UT Grad Brings Politics Back to the Multiplex With The Oath
Producer Ray Mansfield and star/first-time filmmaker Ike Barinholtz on their timely satire
There's a change in modern cinema. For decades, films with an overt political message seemed doomed to failure; but in the last couple of years, there's been a shift, with movies like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman unafraid to show their political credentials, and to reflect on the state of the nation, while never feeling like polemic. That's the trademark of UT grad Ray Mansfield and his production company QC Entertainment, which helped bring both Jordan Peele and Spike Lee's latest visions to the multiplex. Mansfield said, "We're trying to bury [the message] under a lot of entertainment, so that people feel like they went to the movies, they had fun, but they have something to walk out and talk about."
His latest addition to modern political cinema is The Oath, which is superficially as radical a break for filmmaker and star Ike Barinholtz (Blockers) as Get Out was for Peele. Prior to this seasonal satire, Barinholtz described the bulk of his prior scriptwriting work as "more or less a larger-sized studio comedy." However, for his directorial debut, he wades into deeply satirical and highly political waters. It's a profoundly liberal allegory, but at the same time, Barinholtz said, "It's not a liberal fantasy. I take one side, but I show horrible behavior on both sides."
In it Barinholtz plays Chris, the most progressive member of a family that generally doesn't talk politics at the dinner table, but this year it's become inevitable, since the president has requested that all citizens take an oath of loyalty. There are no consequences for not taking the oath – at least, not officially – but with the deadline for signing being Black Friday, Chris soon regrets inviting his conservative family over for the annual feast. For Barinholtz, that's just a reflection of where America is right now: staring at each other over the cranberry sauce, carving knives tightly gripped. He said, "It feels like people are putting on armor before Thanksgiving, because they know there's going to be some kind of a battle. Five years ago, if someone had a different political position, even if you didn't agree with it, there was a general understanding. But now I think we're looking at a time where a lot of people are looking at a different group of people and saying, 'How are you thinking like this? It doesn't make sense.'"
Barinholtz had already written a first draft before Mansfield came aboard, and by late summer of 2017 he was passing the script around to a roster of friends and colleagues. That list included Jordan Peele: The pair already knew each other from MADtv and Amsterdam-based stand-up show Boom Chicago. Mansfield said, "They're really good friends, and he asked Jordan about making the move from acting and comedy to director, and broadening genre out, having something social to say." It was Peele who told him to take it to Mansfield. "[Jordan said] they'll protect you and the movie, and help you make it the right way. Ike brought us the draft, and we read it and we loved it."
Let's back up a moment. After graduating from UT's Radio-Television-Film program in 2000, Mansfield moved to Los Angeles to become a producer. With several successes under his belt, including The Messenger and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, in 2016 he and producer Sean McKittrick (with whom he had worked on I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Green Is Gold) founded QC Entertainment, a one-stop financing, production, sales, and distribution hub. The new shingle built on the combination of stark humor and implicit politics from 2011's McKittrick-produced, Bobcat Goldthwait-directed God Bless America. So far, between Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, that equation is paying off, and Mansfield hopes The Oath will ignite the same kind of passion.
What attracted Mansfield to Barinholtz's script was a trait that QC looks for in all its projects: "Urgency. ... These are the kind of stories that need to be put in front of an audience as fast as possible, because they're tapping into the zeitgeist in a way that is going to create conversation."
QC had been involved with developing both Get Out and BlacKkKlansman from the pitch stage, making The Oath the first working script they had acquired. They did so under one condition: Mansfield recalled telling Barinholtz, "The only thing we ask is that you have to start now. Because this has to be out before the midterm elections next year." So the day after Barinholtz wrapped shooting on the sixth and final season of The Mindy Project, he went straight into preproduction on his directorial debut. Even so, getting a feature prepped, shot, and edited to be ready before the election seemed like a challenge for a first-time filmmaker, but Mansfield was sure Barinholtz was up to the task. "When he was going to go convince other actors to be in the movie, we knew he was going to be really persuasive, because he was really persuasive with us."
The Oath, with its pointed riff on presidential loyalty oaths, is the most grabbed-from-the-headlines of QC's big three. It's also the only one that seems directly inspired by the politics of the hour, but that doesn't make the others any less relevant. Barinholtz said, "Get Out would have worked five years ago, because we've always had creepy older white people. But I think now the world changed so much in the last thousand days or so, I think you're going to see movies that are taking on what's happening head-on."
While both Get Out and BlacKkKlansman were being developed before Trump even started his presidential run, Mansfield said that since the election, "the culture transitioned to the point where people were seeking stories like this." In an industry in which it's not uncommon for a film to take literally decades to make its way to the screen, Mansfield is seeing a real hunger for the kind of movies he wants to make at QC: movies that are as much a cultural barometer as they are a good night out. He added, "When you're able to tell a socially relevant story in an entertaining way, people want to get on and make that project then, and audiences want to get out of their houses, and go sit in a theatre and watch those stories with other people." That's something that Mansfield sees big studios recognizing, noting that movies like Get Out are "bridge movies that are showing the powers that be that there's business to these stories, and I'm really happy to see other films like Crazy Rich Asians further cementing the validity of that mindset. ... The new quote-unquote genre is previously unexplored perspectives,"
That's a core component of the QC business model: that a film doesn't just open well, but lasts, and has political resonance. Get Out didn't just open at No. 1 in the U.S. with a $45 million first-week haul – 10 times its production budget – but it stayed in the Top 10 for two months. Similarly, BlacKkKlansman was Spike Lee's first movie to break the Top 10 since his studio-friendly crowd-pleaser Inside Man in 2006, and it stayed there for six weeks. Both films dominated the moviegoing conversation, and Mansfield expects that Barinholtz will help get similar discussions going about The Oath. He said, "Ike is just such a charismatic and articulate person that we knew he was a guy that could go do the publicity circuit, and talk passionately about politics and entertainment, to the point that people get really excited."
The Oath is in theaters now. For review and showtimes, see our listings.