Roma’s Breakthrough Moment for Social Justice

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I got the chance to see Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Roma, this past weekend. Now that it has garnered many Academy Award nominations, in addition to myriad other prestigious Best Picture awards globally, the buzz around this film has grown huge. Cuarón has created a masterful film in the tradition of the great 20th century filmmakers, such as Bergman and Fellini. Roma is shot in black and white, filled with quiet, contemplative moments, symbolism and authentic touches to give the viewer a true-to-life portrait of his childhood family’s life in Mexico City 50 years ago.

Many reviewers have already written of the nuances and reasons why Cuarón’s film has become an instant classic; therefore I won’t go into those details in this post. I have, however, been pondering an equally, or perhaps even more important aspect to this film’s worth. I would argue that Roma couldn’t be made before now; that it is only in the late 2010s that Western society has evolved enough to understand and accept the nuances of Cuarón’s childhood story, as told from his middle-aged perspective. For the protagonist of his film is Cleo, his family’s young, shy, lovely indigenous housekeeper and nanny. From the opening scene until the last, the story unfolds from Cleo’s unsentimental point of view. We watch her daily life unfold, intricately entwined with her employer’s family’s lives during the years 1970-71. Together they experience the joys and heartbreaks of life within a socially separate, yet loving relationship. Cuarón unflinchingly and tenderly shows us Cleo’s story: arising before the family, helping all four children get ready for school, taking the youngest son (Cuarón himself) to school after the older siblings have left, cleaning, washing the family laundry on the roof by hand (during the days before modern washing machines had arrived for upper-middle class urban Mexicans), along with all the hundreds of small acts of service that a domestic worker does for her employer in the course of a day.

Cleo, like most indigenous Mexican domestic workers, comes from a poor, rural village in the countryside. In the middle of the story, the family and she have gone to visit other family members at a country hacienda for the winter holidays. They walk up and down the hills and valleys of the sunny day, as Cleo reminisces about her home village. She remarks that it looks similar, and the sounds and scents are the same. The wistfulness and longing for her home are apparent, even with English subtitles. Hers is not an easy life, and yet her employer’s family is kind, loving, and obviously care for her a great deal.

There are other striking things about this film. Because it is Mexican-made, Cuarón had the artistic freedom from censorship that American films do not typically enjoy. During a love scene between Cleo and a young man, Fermin, it is he who is nude in the hotel room, while Cleo is discreetly covered by the bedsheets. Cuarón is very careful throughout the entire film to respect the actress who plays Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio, and takes pains to keep her body protected. This was a refreshing reversal from typical American films which have no problem with the feminine body being completely revealed, while the masculine continues to be censored, even in 2019.

In fact, the entire film portrays Cleo with the utmost respect and even reverence. For me, the fact that the housekeeper is the star of the film, and the White-European Mexican mother (excellently played by Marina de Tavira) is the supporting character, proves that we have reached a tipping point for social and class justice in the Americas. The subtext throughout Roma suggests that now, 50 years later, we can finally honor and recognize the invaluable contribution of indigenous laborers to Mexican (and consequently, American) society. In the current state of extreme class and social chaos in which we find ourselves here in the Americas, Cuarón dares us to embrace the indigenous as a beloved part of ourselves, to realize that we are all intimately connected, to move beyond the notion of us vs. them, and to admit that our lives work best when we put love for one another above the false ideas of separation and hierarchy.

If you haven’t yet seen Roma, and are interested in its themes and social commentary, please find a theatre in your area and treat yourself to this important film. And if you’ve already seen it, feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts and feelings in the comment box.