This election has changed how I watch movies and how I look at the Oscar race. It’s changed how I look at myself covering the Oscar race. It’s changed how I see my role as I take a daily dive into the hivemind online. I read the stories by all the competing pundits trying to predict or shape the “race,” and I wonder why it’s a race at all. I wonder why any of it matters to anyone or why we would want to make it a contest of winners and losers. Competing with each other to be right and dragging works of art into the fray to pass or fail our arbitrary smell tests. I see with renewed clarity now what I’ve known for a long time: the machine of Oscar race leaves less and less air for movies to breathe.
Movies are splayed out like beauty contestants parading in bathing suits. They’re presented for judgment to a self-appointed group of people who get to decide their worth. If our attitudes are in the right place when a film premieres, awards should be far from our minds. In fact, for the best critics and movie writers this is true. Watching a great movie unveiled to the world can make critics feel like critics again and not just a cog in the massive machine of the Oscar race. But all too often and all too soon, a more demoralizing drive takes hold. It starts with the sideshow we call the awards circuit: when bloggers get access to filmmakers and creative artists all in the name of trying to help them get nominations. Bloggers are happy to play along – we love that brush with greatness. Filmmakers, too, are complicit – most enjoy all the fuss being made over them. Nothing very wrong with that. The problem is when we become tools of the publicity scheme, when PR agents convince bloggers they’re powerful. Fact is, they’re only as powerful as they’re allowed to be.
A daring film like Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk isn’t built to withstand the strict rigors of this beauty contest. First, it was built up prematurely by people like to me to be an “Oscar player.” Then when we saw that it reached for something we weren’t prepared for, many quickly turned on it. Its experimentation with frame rate, its unusual approach to storytelling, the unexpected ugliness of seeing too many pores on beautiful faces was too much for many to process. People recoiled and missed everything great about it. Everyone wanted a milestone, but nobody was really ready for it. Turns out the mix of truthfulness and ambiguity of a film like Billy Lynn isn’t designed for the Oscar machine to digest. So the machine spit it out. It will be left on the side of the road to be discovered by distant travelers some time in the future. This has been the fate of many films now seen as masterpieces. No need to name them. You know what they are.
We trust that film lovers months and years from now will rediscover Ang Lee’s bold statement and see it with eyes no longer focused on its Oscar prospects. When they do, they will see a film that is more about the fragile plight of America today than any other film I can think of from last year. Our 24/7 spectacle of gasp-inducing distraction has become a long never-ending halftime show, a flashy diversion while people are struggling and dying. Ang Lee made a great movie, but he didn’t make a movie for the Oscar machine.
We feed this beast every year with what the beast likes to eat and, frankly, it’s killing the beast and everything else along with it. No one ever really stops to ask why any of us does it. So why do we do it? Do we do it for money? Yes, some of us do. Do we do it because we like being right? Sure, some of us do. Does it make us feel more powerful or somehow connected with the movie business or somehow a part of their world? Maybe for some it does. Mostly now though I see that we are just an arm of the publicity departments and awards strategists who are paid the big bucks to push movies that might have a shot at winning awards. That brings the motivation full circle: they do it for the money.
What does any of it even mean anymore when it is all so tightly controlled and manufactured by bloggers and the publicists that rule over them? Why do we accept the dumbing-down and the narrowing of options all in the name of being right? “See, I was right. That movie was never going to make it.” Or “See, I was right. That movie will win all the awards.” Or “No, that movie can’t win because it didn’t get a directing nomination and, yes, this movie can win because it’s an uplifting story and we know they like uplifting stories.”
None of this really made much of a difference to me before November 8th. Now, it feels wrong. It feels wrong because we need art to tell the truth and not to smear makeup to conceal our wounds. We need to be freed up from this idea of hand-delivering Oscar movies to Oscar voters, carefully prepared, just as they ordered them. That world, that system, suddenly feels narrow, meaningless, and obsolete. It’s just a magic mirror that keeps telling the industry how great they are over and over and over again. Watching people hand out and accept awards these past several weeks feels so strange, doesn’t it? It does to me. It feels strange, surreal, like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, to act like a hero and pretend everything is okay. Everything is most definitely not okay.
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It’s probably just me. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but when I look at the Oscar race over the past several years what I see is not a race that rewards the best films, but a race that confirms the best fit that exactly matches what Oscar voters think they are. The winner of this year’s Oscar race was essentially already decided in September, at Telluride – like almost every year’s Oscar race has been since the date was pushed ahead one month and the public reaction was all but taken off the table. That winner was preordained to be La La Land and nothing anyone said was going to shake it. People got a thrill from the musical that could only exist in fantasyland America, and that was surely the effect Damien Chazelle set out to achieve as he staged his magical imaginary world to evoke escapist Hollywood musicals with a postmodern twist at the end. Good for him, and good for Hollywood for at least admitting that it knows itself. Hollywood veterans who constitute the majority of Oscar voters are not happy with what they’ve seen studios become. They’re mostly appalled at all the cookie-cutter sequels and superhero movies and fart comedy movies that the public pays to see now. The landscape is unrecognizable to filmmakers who made movies in the ’70s – a new abnormal. The branded generation today and ticket buyers for the foreseeable future respond best to marketing triggers that promise them something they already know, a brand they can identify with and feel like they’re on the right train. The Transformers brand. The DC Universe brand. Faster and faster and ever more furious around the same hamster wheel.
But La La Land and most of the films chosen to represent the Oscar race seem to recall Hollywood as it used to be, the Hollywood that now is slowly making its way to television and VOD where it will live out the rest of its days for those who still care to remember it. La La Land is the perfect film for filmmakers who want to preserve the past while spinning it refreshingly back to the present. Does that make it like Trump and Trump’s America? Make Hollywood Great Again? Probably no one would define it that way. I’m sure by now La La Land is already hated by those who inhabit Trump’s America because it’s Hollywood’s favorite movie and they hate Hollywood. Because liberals. Because gays. Because Meryl.
Even we soberly acknowledge that the Oscar machine has become too static, it’s important to remember how history was made this year. Academy voters, and the industry that made them who they are, do not like change. They like things to stay the same, for their tastes to be reflected in their awards. All too often that reflects white perspective. People respond to what they identify with, and since most people who cover and hand out awards are white, they tend to respond to that perspective. Over and over and over again. But a variety of forces gave us a change this year, as has happened briefly in the past. If you look at the one voting body that has begun to stand separate, the Screen Actors Guild, you see that they’re self-consciously choosing diverse movies to try to step out of their comfort zone. No, it’s a genuine sea change. SAG/AFTRA is clearly the most diverse and inclusive of the guilds in the membership, which is why since 2011 they do seem to represent, more often than not, a diverse slate of nominees and winners. In 2011, The Help won Ensemble, Viola Davis won Best Actress, and Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress. In 2015, Idris Elba won Supporting Actor without even having an Oscar nomination as Beasts of No Nation was shut out of the Oscars, as was Straight Outta Compton – which was partly what sparked the protests and boycott that followed.
The industry that decides the Oscar race for Oscar voters is at last showing signs of a similar change this year and because of that, a lot of miraculous inclusion was suddenly present that wasn’t there before. The problem is that these seeds have trouble taking root. Encouraging efforts sprout up one year and then the next year everyone snaps back to their familiar old reliable standard – white stories, usually about white men return to dominate.
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But to end this brooding on a happier note, let’s take a quick look at how much has changed this year, to celebrate what made it an historic year.
La La Land will make history in two ways. First, Damien Chazelle will become the youngest Best Director ever to win (beating Norman Taurog by almost 230 days). He will also be the first American-born director to win since 2009. Emma Stone will be the first Best Actress winner who stars in a Best Picture winner since 2004. Right around the time of Oscar’s key date changes, women became nearly obsolete when it came to Best Picture. There isn’t a Best Picture winner since 2004 that even features a Best Actress nominee at all. That La La Land is a film with a strong female performance at its center should not be forgotten. The participation of women extends behind the camera. The sound engineer nominees are women, as is one of the production design nominees.
Barry Jenkins is the first black auteur to earn nominations in Directing, Writing, and Best Picture. The only African American writer/director to be nominated in 89 years of Oscar history is John Singleton for Boyz in the Hood. It, like Moonlight, tells the story of a sensitive young black man growing up in a hyper-masculine culture. Only four black directors have ever been nominated for Best Director, and if Barry Jenkins were to win, he would be the first in 89 years. Think about that. That’s nearly a century. What is wrong with Hollywood and America that no black director has ever won Best Director? What is wrong is that the Oscars are almost always about the white perspective, except for a few odd instances here or there, like Slumdog Millionaire, The Last Emperor, and 12 Years a Slave? Moonlight isn’t just a film that was created by a black auteur. It is a film about sexual identity and a story that doesn’t involve a conflict between black and white communities. It is wholly a story about the black American experience. That Academy members and critics have celebrated this film doesn’t mean, “Oh, finally a black director made a great film,” it announces something far more important: “Critics and industry voters finally got a clue.”
Denzel Washington could become the first black actor to win three Oscars. I had to double check that stat but apparently it’s extremely rare to win three. Daniel Day-Lewis has three. Meryl Streep has three. Jack Nicholson has three. Katherine Hepburn has four. Denzel Washington is the only African American actor to have two Oscar wins. Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win lead in 1963, but it would be 38 years before another black actor won in a lead role. Almost four decades. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Washington is the first black director and actor to get a Best Picture and Best Actor nomination for Fences. Viola Davis, along with Octavia Spencer, is the only black supporting actress to get a second nomination in that category. Every other black Best Supporting Actress nominee is a one-timer. Think about that. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hidden Figures is the first Best Picture nominee solely about black women without no need to share their story from a white perspective. It is the first film entirely about black women that isn’t about slavery. Yes, it takes place during segregation and it shows the inequality working black women had to endure. But it also tells a success story within that framework. It tells an essential and long overdue story of black Americans as part of an American history that breathes. Octavia Spencer is the first black supporting actress winner to get a second nomination. In 89 years of Oscar history.
Ava DuVernay, who remains the only black female director whose film was nominated for Best Picture, is back just a few years later with 13th, a piercing crystalline story of black history that is rarely seen. 13th joins I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America as honest examinations of the black experience in America – three in the doc category in one year.
- Manchester by the Sea’s producer is a black woman.
- Moonlight co-editor Joi McMillan is a black woman – the first to be nominated in 89 years of Oscar history.
- Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is African American – the first to be nominated in 89 years of Oscar history.
- Mica Levi is the first female composer to be nominated for original score since Rachel Portman in 2000
- Dev Patel is only the 8th Asian actor to be nominated in the supporting category.
The films in the foreign language film category are all astonishing this year, along with the shorts, as they take us all over the world to tell stories that Americans are mostly shielded from seeing. Toni Erdmann is directed by a woman and is about a strong career woman who needs yet doesn’t need her crazy father. The Salesman is an absolutely brilliant juxtaposition of the iconic American play Death of a Salesman against a Farhadian suspense story of repression and secrets and lies. A Man Called Ove is the film everyone should see right now. It’s about an Iranian family thawing out a grumpy grieving old man who can’t get over the death of his wife. These films are all so so so SO good. The Oscars give them publicity and Netflix and Amazon give us an easy way to watch. It’s a new system but a good system.
The chances of things snapping back to normal next year are pretty high. Although now that Trump is our president, I think we will all look at things a little differently. I hope that the successes here keep the doors open to exciting and hopeful possibilities. I hope that the box-office success of La La Land means more musicals with women in them. I hope that the box-office success of Hidden Figures means that more films with black women at their center are not just made but embraced by broader audiences and the industry collective. We need to remember and echo and carry forth the America that Obama left us with. It doesn’t disappear because he left office, and we cannot allow a white nationalist administration to erase our progress and wrench America back to its darker days. I still believe in Obama’s audacity of hope. I still see that America and believe in its promise. Its spirit shines in the Oscar race this year to remind us of the heights America can still reach for and attain. We will celebrate that America on Oscar night.