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The State of the Race: And Suddenly the Oscar Race is Unpredictable

The race for Best Picture this year is a sharp contrast between real and imaginary storytelling. Half of the films spring from real life and half spring from the wild imaginations of artists who have stories in them that needed to be told. The three films at the top of the list are all, no matter how they’ve been categorized by the Academy, original screenplays by writer/directors who have created immersive, unrelenting worlds in stark contrast with each other.

If you step back a few paces and really look at this race as it stands right now, mostly still wide open, you see a wide array of stories and perspectives represented – more diverse, more interesting than we’ve seen in the Oscar race in quite some time.

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One of the most remarkable things about this year is the abundance of stories about African American life that don’t necessarily or directly involve slavery or subservience to white characters. Rather, many of them – unprecedented in their scope and voice – tell stories of ordinary and extraordinary Americans whose stories are simply never told, or if they are told they do not crossover into the land of white film critics and industry voters. There has never been a year in all of Oscar history where more than one film with an all-black cast was nominated for Best Picture. This year, there are potentially two: Fences and Moonlight. There are also two more with mixed casts that are certainly heavy or at least equal on the African American side.

By the way, I’m using the term “African American” specifically – rather than black – because in these stories that legacy matters.

August Wilson set out to bring the world of middle-class black families to white audiences who weren’t familiar with the invisible people who surround them everyday. In what is one of the best films of the year by a long way, Denzel Washington’s Fences is a master class in acting, writing- and directing all in one film. It blows out the competition, acting wise, with not a weak link in the entire cast. A second viewing of Fences, in fact, draws out the cinematic elements that might not be visible upon first viewing, and if you hear anyone say it’s like watching a play they’re generally people who have limited depth. And we know from this election that those kinds of people aren’t in short supply. When I first saw Fences, it would not leave me for that night and the day after – it hit so hard. A second viewing of it reminds me why – you just don’t see that kind of acting anymore. You don’t even come close to hearing that kind of lyrical, poetic writing either. Writers try to sound real now more than they try to reach for poetry, and maybe that’s because so many can’t write that way. But August Wilson could. He’s one of the best writers America ever produced.  Watching Fences, a Denzel Washington production, knowing that if he gets Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Acting nods he will be the most nominated African American artist in Oscar history. Fences is just a brilliant film, top to bottom, with no qualifiers.

Hidden Figures and Loving take us back to a time where subversive, rebellious behavior was a necessary way to evolve if you happened to be born black at a time in America when black and white were segregated and separated. Hidden Figures curiously paints the white world as the one with unnecessary obstructions, because doesn’t everyone want us to go to the moon however we can? Indeed, “hidden” is a beautiful word to describe who and what these three brilliant woman were. They were necessary, they were put to work, and they were hidden – until now. In Loving, it simply never occurs to Richard and Mildred Loving that they couldn’t be together if they loved each other. The actors in these films must play both themselves and their characters around white characters – they are two different things. In fact, Janelle Monae said while filming Hidden Figures it often brought her to tears just having to “act” the way black people were expected to act back then.

Moonlight, a lovely, bittersweet tale of a young gay black man coming of age in a rough and tumble hyper-masculine culture. We watch a boy become a man. We watch him struggle with being an outsider and then finally reach for his true self. We watch a director play with form – taking three partitioned worlds with three different actors representing three different stages in his life. Moonlight hits hard, and again, it tells a story that hardly ever gets told.

It’s important to step back and look at these movies, at their prominence in the race – three of them have SAG Ensemble nominations. That breaks a record. They have had two at the most but three? And if these three go on to get Best Picture nominations, as they’re expected to? That will be your Monday morning headline.

There is even room for stories about women this year – Arrival does the impossible by putting a woman completely at the center of the film. Then there is Pablo Larrain’s Jackie which imagines the internal world of Jackie Kennedy after the president was shot. And 20th Century Women with it vibrant, brilliant cast of women.

But it doesn’t really stop there, this wide variety of subject matter. We do have our traditional war film with the excellent Mel Gibson epic, Hacksaw Ridge. We have a thoughtful meditation on religion and suffering with Martin Scorsese’s Silence. And we have a western noir about big banks fleecing poor families in the American West, and drawing a comparison to Europeans taking the land from the Indians, in Hell or High Water. Manchester by the Sea is also about a middle class family trying to make it through a brutal winter without the one guy who holds the whole family together. Now the weaker, troubled brother is in charge and he can’t handle it. We drop into snowy, cold Manchester for this film and it, too, takes us to a place we’ve never been (unless you happen to come from there, of course).

Arrival takes us into the future with yet another moody sci-fi in the tradition of Ridley Scott’s Alien, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Soderbergh’s Solaris, Nolan’s Interstellar, last year’s Ex Machina, and even this year’s Midnight Special by Jeff Nichols. They depend less on action and more on bigger ideas, often involving female leads. Arrival should be a cerebral experience, where we contemplate time and space and quantum physic,s but instead we are carried away with primal human emotions, and that is our saving grace, far beyond our intelligence.

Lion spends the first half on what it means to live in poverty in India and to be lost in a world that swallows you up. Living on the streets, being chased by predators, and eventually being adopted by well-meaning people with charity in their open hearts. Lion starts out being about the kid but it also becomes about what defines motherhood or parenthood. By the end of the film, Saroo has two mothers and has found a way to make the two conflicting cultures somehow blend.

The surprise entry, Captain Fantastic, takes into another land of white America – the progressive wing that rose up and represented itself in this year’s election. It could be somewhat partnered with Hell or High Water or Manchester by the Sea in terms of a kind of Bernie Sanders screed of the white middle class that’s been left behind, but truly, Captain Fantastic is not white working class – it’s white privilege with not enough privilege and a quest to find yet more privilege where killing animals and living off the land is part of that ideology. This is much of where liberal white progressive America finds itself, with its Whole Foods and its hybrid cars and its lack of personal happiness even amid all of that privilege. It’s funny to juxtapose Captain Fantastic alongside say, Fences or Hidden Figures isn’t it? But hey, these are the people who vote on awards – they’re not exactly suffering except in an ideological way. Yet something in Captain Fantastic seems to have struck a chord with white America in some fashion. I guess the end of the first African American president did kind of cause people to freak out a little on both the left and the right. On the left it was like, no that isn’t good enough. You gave us just a taste of progressivism but it wasn’t enough to satisfy our ideology. On the right, it was give us back the country we’ve always known and loved – where men have free reign to do as they please. Ironically, Captain Fantastic is about that, too. It’s just the hipster version of it. But let’s not talk about the election, shall we?

Finally, La La Land does what no other film does this year  – it gives us a toe-tapping, emotionally uplifting world where the biggest problems are knowing when love is staring back at you and how not to pass up the best things in life. It’s a simple story, La La Land. It’s so much about the musical itself, and cinema, and Los Angeles. It is a breath of fresh air, to be sure.

La La Land was thought to be the frontrunner except for a couple of hold-outs, Anne Thompson famously being one of them. But she has said from the beginning that voters were “mixed on the film.” Her latest Gurus of Gold does have La La Land out front as the winner, at least for now.

There are two ways of interpreting the latest shift in the Oscar race: 1) It’s all imaginary. The pundits circle each other and talk about what each other thinks but there is no THERE there. The race is the race and the movie they ultimately pick is the movie that they were always going to pick and there are no twists and turns – just our own perceptions of those twists and turns; or, 2) Things really do change because the way we look at film has to do with perception and perception can shift if things around us shift. Something like the election can shift things. A war can shift things. Or backlash can shift things and of course, a scandal or a whisper campaign or a smear campaign can dramatically shift things to knock a film out of contention.

What shifted for me was simply this: what seemed like a sweeps year with one film winning everything has now turned into a more complicated year where one film might not win everything but the wins could be split up a variety of ways.

So what happened? The SAG happened. Captain Fantastic happened, knocking out the frontrunner, La La Land.

Now, keep in mind most others aren’t shifting their prediction FROM La La Land, and indeed it might be that the SAG is a snafu and it doesn’t matter. But from my perspective, the first big guild vote with 2,500 people voting which is by far the biggest vote we’ve seen thus far anywhere.

And it’s true that the ensemble award goes to those named with their own title credit. But still, La La Land is about actors. It’s about auditioning. It does have supporting players like J.K. Simmons and John Legend. While it’s definitely a “two-hander,” it still heads into the SAG awards with two nominations to Manchester’s four, and Fences/Moonlight’s three.  he win is now down to those three, in fact, and that is a tough call, right there. That’s a really tough call. I’ll go with Fences for a time being because of the acting — there just isn’t better acting in any film this year.

Finally, the way I read the race right now is that someone just hit the reset button. People will scramble around and pretend they know how it’s going to go from here – they can talk to Academy members as Anne Thompson and Greg Ellwood do, or they can follow their own instincts, as Kris Tapley often does, or they can do what I do – follow the stats and history. See where those take us.

And the charts thus far, under the current system of five nomination slots and a random number of Best Picture contenders: