Unsurprisingly, diverse cultural representation in American film is generally lacking. In recent years, the attempt to reconcile this has brought us films showcasing increasing diversity. The most recent Golden Globe wins for Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” are excellent testaments of cultural representation in film through striking facets. One taking the route of Mexican tradition, and the other being an interesting love story written by an immigrant. Both stories are ones that are seldom told but boast powerful messages in films that are beautifully executed.
Diving into Mexican heritage
“Coco” follows the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel, his love of music, and the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The problem is, music is forbidden by his family because of a great-great-grandfather who abandoned his family, leaving with his guitar and never coming back.
Miguel is accidentally transported to the land of the dead and meets the soul of the film’s namesake, his great-grandmother Coco. The glorious weaving of life, death, family, and tradition wraps with a challenge to learn more about the Mexican indigenous history the story is rooted upon.
Dancing with the “Other”
“The Shape of Water” takes a distinctly darker turn than the animated film. It follows the story of love between a mute woman and an amphibious creature. Drawing inspiration from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, del Toro flips the script and displays the creature as the unknown rather than the monstrous. In an NPR interview, del Toro fleshes out the essence of his goal:
I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote, unquote, “the other” as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face in – every day in the news and politics and so forth. So these things were growing as a – I’m an immigrant. I feel these things acutely in one way or another. And it just so coincided that we are on the wrong side of history individually, but on the right side of history for this still to come.
Learning from stories
In both features, there are countless learning opportunities presented in a beautiful theatrical medium. Whether it’s the colorful display of indigenous tradition in “Coco” or the cinematography and love story of “The Shape of Water”, both tell tales that touch the heart, sharing traditions, curiosities, fears, and the presentation of stories that aren’t as readily told.
The visual appeal of both films speaks to how we learn from stories. There have always been stories, be it folklore, myths, fairy tales, anything, but a story that’s visually gripping while encapsulating groups/legacies that are marginalized and underrepresented is a foundation for the continued evolution of storytelling. Of all learning styles, educational research posits that nearly 83% of learning is done visually, while the remaining 17% is split between the other senses.
However, merely seeing isn’t believing. Both films come with an admission price that requires the viewer to challenge perceptions as we reach to learn about one another. Open-mindedness, the commitment to learning the unknown, and celebrating the other are truly what makes us a human family.