When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that one day we could all sit down at a table of brotherhood, I don't think he envisioned the gruesome food fight that has broken out at the movies this year.
From Get Out to It Comes at Night to Beatriz at Dinner to The Big Sick, crucial centerpiece scenes show that when the American family sits down to dinner, discord is served — often rare, to the point of being bloody.
What's the beef? Well, the movies cited round up the usual hot-button suspects — race, class and politics, gender, religion. But in a larger sense, these movies are about discord itself — the way it has become a default setting for a society ever more tribal, obstinate, paranoid, and angry.
When several Republican legislators were shot recently by a madman who left behind a bread-crumb trail of hyperpartisan internet rants, the incident prompted reflexive calls for unity, restraint, and a return to reasoned discourse and respectful engagement.
Did anyone with a finger to the wind believe that flimsy truce would last more than five minutes?
If rancor and acrimony are on the menu, let's be honest: It's what we ordered.
We got our first taste of it in the movies with Jordan Peele's horror hit Get Out, which made an astonishing (one might say alarming) $100 million working off the premise that there is no safe place for a black man — least of all among white liberals who loudly proclaim racial open-mindedness.
When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) travels to the home of his white girlfriend to meet her folks, things at first seem harmless enough, though he endures her father's painfully awkward demonstrations of color-blindness.
The pretense of solidarity, however, evaporates when he sits down with the entire (pardon the word choice) clan for dinner, and we get our first inkling of what's to come. His girlfriend's brother turns strangely hostile, starts talking about Chris' frame, his genetic makeup, his potential to develop into a "beast."
Foreshadowing, to say the least (on that note, be advised this column contains spoilers).
As one critic wrote, the movie poses the question, "Can we all get along?" and answers it with a resounding, "No."
Peele has said the movie represents a racial worst-case scenario lodged somewhere in his subconscious, and he ends the movie on a note of exaggeration that invites us to laugh.
Nobody laughs at what happens in It Comes At Night, a more naturalistic horror movie about a father (Joel Edgerton) willing to act ruthlessly to protect his family in the immediate aftermath of a plague.
Keeping the contagion out of his remote and boarded-up woodland home means keeping all outsiders away (by any means necessary) and expelling even family members who exhibit symptoms of the disease.
Edgerton's character, however, is no maniac. The circumstances are extreme, his goal (protecting his immediate family) is understandable, and there is a certain icy logic to his actions. He's not a prepper or an armed militia type or a separatist (the movie makes a point of giving him a multiracial family). He's a guy pushed by fear and paranoia past some grisly moral tipping point, and the movie asks us to consider what happens when fear and paranoia become the infection.
This comes to a chilling head after he decides to admit another family to his home, exchanging shelter for their food supply. As they all gather at the table for dinner, it becomes known that one member of each family has potentially been exposed to the germ. Edgerton looks across the table to his counterpart (Christopher Abbott), and we see in their grim faces a tacit understanding — the protection of my family can only be achieved by the destruction of yours.
I miss the old days, when the most disconcerting thing to show up for dinner was Sidney Poitier.
Part of what's so unnerving about It Comes At Night is that the men ultimately at each other's throats are essentially the same man, reacting to the same situation in the same way. It's easy to see them, pre-plague, on the same softball team.
Not so of the characters in Beatriz at Dinner, where the dinner-table divisions are stark and based mostly in class.
A wealthy couple (Connie Britton and David Warshofsky) host a dinner at their spectacular home to celebrate a business success. The lavish affair has been orchestrated to flatter company CEO (John Lithgow), but a plate is set for a nurse/masseuse (Salma Hayek) who is stranded at the home when her car breaks down.
As Beatriz listens to their insular chatter, she grows increasingly alarmed at the unquestioned assumptions that mark their conversation. It represents the kind of opinion-spouting and belief-system insularity that develop when dissenting opinions are excluded (these folks are conservative, but they are flip sides to the self-satisfied liberals satirized in Get Out).
Beatriz, her tongue loosened by a bottle of white wine and the indignity of having been repeatedly mistaken for a housemaid, lets loose. She is, needless to say, not around for dessert and puts up not much of a fight when asked to leave. The rift is insurmountable.
That's what makes The Big Sick so heartening. In it, a Pakistani-born Muslim (Kumail Nanjiani, who based the movie on his own life) with a declining interest in his faith and a growing love for a non-Muslim woman, is expelled from the dinner table when his religious family learns the truth.
They refuse to speak to him, and he leaves. But he later returns, silent treatment or no, and takes his seat at the table.
You are my family, he says, and always will be, whether you speak to me or not, whether you look at me or not.