“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
― Barack Obama
There are many ways to interpret the upcoming choice for Best Picture the Academy will be making. On the one hand, the future could be defined as the sound of many doors unlocking and opening in unison as they realize it’s finally time to reward the first black director in 86 years of Oscar history, along with the film for Best Picture. That redefines our future as much as it provides a catharsis for these long years of the Academy, and Hollywood, perpetuating the notion that only white actors belong in films or on the covers of magazines. The Academy itself has come a long way since 1939.
At the same time, thematically, 12 Years a Slave reaches a long arm through the dark tunnel of our murky past. Too many still falsely believe that once the slaves were freed it was up to them to make their lives better. But decades-long Jim Crow laws ensured that would not happen. Worse, it would put in place segregation that was only challenged, violently, in the 1960s. This part of the story was told so beautifully in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and the final chapter told in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. You can’t just tell one part of the story without looking at the other parts, all three directed by black filmmakers, an unprecedented leap into the future. Unfortunately, the Academy shut out both of those films — the media clucked about like chickens in a henhouse that the Great Harvey Weinstein had “failed” and that Oprah had somehow “failed” because they weren’t able to make nominations for The Butler happen. You could hear the snickering — the delicious schadenfreude of both moguls. Oprah was just too powerful. She was too black, too female and too goddamned powerful. They took from her the one thing they could: a potential Oscar win.
But the Weinstein Co. this year has done what few other studios had the balls to do: bring major films into the Oscar race made by black filmmakers. What a shame that anyone would define that as a failure, or that the richly drawn character Oprah Winfrey brought to the screen with so much sexual vitality could draw sneers. What a shame that anyone would believe the Academy was right in omitting that performance, Ryan Coogler’s screenplay nomination, or any single nomination for either film. They closed that door firmly and definitively for our African American filmmakers. They left one door open, for 12 Year a Slave, directed by a black man from the UK who never defined himself particularly by the color of his skin. You can ask anyone. It is simply not the same in other countries as it is here in the US. We are caught in a time warp and it is going to be a violent purging of old ideas before things really change. An Oscar win like this one, however, might help just a little tiny bit to change the perception of what kinds of people can be nominated for and win Oscars.
When the story of 2013 is told and retold, the Weinstein Co will have been on the right side of history. The Academy will not have been. The awards are supposed to be about awarding the highest achievements in film, not the highest achievements that massage the collective psyches of white males between the ages of 35 and 70. The SAG voters do not have the same prejudices the Academy voters do. They are, of course, those character actors who never get the kinds of parts that win Oscars or even come close to being nominated for them. Think of how many leading black actresses come to town, like Viola Davis who once dreamed of Meryl Streep and the hundreds just like her for whom doors are continually closed. Those actors get a vote for the SAG, but not the Oscar.
Another type of film has been prevented from winning Oscars — effects driven films that represent the future of Big Hollywood. Gravity is that on the one hand, but it is also wildly artistic and inventive on the other — the silent meditation of a lone woman in space trying to get back home. All of the ways Gravity is revolutionary reflects all of the ways Hollywood is changing.
Movies that get the green light now are those that can be plug and play? Put them in any country in any language and they will succeed, largely based on how thrilling they are to watch — like Life of Pi, like Avatar, like Gravity. Each of these films is filled with thought-provoking emotional content. Two of them are about the inner and outer journey of a singular character. They are about the characters, yes, but they are also about the spectacle — and the spectacle is what brings people to the movies now. It drives the box office into the billions every year.
This change seems to exist mostly outside the Oscar race. Year after year we step into a time warp when we watch the Oscars. They exist as they always have for decades, honoring actor-driven, writer-driven and especially director-driven films. The effects industry at the Oscars is given one tiny category: Best Visual Effects. That there is still just the lone category to honor what has become the dominate type of film that makes money now tells you all you need to know about how the Oscars haven’t evolved in that direction. They probably could use a whole category for Best Effects Driven film.
That’s because the Oscars are mostly driven by actors. Actors like working, they like to be featured front and center. They like films that showcase them more than anything else. They like to speak and be heard, seen and be recognized. They like well-written scripts with lots of dialogue. They don’t care so much about the visual effects revolution in Hollywood. There is no place for them in that future. This is a world where actresses can’t really make very significant strides because no matter what they are usually relegated to being cake decoration. That is why what Cuaron did here is so significant. He put an actress who is almost fifty in the lead role. She nails it, Ripley style, and perhaps reminds actors that there could be a place for them in this brave new world if directors can rethink how they see women in Hollywood, or in space for that matter.
As we move forward there are always forces sucking us backwards in time. This explains why only two films about racism have won Best Picture — In the Heat of the Night which is brilliant, then Driving Miss Daisy, which is not. It also explains why you can feel the rallying cry for the scrappy little movie that could, 12 Years a Slave which is barely hanging on with its half-win at the Producers Guild — a movie that can’t compete with Gravity’s international reach, nor its box office. It’s a film that has been met with resistance by the big city critics group even, simply because it initially had the stink of Oscar frontrunner on it out of Telluride. The rallying cry you can feel or hear is only there, as a barely audible hum of people who want to see something change — to bring it now and not wait for it any longer. That sound you hear is the sound of a bubble being pierced, a cacophony of hope…
The beauty of that sound is that it is growing in numbers. But it is also a sound that could be silenced when the BAFTA rings in to declare another movie Best Picture of this year. Gravity seems to have it in the bag but for that tiny hum you can hear in the background. So many are still predicting 12 Years to take Best Picture as an obligated win. But they separate it from McQueen as though he didn’t really direct the Best Picture of the year. They predict Gravity’s director win, flipping the general sentiment that splits two movies during Oscar season — we love this one (picture) but we feel obligated to vote for this one (12 Years a Slave). The pundits, 100% of them, have predicted this backwards split to occur. It may become a self-fulfilling prophecy as every award body thus far has done it this way — perhaps Academy voters will also do the same, giving 12 Years enough votes on the first round to give it Best Picture, then a groundswell of support for Cuaron will give him Best Director. It kind of makes sense, only if you plan on voters following like lemmings to do what is expected of them. It is a counter-intuitive move, however, when you look at both Oscar history and human nature. If they don’t like it they don’t vote for it. Then again, Argo and Life of Pi were two beloved films that ended splitting the vote. Had Ben Affleck been in the Director category he would have easily gotten their vote — unless the snub is what gave Argo its momentum. We will never know.
I can’t keep arguing with people about this — voters will do what they will do. But if it were me, I would predict one movie for both — the split could go either way, in fact, and if you think one movie is going to win one or the other you have a 50/50 shot at seeing a split. If Oscar voters do as they always have done before, Gravity will win Picture and 12 Years director.
Change isn’t easy. Affirmative action is something that makes many people bristle when talked about. Praise for art should be earned, not owed. Aye, but there’s the rub when the majority of film critics and industry voters are white males. Can anyone proclaim beyond a shadow of a doubt that these voters aren’t just identifying with films that are about them and their experiences? The reason all white juries were dismantled was because it is nearly impossible separate our own personal experiences from how we form opinions. None of likes to admit this, we prefer instead to trust ourselves that we can objectively supplant our emotional reactions into the experiences of world we can’t ever possibly understand. But to some extent we all project ourselves into the films we love. How can we not? We identify with the stars we love. We want to be them. We want to know them. We want to look at pictures of their babies and we live vicariously through these stories about them on screen.
In both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity voters are being asked to step outside their comfort zone and define the film that will define our time. If you were Dr. Ryan Stone looking down at our Oscar race you would plainly see the two forces for change at work. Accepting our future of embracing the effects-driven visual masterpiece that is Gravity, or acknowledging the full force of the Obama presidency on Hollywood and the Oscars, this the first year the Academy has a black woman president. Three prominent black filmmakers in the Oscar race — two of them obliterated from the Oscars, but one left standing. The same year Nelson Mandela died, leaving a legacy of a man who really did change the minds and attitudes of people all over the world. If you looked down at us from outer space, trapped in the sameness of our every day existence, you can’t help but see the bigger picture. Maybe, just maybe, you can also envision a different kind of future where opportunities abound.
The awards race doesn’t define who we are or who we will be or can be. It doesn’t do what they say it does either. It doesn’t reward the highest achievements in art. It can’t possibly because it is dependent upon a consensus vote, which, by its very nature must mirror the comfortable middle, not the most daring high. What it does do, however, is define who THEY are. It defines who they say they are and how they show themselves to the world. On Oscar Island they sit, clutching to the past they know so much better than the world that is changing so rapidly around them. This year, they don’t have an Argo, nor a King’s Speech, nor The Artist to help them feel more comfortable in their cocoon of retreat. They have to make a choice where to go next. What happens today will define what happens tomorrow.
As we wait for the ballots to hit mailboxes we turn our ear to listen to what these voters have to say. There is a lot of noise leading up to the race but the true hum of change echoes beyond the inner lives of Oscar voters. It’s a drumbeat, a howl, a monstrous cry. It is undeniable. And its time has come.
Pre-BAFTA Predictions for the win
12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Alt. Bruce Dern
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Alt. Judi Dench
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Alt. Barkhad Abdi
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Spike Jonze, Her
alt. Dallas Buyers Club
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Alt. Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuarón Mark Sanger, Gravity
Alt. Captain Phillips
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Alt. The Grandmaster
Alt. The Great Gatsby
Alt. Llewyn Davis
Alt. The Grandmaster
Foreign Language Film
Alt. Not sure yet
The Act of Killing
Alt. 20 Feet from Stardom
Alt. The Croods
Dallas Buyers Club
Let it Go
Alt. Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)