Every once and a while my sister get together on the weekend for a movie marathon. Our usual go-to is the extended version of Lord of the Rings trilogy (by Sunday night we look like Gollum himself), but recently we’ve been trying to watch films that we haven’t seen before. During our most recent marathon, I suggested we watch Roma, the Netflix film directed by Alfonso Cuarón and winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars ceremony.
The film is about a pair of house workers named Cleo and Sofia who take care of their children during the 1970s in Mexico. The family drama unfolds as Cleo finds out she is pregnant and the family gets away for a much-needed vacation.
Taking place in Mexico City, the film is in Spanish and has subtitles. While I attempted Spanish in high school and can still successfully ask someone where the bathroom is (¿Dónde está el baño?), I can definitely not speak Spanish fluently. Alas, I need subtitles.
Ah, yes. Good ole subtitles. Helpful for most, pain for others. When I suggested Roma and told my sister it was in Spanish, she said maybe we should just opt for Dumb and Dumber (for the umpteenth time). She was getting tired and didn’t feel like straining her eyes by reading subtitles. I was a bit taken back, and maybe even a little offended.
Now I use subtitles for everything I watch – foreign films, domestic films, blockbuster films, and even television shows. Films I’ve seen hundreds of times, and films I’ve never seen before. It’s a habit I formed after a friend of mine with hearing issues in her right ear said that she always needed them on. I realized from my film viewings with her that subtitles were not only not difficult to use, they were necessary for someone with a hearing disability, and also helped me to better understand the story I was watching.
One of the most common arguments I often hear from people I talk with regarding foreign films specifically is that they don’t like subtitles. They’re distracting, they’re a strain on the eye, they’re tiring to read. And when I was younger, I felt the same way.
According to Anthony Kaufman at Indie Wire, the U.S. box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61% since 2007. While some more popular foreign films with buzz during awards season tend to get an American theatrical release like Pan’s Labrinyth (2006) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), the number of foreign-language films doesn’t come close to touching domestic releases.
In 2016, Anne Thompson at Indie Wire found that white audiences are declining at the movies, while ethnic and non-English speaking audiences grew that year. Thompson also notes that women and ethnic audiences built the year’s biggest blockbusters during 2016, too.
Now funny enough, after Roma swept the Oscars this year and was branded the best film of 2018, a man by the name of Steven Spielberg (ever heard of him?) declared that since Roma was a film released on a streaming platform (Netflix), it should be categorized as a made-for-television film, not making it eligible for awards. Surprising? Not necessarily, but definitely disheartening. Movies like Roma, as beautiful as they are, are non-English language films, so more often than not, they don’t get the chance for a theatrical release. My opinion? All because of the stinkin’ subtitles.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Kristen, relax. Spielberg didn’t say that about Roma because it’s foreign! He said that because it’s a movie released on Netflix.”
But here’s my argument to that: Why was it released on a streaming platform? Perhaps director Alfonso Cuaron couldn’t get the funding from big domestic studios because it was a film shot in Spanish. Let’s face it – Spielberg didn’t like that a successful foreign film did so well at the Oscars – his territory.
So here is my final cut: Subtitles are not hard to use. Actually, I’d say they should be necessary for all films in theaters. Subtitles aren’t just for understanding another language – they’re essential for those with a hearing disability perhaps those who struggle with paying attention to a film. Spielberg’s words seem to further the notion that foreign films should show in domestic theaters. To that, I say: Stop being lazy. Subtitles aren’t hard to read, and they help us to understand some really beautiful stories. Turn on the closed captions and let’s get watching!