By Esme Douglas
December 19, 2018 at 02:51 PM EST
Everett Collection

In a year that had several groundbreaking and nuanced moments for black protagonists in film, including EW’s Entertainers of the Year, the women of Black Panther, the most unexpected might be Madeline’s Madeline.

Though many have noted the dizzying cinematography in Josephine Decker’s film that adds to its claustrophobic feel, the racial element is a key aspect of the overwhelming sense of anxiety that permeates throughout. Decker, herself a white woman, constructed a film around her desire to make ethical art, where her protagonist, Madeline, a biracial black girl, must navigate, and at times completely avoid, the controlling white women in her life to truly be in control of herself and her creative pursuits. It’s a breath of fresh air in a landscape that often prioritizes biracial black actors without exploring the specificity of their experience, or includes interracial relationships as a placeholder for progress without exploring the power dynamics within them.

The film follows the eponymous character, Madeline, a teenage acting student played by Helena Howard, as she’s controlled by the two main female figures in her life: her mother (Miranda July) and her acting teacher, Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline mines Madeline’s most traumatic moments for her theater project, and her mother is such a helicopter parent it’s at times unclear if Madeline really has a mental illness or if her mother just wishes she did. 

Oscilloscope Labs

Decker developed the film with Howard early on, after Howard’s performance in a high school acting competition she was judging literally moved her to tears. The film they developed stemmed from Decker’s desire to explore the question of, “As an artist, how do you ethically make work?” When crafting Evangeline, the predatory theater director who constantly crosses acceptable student teacher boundaries, Decker told EW she pulled from her own fears about the film: “Evangeline was like my worst idea of how my collaboration with Helena Howard could go. A horrible director who ignores all signs of humanity.”

Evangeline, who is pregnant, at one point tells Madeline she had a dream she was her mother, which is made more significant when Madeline visits Evangeline’s house and it’s revealed her husband is black. “My partner in life is black, so to some degree… that was just… ‘This is the family I know how to write about well,” Decker said. But she admitted this element also has a more insidious angle: “Evangeline has not only an artistic interest in collaborating with Madeline, but also self-interest in getting to know this young woman that is maybe some kind of foil for Evangeline’s imagined coming child.… To some degree exploring this relationship with Madeline is some way of dealing with her pregnancy, which seems even more nefarious than exploiting her for artistic reasons.” Given the power dynamics in Evangeline’s relationship with Madeline and her pregnancy, it can be seen as objectifying, creepy or even abusive. The way she treats Madeline indicates she’s not ready to be a mother, and her lack of sensitivity  towards the black people in her life indicates she’s not ready to parent a black child. 

Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Forager Films

When developing the film, Decker collaborated with the diverse cast who makes up Madeline’s acting class, and the film’s long incubation and rehearsal process led to many open conversations about race, and confronting, as a group, what it means to be talking about race in a space run by white people. Though the film doesn’t explicitly discuss race, Decker’s work to interrogate her own privilege is apparent in the film, in not only Evangeline’s relationship with Madeline, but through subtle, almost comical moments like Evangeline bringing in a formerly incarcerated black man and using his painful story for an acting exercise.

Though biracial black actresses are relatively common in Hollywood, stories about the specificity of the experience of biracial black people are few and far between. When they are represented, interracial couples and their children are either forced to be blandly noble or employing “tragic mulatto” tropes and harping on the tragedy of being stuck between two worlds. Madeline’s Madeline doesn’t aim to define the biracial experience as heroic or tragic. As Madeline struggles through the film’s disorienting cinematography to define herself and overcome her cloudy mental state and violent tendencies, she is largely defined by her own chaos. Yet while she is objectified and manipulated by white women throughout the majority of the film, she finds an escape in acting, and the film’s ending and title suggest Madeline’s transcendent self-possession.

For Decker, successfully making a film about a protagonist empowered by her own choices required her to constantly check, not only the message of the work, but her role in creating it. “You can make a great work of art that is ‘ethically responsible,’ or the art itself may be about something that has a great message, but then if the process of making that art violates that message, how do you deal with that?”

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