In the past three days, I’ve walked the streets of New York City. I’ve flown home to Los Angeles. I drove out of Los Angeles in the thick of an August night. I woke up in a casino town, where a shitty river runs through it. I’ve driven out of the desert and into the hills and watched the clouds form over a vast and craggy Arizona mountain range. I’ve stopped in Flagstaff to spend the night, where I happened last night to flip on the television to a Fox News broadcast of Donald Trump’s “speech” on immigration. Falsely billed as a policy statement, what it really was was a terrifying confrontation with the ugliest side of human nature. The emergence of Donald Trump doesn’t divide America. It merely answers the call of an already divided nation, pitting the dwindling white population against everyone else. There are a few people of color hanging on for dear life to Trump, hoping that when he is elected they will be spared. “Don’t beat me up or set my house on fire or shoot me — I like Donald Trump too.” Unfortunately, even the Jews who supported Hitler, as reportedly there were, were not spared. But primarily this is the moment for White America to rise up and try to reclaim what it perceives has been taken from them.
This year’s Oscar race will exist in the shadow of a monster. I’ve watched the Oscar race through four election cycles and I have always believed that election years do impact Oscar voting, even if irrationally and indirectly.
2000 was Bush vs. Gore and Gladiator won Best Picture that year. So many young voters this year don’t know what it was like to watch Bush get elected by just 538 votes. None of us expected a landslide, but he won because it was closer than it should have been. 10 months later, Osama bin Laden downed the twin towers and changed the country forever. Nothing would ever be the same after that. In 2004, anointed as a “war-time” president, Bush was re-elected and Million Dollar Baby would win Best Picture. Because voters were told there was an arbitrary “Level Orange” terror threat, there was no way Bush wasn’t getting re-elected, allowing his reckless damage to continue. As a mirror of the times, Gladiator suits 2000 more than Million Dollar Baby suits 2004. Re-election was such a fait accompli, most people barely remember Bush v. Kerry anyway. Million Dollar Baby was the last film to win without being seen till after the festival season, and the first to win after Oscar pushed its date forward one month — from late March to late February. Especially coupled with Clint Eastwood’s win, M$B seems to be the kind of movie that would have won in any year, election or no election.
It was really during Bush’s second term when the most damage to our national psyche would be done. A shattering string of misfortunes that locked our institutions into chronic malfunction and set into motion many of the same forces at play in this year’s election.
Bush’s election would cause so much visible and obvious damage — two endless, unwinnable wars, a Wall Street meltdown that led to an economic crash and the subsequent bailout to avoid global economic collapse. But really, we were sufficiently freaked out by the devastation wrought by two wars: when Obama finally came along as antidote to two terms of GOP rule the country was more than ready for real change. As popular a president as Obama became, his audacity of hope helped unearth and inspire a different kind of race awareness that would fundamentally change how we talk about the film industry and the Oscars. Yes, much of that is due to the dream of the first black President at last materializing. But really, the only Best Picture to mark that era of transition was Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, the only Iraq war film to ever win, and what a film it was. Nothing ever described the quagmire better.
Finally, in 2012, Obama’s second term was secured. Exactly one year and two days later, 12 Years a Slave would premiere. Maybe it won Best Picture because Obama was our president, maybe it won because many Academy members felt the Oscars still has a debt to pay, as does America itself. Whatever the reasons we might suss out, there are some years where the election seems to really impact the race. I’m betting this is one of those years.
We’ve already touched on what a Clinton election might do to the film industry overall and to the Oscar race. It’s an industry where women are still fight to be valued on a level playing field with men (an understatement) and an industry where it seems the latest “hot girl” is recycled at an increasingly rapid rate. In the Oscar industry itself — where almost every film that catches fire revolves around a male protagonist, where women are allowed to be mothers and wives and girlfriends, but rarely the heroes — the first woman to lead the free world could indeed begin to change minds and open doors. But along with Hillary’s ascendance, there is a hot wave of misogyny — primal and seemingly permanent — standing in the way of that.
What we haven’t talked about is what might happen in the wake of an appalling Trump election, a kind of Brexit-level global shocker that would play like a cauldron of poison spilling out onto the streets. Most liberals — especially far-left liberals who are actually considering voting third party — feel confident that Hillary Clinton has this. But even Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com is remaining cautious and fearful about the potential for this depressingly close race to “tighten.”
Maybe you think politics has nothing to do with the Oscars, or maybe you think it will have no impact on how voters think. I would argue that, heading into November, the reality of Trump will continue to loom large. In one way, the Oscar race will exist as it always has in the years since the public stopped being a factor — as an insular world that seeks to examine the goodness of men. In another way, the voters themselves will be greatly impacted — and has been greatly impacted already — by what we’re all watching unfold.
If the elections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and his son, W.. used an uneasy sense of oppression to their advantage in their embrace of the silent majority and the promises of “that shining city on the hill,” Trump ushers in a much thicker, darker version of that discord. Trump is saying many of the same things they said: “We’re going to restore law and order, we won’t be soft on crime, we’ll get the loafers off of welfare, firm up the military.” But there is now a wider and more pervasive distrust of that macho posturing after Americans were lied to about why we went into Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, Trump can’t coast into the White House on macho posturing alone. It has to be about something more fearsome and what it’s become about — as disgusting as it is to imagine, let alone say out loud — is hate.
Trump’s speech last night from here in Arizona wasn’t just a typical Trump speech. It was Trump laying out in stark, unequivocal terms that his election is going to be about “blaming immigrants” for the poverty, the crime, the violence, the terrorist threats. He wants, still, to build the wall, to block immigrants from the south, as well as war-torn regions like Libya and Syria. And he’s given full permission and free-license to red-faced, gun-toting rednecks to let them know it’s perfectly okay to hate out in the open. That hate, by the way, will not be based on whether or not a person is an American citizen — but whether or not they have brown skin or wear Muslim-looking beards, or Middle Eastern clothing. We’re reminded that Nazi Germany was not all that long ago. The only way Hitler got away with his atrocities was by dehumanizing Jews, and by giving angry nationalist Aryan citizens permission to wreak havoc by telling them that Jewish families were to blame for all their woes.
I don’t know how anyone can look away from this looming horror, and that will include — has to include — Oscar voters. Here is a quick rundown of the films maybe up for Best Picture and why they might resonate this year more than they would any other year with our heightened sociopolitical sensibilities .
Hell or High Water – If the Oscars were held today, this film would win Best Picture. It captures the anger of the time, the way the white man feels victimized by the economy on both the right and the left, and it expresses the same kind of vigilante justice that is so palpable at Trump rallies right now. Hell or High Water feels like America right this moment, where everyone has a gun, where no one is to be trusted and it’s high time to right the wrongs of the corporate owned government. It’s also just a really great movie.
Loving – On the other side of the spectrum is the Obama coalition still standing up for the rights of women, LGBT families, black lives, and the right to practice the Muslim faith as an American citizen. If there is one film so far that evokes that coalition this year, at least so far, it’s Loving. Subtle, yes, but powerful in what it says, ultimately, about bigotry, hatred and how we have often used our legal system — and our politicians — to enforce and justify injustice. Trump’s coalition is represented in the film, too. It’s the coalition that hides behind antiquated laws that would allow bursting into someone’s bedroom at night and throwing a pregnant woman in jail just because she married a man with white skin.
La La Land – If there is a movie to take people away from all this turmoil, like Oliver! did in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, it’s got to be La La Land. It’s the talk of Venice this week. I have not yet seen Damien Chazelle’s film yet but it seems to exist in a world that doesn’t know about Trump. A happy pill of delight could be just the antidote to the unbearable perpetually churning news cycles. In any other year, it might not be considered serious enough, but in a year like this it might just be precisely not-serious enough.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Here we’re headed into an exploration of the identity of America itself, and probably not in a great way. War heroism as a blessing and a curse that likely will tell a painful truth. There may never be enough films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to help us purge these disasters from our collective consciousness. For one thing, soldiers and civilians are still dying over there. The aftershocks of the Iraq war are part of this election year on almost a daily basis, as it should be. That makes this movie either the most relevant or the one to avoid.
Sully – This film will be seen in the next few days but how it plays into the election is going to be tricky. Tom Hanks as the hero pilot could be just what America needs right now. But Eastwood himself often gets involved in politics, too, in often awkward ways. Oscar voters don’t seem to care, though. At least not yet. Eastwood is respected for lasting this long and for still being able to make good films and that, I believe, will always be rewarded.
The Birth of a Nation – The films that deal with race could also prove either polarizing or unifying, depending on the messages they convey. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was to be the one that really did rise up to challenge the forces that oppose, for instance, Black Lives Matter, and sought to shine a light once again on slavery by telling the story of the visionary rebel, Nat Turner. But that movie is going to have a hard time finding footing in this climate. No one really knows at this point what its fate will be.
Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women, Silence, Rules Don’t Apply and Arrival are probably films that would probably do well in any year, and perhaps won’t be impacted either way no matter which direction this election veers in November. As character dramas with knockout performances, they are each likely to find fans on both sides of the political spectrum. As the films begin to be screened and seen and discussed we will begin to see whether or not they pop or not.
Twitter was aghast with horror at Trump’s speech, though you’d never know the outrage happened if you read about it in the neutered and homogenized top story in today’s New York Times. It could be that we’ve reached maximum outrage levels and our system needs to restart, which is perhaps how we’ve allowed a Trump to get this far in the first place. Maybe when you start calling Meryl Streep a racist for wearing a t-shirt it might be time to restart that machine. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter in the face of an ugly reality how we got here, or why we’re here. All that matters is that we must rise to the occasion and do our best to stop it. If America is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we the people cannot let fascism, ignorance, and hatred become once again the law of the land. When future generations look back on this election year and sift through the wreckage, part of that story will be what won Best Picture the following February. The movies we choose to honor will help illustrate who we were to those looking back, just as now it will tell us who we are.