Today in film history, September 28, 1996, Mike Leigh’s tangled family drama, “Secrets & Lies,” opened in a limited theatrical release in the USA. The film, which won the 1996 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (its highest honor), a remarkable feat considering the caliber of films it was in competition with – some of them considered modern classics, 20 years later, like “Breaking the Waves” by Lars von Trier, “Fargo” by the Coen brothers, and “Crash” by David Cronenberg.
“Secrets & Lies” stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a young black optometrist who, following the death of her adoptive parents, decides to track down her biological mother, whom she later discovers is a white woman. Add in the utter chaos that is the family life of the mother, and you’ve got much fodder for drama.
As with almost any Mike Leigh work, it’s a strong, very well acted film, thanks in large part to Leigh’s well-documented methods. He started without a script – just an idea; found the actors he wanted to work with (all of them revered), and, collectively, they all essentially workshopped the project, coming up with the story and writing the screenplay during several lengthy rehearsal periods that lasted many months. What results are some very believable performances, since, in effect, the actors helped create the characters. And combined with the unceremonious photography of DP Dick Pope, you just might feel like you’re watching a docu-drama.
Brenda Blethyn’s performance as Cynthia, the white mother, won her Best Actress at Cannes.
As for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, this was really her first major film role, which helped her gain international recognition. For her performance in the film, she received Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and was the first black British actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (trivia for another day).
In total, the film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but, unfortunately, didn’t win any of them.
It did receive some criticism for not directly tackling race matters. I suppose some wanted more depictions of racism, and intolerance in the film. And while race is certainly front and center early on, it eventually takes a back seat to the drama that begins to unfold, becoming less important to the overall narrative, which is really about a family struggling to come together.
When asked to address the criticism, here’s what director Mike Leigh (who is white, by the way, for those unaware) had to say in an interview: “I think that’s a complex thing. I think it [race] remains very important [through the film] — and here we are talking about what the film is saying. However subtly, it continues to be an issue. The audience would inevitably begin by meeting Hortense and immediately classifying her as a black person — this is what racism is about. As you get to know her, you simply forget that she’s black because you get to know her and it ceases to be an issue. Now that’s what happens to the characters. When it comes to the crunch, on the whole, the thing that worries anybody least is the fact that she’s black. Again the idiots in some quarters have come out waving their flags and saying “Well, it shirks its responsibility and why aren’t they intolerant towards her, why didn’t they behave negatively” — as though everybody would be racist in the world, which is not the case in 1996. I know, and this is built into the structure of the film, that a lot of people make the assumption that she is going to be reacted to in a racist way. But finally, we make what is a very unequivocal political statement which is: “We are all people.” It seems incredibly obvious to say that in 1996. It’s not a very sophisticated a thing to say, and maybe it’s sort of a wishy-washy liberal thing to say, but actually that is what it’s all about. That, actually, other things transcend this and that is as it should be. In that sense, you could argue that I am presenting something as I think it should be. That’s how they should behave.”
In addition, when asked about why he wanted to tell this story, Leigh’s answer included mention of his desire to account for, on screen, young black people who aren’t the stereotypes that other British films and TV programs were depicting them as.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste was 29 years old when the film premiered. Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and performed at the Royal National Theatre, she has since gone on to work on both sides of the Atlantic, routinely receiving acclaim for her performances. Since “Secrets & Lies,” she’s never really been given the opportunity to shine on screen like that again, and has typically been relegated to supporting or peripheral roles, playing tough women. Most recently, she appeared in the NBC series “Blindspot,” and on the big screen in the “Robocop” reboot.
She’s also a musician, having recorded an album of blues songs; and has writing and director credits.
Surprisingly, for quite a few years, “Secrets & Lies” was actually not easy to get one’s hands on. I would think that it would have received the Criterion Collection treatment by now, but it hasn’t. As recently as a year ago, Amazon.com had it listed on DVD, but it was only available via resellers, meaning you would have being paying a premium for it. It doesn’t appear that this has changed much. It’s still available via Amazon, on DVD, but still at premium prices. It’s on Blu-ray, but only in the UK. And it’s not streaming on Netflix. If anyone reading this knows something I don’t know about the film’s home video availability, please leave a comment below.
Something needs to be done about all that! It’s an inspiring and compassionate film that should be readily accessible so that many more people can see it. Even finding a trailer or clips from the film, online, was a challenge.
Below, watch a clip from the film, followed by a behind-the-scenes look at it, with director Mike Leigh discussing how it all came together: