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The State of the Race: The Oscars in Trump’s First Year

Each new presidency ushers in a new era in the American collective consciousness which, in turn, can’t help but color not just the films that get made but how Oscar voters respond to those films. America wants to change but its past keep holding us back. Is everything that used to be worth preserving? Clearly not. Are we finally able to deal head-on with who we were, who we are, and who we strive to be? And if not, who are we really?

One thing we know for sure is that we’ve never seen anything like Donald Trump. The closest thing we can compare his administration to was Richard Nixon’s presidency, which seemed to exist outside the realm of any sense of stability – even in the midst of chaotic change in American life in the late 60s and early 70s, Nixon’s behavior was bizarre. It just so happened that many the best American films ever made were during that era and (due to production pipeline lag) a handful years immediately following his ignominious departure. But Nixon ran counter to all that. He provided a backdrop of oppression and fed an inhumane war that ended up producing some astonishing movies.

American society is different now. Despite pathways of remarkable progress, our culture is in many ways exponentially worse. The world is different in how we communicate with each other, which spills over into different ways that we review, discuss, build up, and destroy films. There are purity tests for politicians as well as for art. This newly aggressive element in how films are seen, received, and assessed has shaken up the race probably even more than any horror-show clown like Donald Trump could do. I suspect, and it’s only a guess, that as our backlash reaction to Trump increases, that desire to tear down films that do not ascribe to a set of flawless principles might diminish, although who can say? The rules seem to be rewritten daily. Publicists are trying to stay on top of them. Artists who mean well can’t control the tsunami of vocal protests if they emerge. We’re all going on as though things are how they’ve always been, but there is radical change afoot. We are evolving as a country in ways we won’t understand until historians explain it to us 20 years from now.

There does seem to be a wrestling for control of the American collective consciousness like never before, because fringe groups who have always been relegated to silence now feel their voices emboldened – and the amplifier of social media ensures that those voices can sound louder now than they ever have before. If you’ve ever been the target of a Twitter swarm, you know full well what I’m talking about. It’s good, it’s bad, and it’s ugly. It’s all of those things at once. Mass hysteria takes hold and before you know it films are destroyed only to be dug up again in the future, dusted off, and reappraised – no one will really remember what all the fuss was about. Even this post will one day look ridiculous because most people will not believe we’re talking about Twitter as a factor.

There is no doubt that we’re living through a crisis, as we endure the flailings of white male anxiety. This is as true on the left as it is on the right. As each group of citizens has risen to claim its rightful equal status, staking a new claim to exert newfound power, the only group that doesn’t have a shield against the wave of so-called social justice is the beleaguered white males. Right behind them are white women, especially those of a certain class and level of education – although one thing women face today that they have always had to face is a pervasive resentment and downright hated toward any woman who refuses to behave the way many men want.

Women overall, white and non-white, continue to be a favorite target for just about everyone who wants to pick a fight, and that’s painfully apparent when it comes to women who are now able to make movies. Sofia Coppola and Patty Jenkins have been targeted across the board, just as Kathryn Bigelow and Ava DuVernay were. There will always be a reason to target a filmmaker who isn’t a white male. It just sucks that we have to watch this tired bashing routine go down every year, as female directors are made to run a gauntlet, repeatedly required to prove their worth, to prove they know what they’re doing when they make a movie – or when they run for president.

Yet here we are, hoping that, once again, we can disappear into the world of movies where Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” still echoes, where we remember that there once was a commander-in-chief who cared about human rights, who respected women and promoted them, especially women of color. A man in the Oval Office who cultivated projects like inviting the cast of Hamilton to the White House, who held screenings of Selma and other culturally rich films.

Films like Call Me By Your Name, the Florida Project, Get Out, Dunkirk, Battle of Sexes, The Papers, and many more films are cut from the cloth of that world. Where we are going from here is anyone’s guess. We wonder what think pieces are going to bubble up and why. Who will be next on the chopping block until the remaining films left for Oscar voters, all deemed acceptable because no one could find any reason to attack them, also must be scrutinized and picked over, as purists and activists look for weaknesses. Eventually, one will emerge, pristine and pure: free from attacks and accusations, free from condescending dismissals. It gets harder and harder, though, to untangle the fascinating knots between art and politics, doesn’t it? The hive mind sometimes seems to revel in yanking those knots inextricably tighter.

We enter this year’s Oscar race balancing these two looming pillars: a changing America under Donald Trump, and a changing American moviegoing audience under Twitter, Facebook, and the hive mind. Both will have a significant impact on how we look at the movies offered up, how those movies are received, and where they will ultimately stand within a divided America. Trump – who truly believes he only needs to be president for a fraction of Americans – will probably do what he did last year: boycott and smear the Oscars. It seems clear on some level that he would love for the industry to welcome him with open arms. He craves celebrity adoration. But since he knows he’ll never be accepted in those circles, he’s far more comfortable in Hitler-in-the-bunker mode, with his us-against0them mentality, seeing himself as a perpetual victim of social justice warriors out to destroy his perverted vision of the American way. So the Oscars, and any films they honor, will be a part of that.

What we’re going to be looking for with Best Picture, maybe this year more than ever, is what film is least hated and most liked. It seems like an easy enough equation to follow and yet it perplexes pundits every year. The preferential ballot amplifies this disconnect as it’s designed to soften and narrow the range of films that can ultimately win. Moonlight’s shocking win last year seemed like a fluke. So did Spotlight’s the year before. The money is with the films that have the Oscar buzz or get nominations, but the movie that wins Best Picture in recent years didn’t need to be big in terms of overall profit:

Moonlight: $27 million
Spotlight: $45 million
Birdman: $45 million
12 Years a Slave: $56 million
*Argo: $136 million
The Artist: $44 million
*The King’s Speech: $138 million
The Hurt Locker: $17 million

(and usually a big slice of those earnings came after Oscar nominations, giving a boost to movies that many Americas were barely aware of before the Academy brought them into the conversation.)

Money no longer appears to be a deciding factor that it used to be. Instead, it’s the idea that Oscar voters are standing for something important – they are saying: we still care about art, even as so many movies and talented filmmakers are heading to television and VOD, even as effects spectacles swallow up the lion’s share of business of Hollywood. We still care about storytelling that revolves around the human experience.

It’s easy to be cynical about Hollywood, easier still to be cynical about Oscar voters but looking over that list, from 2009 till now, I see only two films by black directors, one by a woman, and many of them financed outside the system just for the sake of art, for the sake of storytelling. That alone gives me hope that we can survive this mess.

Sure, it all happened under Obama’s watch. No doubt his presence in the White House did so much to bolster the confidence and optimism for all of us on the left. And no doubt the catastrophe we’re living through right now is going to color everything we see and think and feel and do for the next however many years until we can end this nightmare.

But for the first time in a long time, I look at the resistance to ongoing tragedy and I don’t see the Oscars as irrelevant at all. In fact, I see them as mattering more than they ever have. Why? Because cinema can illuminate the path to truth. It can shine a light on the goodness in us. Maybe this seemed silly or sentimental before. Maybe we ridiculed the notion of “feel good” movies or movies about heroic people. But we must remember what it is we should be reaching for in the darkest days that lie ahead.

While Nixon was president, the Oscars saw some of the best movies they’ve ever seen, and many of them were very dark:

1969: Midnight Cowboy
1970: Patton, Five Easy Pieces
1971: The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show
1972: The Godfather, Deliverance, Cabaret
1973: The Exorcist, Cries and Whispers
1974: The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny

When Nixon resigned in 1974, Gerald Ford took his place and it would be two more years before Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville
1976: Rocky, All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver

The feminist movement (though its influence would be diminished as the tentacles of Reaganism strangled American progress for the next 12 years) did occasionally show itself in films like Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Coming Home, An Unmarried Woman, Norma Rae, Kramer vs. Kramer – then it would be put back in its bottle, rarely to be seen again, certainly not much these days. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that black cinema would start to infiltrate the Oscars with The Color Purple, which caused so much controversy that another film with an all-black cast would not be nominated for Best Picture until Precious in 2009.

The Academy is changing. Its membership is changing. We can’t expect them to right all the wrongs of our past, just as we can’t expect that a hashtag on Twitter can really shift an entire industry overnight. In the end, though, we need stories and we need storytellers – not to fix our culture but to mirror the changes within it.

And with that, we’re just a couple of weeks away from starting this year, the first year of the Oscar race under Donald Trump.