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The State of the Race: The Oscars in an Election Year

I’ve been doing this long enough to remember the last two or three elections through the prism of the Oscar race; no matter what side of the political fence you belong on, it’s easy to remember how the race was impacted by what was going on all around it.

The first election when I began Oscarwatching was the Bush v. Gore in 2001. It was as tumultuous as any we’ve had since. The election was eventually thrown in favor of the Republicans by the partisan Supreme Court, and became a moment in history that held the public in its thrall — it’s hard to believe it even happened that way and it marked what many of us consider a dark moment in history where the powerful corporations began controlling politics. It took Obama, really, to break the spell finally. Incidentally, much of what fueled Bush’s victory (other than voter fraud) was the assault on President Clinton by the GOP regarding a subject that should have remained private — the Monica Lewinsky scandal took vital energy, attention and resources away from our leader at a time when we needed him most; not nine months after Bush was inaugurated and we were hit by al-Qaeda. Soon after that, so-called weapons of mass destruction, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Exhaustive, expensive, with a current death toll of American soldiers – exceeding 6,500.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that Gladiator would be the America fuck-yeah movie to win Best Picture that year. Of course, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. But it feels somehow fitting that Gladiator would be the movie that ushered in the Bush era. Four years later, as Bush won re-election fairly, Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture. Eastwood, a conservative who made a film that wasn’t particularly conservative. The following three winners would reflect how the mood of the country, the world even: Crash, The Departed and No Country for Old Men — even if you discount Crash for having won for the wrong reasons (fear, homophobia) its placement in the uneasy aftermath of 9/11 cannot be denied. The Departed and No Country, though, were films that absolutely illustrated dead-end cynicism about our crumbling world.

Evolving concurrently were forces on the internet. Online Oscar talk was just about to explode, something that would forever change how the game was played. Still, outside influences trump inside ones. With the election of our first African-American President, there was a sense of renewed hope, the chance for change (however magical and unrealistic it may have been). How fitting, then, that the Best Picture winner turned out to be Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that summed up the collective dreamgasm going on at the time. United Fujicolors of Benetton. Things would come crashing down not soon after that.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the the hangover of dreaming so impossibly big would manifest itself in a much more traditional Oscar winners in the fallout. While the immediate heat of The Hurt Locker spoke directly to our times (one of the few films the critics praised to the high heavens only to dump it like an ex-lover when it came to the Sight and Sound poll) earning the win in 2009, it could be argued that picking a woman for the win, after 62 long years of the male dominated Best Director/Best Picture race, was in keeping with the cultural revolution of the times. If we could have a black President, why couldn’t we have a woman winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director?

But as the excitement around Obama’s election and the subsequent collapse of worldwide financial institutions suffocated our hope for the future, so too did Oscar voters retreat back to the world they knew best: nostalgia. If you can’t look forward, by god, look back. The King’s Speech and The Artist are films that could have won Best Picture in any era, under any President.

This year, though, there is a fierce struggle of ideals playing out. The country hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. There is long-simmering hatred reaching the boiling point. Unchecked fury from the right lobbed at our President in a show of disrespect I’ve never seen in my lifetime happens daily. There are shootings nearly every week. Our President is being blamed by whackjobs on the extreme for some of those shootings, for being a Muslim, for attempting to dismantle the very foundations on which our country was built; the whole Kenya thing seems to be weirding them out. The birthers (Donald Trump and Camille Paglia among them) are not letting up. Meanwhile, on the right, you have two unelectable suits who happened to be at the right place at the right time to ride the Obama hatred all the way into the White House, pushed forth by the Citizens United decision, which allows SuperPacs unlimited financial resources to attack either party, but of course, the GOP has the deep-pocket billionaires on its side. For the first time in our history, the incumbent will have less money than the challenger.

Moreover, the war on women rages on. The GOP continues to attempt to legislate women’s bodies, even going so far as to make laws about what constitutes “legitmate” and “illegitimate” rape. This, in order to forward the movement of making abortion illegal.

Further hurting Obama is the bad economy Republicans created and refuse to resuscitate. No President in US history has won under the cloud of such bad unemployment numbers. It doesn’t matter than the other side is compiled of unlikable men who have been caught lying on numerous occasions. They’re white and they’re different, so maybe that will be enough to derail Obama’s hopes of a two-term Presidency.

Liberals, Academy voters likely among them, have taken a look at the man they elected and decided that he didn’t perform the miracles the “magical negro” promised. He never made our student loan debt go away, he never ended the war in Afghanistan (he never said he would) and he hasn’t stood up to the frothy-mouthed gargoyles on the right, he palled around with Wall Street crooks (and with terrorists too, apparently). Whatever their reasoning, they will never accept that they had unrealistic expectations in the first place. Moreover, there are too many apathetic young people who simply refuse to vote because they don’t like either party.

It goes without saying that concurrent to the political elections, the impact of filmmaker Michael Moore has been profound in nearly every respect. No other documentarian is as willing to take on the hot button issues of our time and put them front and center like Moore. Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and even Sicko represent the crossover of politics and movies. So much so that it led to the Citizens United decision, which was like using a tank to kill a butterfly. Basically the idea is that if Fahrenheit 9/11 could be used as negative campaigning for George Bush, anyone could use their own money to make any ad — money is speech. Speech is free. That’s what people mean when they bring it up. Moore, in fact, was outspoken at the Oscars against President Bush and the War in Iraq in a now-famous speech (one of the many reasons Moore is my personal hero and most admired patriot) — listen to the crowd boo. Moore’s stance later was vindicated, of course:

Republicans, because we have a conservative Supreme Court, almost as corrupt as the court during Lincoln’s time, have used the Citizens United decision to fund and make this racist monstrosity:

The difference between Fahrenheit 9/11 and Obama’s America 2016, is that one depicts the truth and one doesn’t. One is an opinion about an event and a President about a war most Americans now agree was based on unfounded evidence. The other is rabid fabrication.

Whether you think they’re different or whether you think they’re alike, maybe it depends on which side of the political divide you find yourself. But you can’t deny that this unbridgeable rift won’t have an impact on this year’s race.

Already, two films have had their release dates shifted to avoid being associated with the presidential election. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Funnily enough, one of the producers on Obama’s America 2016 has his name on Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s own Oscar winning film. That is, one assumes, supposed to lend the film some credibility.

Zero Dark Thirty is already at the epicenter of partisan bickering — the right doesn’t want to give Obama any of the credit for the capture of Bin Laden. Moreover, they are continuing to blame his administration that led to security leaks that were part of the research for the film. “Security leaks” must be in quotes. It is clearly an attempt to associate Obama not with the capture of Bin Laden but as yet more evidence that he is anti-American, someone who can’t be trusted, someone who is Kenyan-born and a socialistradicalmuslim who would be so evil as to pretend he pulled the strings of a mad shooter in Aurora, Colorado so that his frightening gun laws could be passed on an unsuspecting public.

Lincoln, of course, is significant. If you’ve been reading along with our book club choice (900 paged Team of Rivals, which is slow-going for me but worth every minute) you’ll see many similarities to America then and America now. When race is involved, Americans can’t really get a handle on it. You saw how bad it got on this site last year in the fight between the deserving Viola Davis and the not-so-deserving Streep (though who can begrudge her the win). Race is the one subject guaranteed to make most Americans lose their shit — the defensiveness, the guilt, the ongoing shame, the resentment — our past is shameful. It is beyond shameful, in fact. But the same sort of unfounded fear of “the black man” getting any rights echoes still today in the way the extremists on the right are reacting to the President. That all of these years later we have an African-American in the White House is significant.

What we don’t know for sure is why Spielberg felt that Lincoln would influence the election. By the time film opens there will already have been reviews and stories about it prior to the November election so it’s possible that it could shift a few things. Or either film could be deemed not good enough for Oscar. We just don’t know yet.

Oscar voters like George Clooney have come out with public support for Obama, while Clint Eastwood has endorsed Romney. But it’s possible that the election will have no impact at all on Oscar mentality and that voters will opt instead for fantasy or nostalgia, the flavor of the month.

Either way, if you’re paying attention you must know that the election will frame the debate over much of what happens this year. It already has.