Jacqueline Kennedy once said that her proudest accomplishment was going through some pretty difficult times and keeping her sanity. The visually-stunning and emotionally-moving film Jackie, out in theaters today, offers a glimpse into those difficult times. Directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín and starring Natalie Portman, the ambitious project paints a picture of what the former First Lady endured, starting on November 22, 1963, when her husband President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, to four days later, when she lead a procession to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Packing in key events into an hour and a half is nearly an impossible task, one made only more difficult when the protagonist is one of the most well-known women of the 20th Century. But the movie does a lot right and critics have noticed. Everything they’re saying about Portman’s flawless performance is true. She’s stern, fragile, outraged and vulnerable. The loneliness that haunts her after burying her husband on the heels of having to bury her infant son Patrick just 13 weeks earlier, is palpable.
The couple’s wealth and identification with greatness manifests in the impressive props and elegant costumes, particularly Jackie’s gowns. In one moving montage, she plays Camelot on the Victrola record player in Jack’s room, a soundtrack of the Broadway musical that was having great success at the time, which that told the story of King Arthur and Queen Genevive. The Kennedys often listened to the record together before bedtime and both JFK and Jackie identified with the myth of royalty and righteousness. The new widow tries on gown after gown, and wanders through the rooms of the White House, reminiscing, smoking, mourning. Also, the use of color not only delights the eyes, it carries meaning. In one scene, the set is white in the background, while she wears red in the foreground, representing her husband’s blood, and the loss of life—and innocence.
When JFK died, people around the world mourned not only the loss of Jack the man, but what he represented—the hope for democracy and equity. They turned to the grieving widow, Jackie. It was the first time that a funeral had been covered in such magnitude since televisions had become more commonplace. The country leaned on her, watching her every move, and she knew it.
“I believe that the characters we read about on the page end up being more real than the men who stand beside us,” Jackie tells an unnamed journalist for Life magazine (Billy Crudup) who she has invited over in an attempt to memorialize her husband’s legacy—and her own—on her terms. This conversation, which actually took place with reporter Theodore H. White, is the vehicle through which the story is told, a brilliant move by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim.
Jackie is the third biopic this year that is rumored to be in the running for an Oscar, features a strong female lead, and makes an effort to honor the real-life characters. The two others are Queen of Katwe, Disney’s film that tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a poor Ugandan girl who becomes an international chess champion, and Loving, which highlights how Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) inspired the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. One major difference is that these two latter movies push against the entrenched racism of the Academy expressed in #OscarsSoWhite, but Jackie does not, which is its major downfall.
The people of color in this film were used as background and not one had a speaking role. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that an all-white cast was justifiable because it reflected Jackie’s reality given her wealth and isolation in the White House. Arguably, this may have been true of the couple’s personal life, but it certainly wasn’t reflective of their political one.
JFK won the presidency on a platform of economic and racial justice. With more than 70% of the Black vote, his support from African Americans and Latinos has been well documented by journalists and historians alike. Yet, the film only subtly alludes to these facts. For example, prior to deboarding in Dallas, the site of JFK’s death, Jackie practices a speech in Spanish (she was fluent in both Spanish and French), presumably because they were heading to an event with a Hispanic crowd. Later, when she finds out her husband’s assassin was a communist, she’s furious that his life was taken in vain and not “for civil rights.” Then there’s a touching moment with her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) in the Lincoln Room, her favorite room in the White House. Bobby points out that one-hundred years earlier Abe Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in that very space. Viewers seem to be invited to make a connection between Lincoln and Kennedy and their fight for racial equality.
In this day and age, however, talking about people of color without giving them screen time is not good enough. Audiences and actors deserve more.
Following the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy received over 1.5 million condolence letters from folks across the country. Millions watched the funeral on television and hundreds of thousands lined the streets. Many of them were people of color. The filmmakers not only missed an opportunity to diversify the cast, but to illuminate the impact made by JFK—and Jackie—on the U.S. and the world.