not least being the entirely Black cast, has repeatedly carried the mantle of dignity. As the titular Black Panther he is a symbol to a generation of Black boys of their limitless capabilities and in inhabiting Black icons from Jackie Robinson, the six-time all-star baseball player and first Black man in a notoriously White sport, to legendary civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall, Boseman embodies all sorts of Black excellence. Even in playing the rebellious James Brown in an astounding performance in Get On Up, the weight of genius is conferred on him. As Levee, Boseman is allowed to be instigator instead of institution. Freed from an outsized identity, Boseman’s laid-bare, parting gift is a role that can be more completely his.

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This film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is adapted from one of August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’, a set of ten plays known for their depiction of the Black experience over the twentieth century. Events transpire on a hot Chicago afternoon in 1927 in a recording studio. Ma arrives shortly after her band with nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), and girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), in tow. Prior to Ma’s arrival her trumpeter, Levee, has been engaged in spirited banter with the other, notably older, band members – pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) and double bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Their repartee, so brilliantly crafted that Levee’s rejoinders have the feisty cadence of his musical hopes, sees the young trumpeter who is brimming with new songs, at odds with the band who assume their place, both with Ma as leader and as Black men in a racist social structure. The entrance of Ma and the two White studio bosses, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), creates a tight square of tension. Ma is determined to hold on to her power against a studio eager to profit off her music and to push back on Levee who is desperate to pull her into the future. The film exposes the iniquitous place of Black life, the appropriation of Black culture and the pride, resignation and anger as evidenced in turn by Ma, her band and Levee with which Black people respond to systemic oppression, in order to survive. 

Levee is an astonishing study in the easy charm of a talented, wily aspirant that is gift-wrapping on a man simmering with the pain of trauma and frustration of unrecognized talent. When the band challenge what they see as his sidling up to the studio bosses, the effervescent Levee turns stormy, recounting just how intimately he knows racial injustice by retelling the childhood horror of watching as his mother was assaulted by a gang of White men. Later, when his music is rejected by Ma and the band and eventually tokenized by the very studio heads who Levee was banking on, his despair turns outward to rage. In a single afternoon, Boseman paints a picture of a man who is careening, optimistically, then slyly, then fatally, through life. Unlike Ahmed’s Ruben or Yeun’s Jacob, Levee is powerless against his despair, perhaps because it sprouts from too dark a place. Just like these men, he brings us in such intimate proximity to its source that we see him as a man apart from his prescribed identity, his outer shell. Boseman himself prized specificity, seeking to reveal men outside of their Blackness. When critics lauded him for ‘taking the baton’ from Denzel Washington, Boseman railed against the notion that there should be space for only one Black lead, one baton. He re-imagined and expanded the coveted space Hollywood gave him with the same clarity that Levee rejects the notion that his place should be assigned to him, not created by him. Of course, Washington, who as executive producer committed to bring Wilson’s work to a wider audience, or indeed Wilson himself, would see in Boseman and Levee a shared creative fire, a pooled protest against the system.

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s ‘Black Bottom.’ Photo: David Lee/NETFLIX

Boseman’s artistry is essential and enduring. He accomplished in a short span of time what many have not done in a lifetime, in spite of, or remarkably precisely because he was aware, time was running out on him. In the final monologue of the film and what may be remembered as the most ethereal moment of Boseman’s on-screen career, Levee rails against god, looking up and screaming a challenge to the fashioner of a miserably unequal world. It is possible that the power of this performance comes as much from Boseman’s acting talent as from his willingness to confront death: a real-life confrontation as he stared down an illness that he did not disclose to any but his closest family, not even to his co-actors on set as he played this role. We are left to wonder if the fury unleashed at the injustice of life is the point at which Boseman and Levee overlapped, the convergence of selves that often produces the most moving cinema. By sharing the emotion but not the burden, through the dignity of a man reckoning with death, Boseman makes space for us to accept our own impotence and grieve, during a pandemic when we face constant loss. 

These performances from Ahmed, Yeun and Boseman provoke a conversation about masculinity and the weight we put on it, by reframing it. They allow for men to be vulnerable and for anger to be examined as a toxic emotion to be overcome not a muscular force to be deployed. Their sensitivity make hero tropes of strength and power seem feeble and dated. Their inward glances prize self-reconciliation as true courage. It is no coincidence that these actors present a different face of Hollywood. In a historical first, Best Actor Oscar nominations may not be majority White faces. If Ahmed or Yeun (or indeed The White Tiger’s Gourav) were to be nominated, it would be only the third nomination in Oscar history for a man of Asian descent. Without detracting from their deserving talent, it is worth noting that grappling with identity and authenticity has been an integral part of the journey of each of these men on a quest to free themselves, the characters they play, and ultimately the audience watching them, from stereotypes. Yeun walked away from commercial fare and towards films that presented portraits of Asian men that could be both unique and universal. Ahmed spoke passionately against the stereotyping of Muslims in Film and TV at the U.K. Parliament in a 2017 speech which, along with his acting choices, inspired The Riz Test – identifying clear markers such as perpetrating terrorism or threatening Western values, imposed on Muslim characters on screen. Boseman dismantled the Hollywood myth that a Black lead cannot break the box-office even as he refused to be pigeonholed. 

The hope is that these roles are emblematic of representation on screen that favors a manhood that previously hid behind closed doors, burly muscles and imposing biographies. Indeed, numerous works of the last year have peeled back the glossy veneer of machismo. In Sean Durkin’s The Nest, Jude Law plays a family man unable to keep pace with his own restless ambitions. In Midnight Sky George Clooney grapples with his own mortality. Mank’s Gary Oldman is David Fincher’s astute look at the writer, Herman Mankiewicz, who spun Citizen Kane, a legendary portrait of conventional male dominance and demise, from his own real-life insecurities. Delroy Lindo lends a dimension to the war hero in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods that is about heart over heft. Steve McQueen’s quintet Small Axe is a portrait of selfhood, particularly manhood, amongst Black Britons whose power lies in its poignancy. Even in films that do revisit great figures of men, such as Regina King’s fantastic directorial debut One Night In Miami, an account of Mohammed Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcom X as a fictionalized retelling of their time together one night in 1964, these lions of men are brought into relief on an intimate scale, as people coming to terms with who they are and what they fear. 

In casting conventional masculinity aside or putting it on trial, Hollywood can embrace a long-overdue reckoning with what we tell men they need to be, something we often overlook on the path to empowering women, even as the two go hand in hand. As a cohort of leading men come to terms with themselves over their greatness on-screen, performances from Ahmed, Yeun and Boseman are leading the way. By making authenticity the path and not the goal, they have traveled beyond masculine tropes. By defying the Hollywood hero, these generous actors have redefined him.

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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