Atlantics: Desperation through lack of Agency

#52FilmsbyWomen: Week 2

I was without a computer for a few weeks so forgive me as I play catch-up on a few weeks.

Atlantics (2019, Mati Diop)

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People do desperate things when life gives them no other option. These gambles rarely work but are a way to regain some amount of agency when the systems that oppress are too strong.  The poverty that affects many citizens of traditionally colonized countries and strict patriarchal law are two such systems that serve as the setting for Mati Diop’s Atlantics.  Told through the guise of a supernatural drama, at its heart, Atlantics is a story of people struggling with their lack of agency.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a young woman and the cusp of losing her agency. She has a group of friends who are disrespected by her family and a secret love in Souleiman (Traore), but in the near future she is expected to forgo those joys. Instead of being with people who bring her joy, she is betrothed to a different man, Omar. Omar’s wealth offers a promise of future stability and a reprieve from poverty. Conversely it would require her to leave her life, and the one she loves behind.

Souleiman likewise struggles with debilitating external oppression. He works as a construction worker building a tower for the wealthy. When the contractor refuses to pay his workers for the job they’ve done, Souleiman is forced to take a risky chance simply to survive. He and his fellow workers board a ship heading for Spain in hopes of finding work, leaving their loved ones including Ada behind.

With Souleiman acting in desperation and leaving, Ada gives into her situation. She marries Omar and accepts that her life as she knew it is over, and yet even in her resignment, she continues to lose agency.  When her past relationship with Souleiman comes public, her father and husband force her to go to the doctor and take a virginity test. Humiliated, she, like Souleiman, chooses to act in desperation leaving the financial backing of her husband and parents to try to survive.

Director Mati Diop uses her characters to reflect reality, and thus denies them a perfect fairytale ending.  Souleiman never returns for Ada because he dies when his ship sinks en route to Spain. His gamble failed. Only through supernatural means are Souleiman and his crew able to find some form of vengeance against the rich contractor who refused to pay them.  Ada likewise has a bittersweet ending. She finally has control over her life, but she had to leave behind any support systems she’d ever known.  Atlantics is a tragic film because even accepting supernatural help, the systems the oppressed Ada and Suoleiman were too strong for any other outcome.

Frozen II: The Problem with Unnecessary Sequels

#52FilmsbyWomen: Week 1

Frozen II (2019, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck)

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I unabashedly love 2013’s Frozen. I think it’s the best film the Disney Animated Features put out that decade.  In 2013, Disney was, and still is, in a state of performative self-reflection. While I have serious misgivings about much of the output coming from this, Frozen is an example of how this can work by using the commentary on Disney’s tropes to create fully formed character arcs in its leading women.

In the first Frozen, Anna starts the film as a naive young woman subjected to the Disney trope of looking to find love at first sight.  Throughout the film, she grows and accepts that the necessity of marriage and the need to find love at first sight are unrealistic. Instead she’s saved by the familial love between sisters.  Similarly, Elsa starts the first film denying her true self and shutting out those who mean the most to her. She undergoes her own arc by learning to accept herself without resorting to isolation. In this way, “Let it Go” is both a subversion of and one of the best Disney “I want” songs of all time.

Frozen was a fully formed film with substantive character arcs that didn’t need further development.  However, we live in a capitalist society, and when a film makes over a billion dollars, a sequel is required whether the existing story can support it or not. That was the situation that Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck found themselves in when forced to create a sequel to their previously stand-alone film. With very little left to be developed in terms of character, Frozen II turned to the adventure of the week mentality that drove the Disney animated television series in the 90s.

This adventure of the week mentality is endemic to unnecessary sequels. Characters arcs are what drive good storytelling. When implemented correctly, characters can drive their own plot. Personal growth is a strong and relatable goal, and films that are created as stand-alone pieces let their characters develop into their better (or sometimes worse) selves. What then is left to be done in an unplanned sequel? If the protagonists are to remain unchanged, a film has 3 options: take the protagonist elsewhere, have the protagonist go through the same arc again, or deny the character any additional development.

Allowing a protagonist to go through a different arc is seldom done in a cash grab sequel as the producers are hesitant to change a character who has brought them significant income.  Sending protagonists through the same arc again was somewhat embraced in Frozen II’s plot.  Elsa must once again learn to trust Anna, a lesson which was conveniently unlearned between films. Finally denying the protagonists any additional development is what drives Frozen II and most unnecessary sequels. When characters have already gone through their emotional arcs, its often the simplest to just let them exist in an unrelated plot. This lazy solution is what makes up the majority of Frozen II. The characters learn nothing about themselves, but Disney makes another billion dollars.

If all you want as a movie-goer is to see characters you loved 6-years prior go on an adventure together, then Frozen II might be what you’re looking for. However, if your love of the original came from the development of characters, the emotions they experience, and how it reflects reality, then Frozen II offers you nothing.