I have always believed that the Oscars are mostly fluid, not static. That is, unless they aren’t. Some years are locked with very little wiggle room. The winner is decided early by a consensus of critics, more or less, and then the industry either agrees or doesn’t. I can think of a handful of years where one film won the majority of the critics awards, and even the Golden Globes, heading in but were stopped by the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild. That usually has to do with how a film plays with hundreds vs. thousands.
2020 appears to be a locked year. We won’t know that, of course, until the big guilds announce, and there are some potential sticking points. Not every category is locked. For one thing, Picture and Director have been splitting more due to the preferential ballot which favors films that are not divisive.
But if the call of 2020 has been one of equity and inclusion for women and people of color, in Chloe Zhao they have the solution. And of course, that makes it easier, but it also makes it harder. Because we’ve pushed for inclusion, it is more challenging to make the case that the film is deserving on its own regardless. That case may or may not be made by the end of the season.
No one is going to argue that Nomadland doesn’t deserve its accolades, even if voters will likely be viewed with some skepticism in their unanimity. Nomadland and Chloe Zhao fit into what I call the “kicking puppy” phenom – a movie that can’t be criticized. Argo was one. The King’s Speech, The Artist, Green Book, Moonlight, Spotlight, Parasite – you name it. If it won under the preferential ballot, then it was a puppy you can’t kick – either because the director is someone you can’t kick (Kathryn Bigelow vs. Jim Cameron) or the film itself (The Artist). The more people dumped on The King’s Speech, for instance, the more likely it was to win.
Of all of the films in the race this year, you do see a pattern emerging, one that is fueled by what is happening in our culture all around us – and has even reached the Oscars themselves. It is not acceptable anymore to simply push for equality – there has to be equity. In this era of fear, chaos, and paranoia, this has been the solution reached by those on the left for the problems with our world – systemic racism. And somehow in the aftermath of that, you’re seeing an undercurrent of negativity towards white men. It isn’t anything anyone has the guts to say out loud, but it hums through almost everything we’re seeing in politics, education, science, history, art and yes, the Oscars. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. It is simply the reality. And it’s a powder keg about to explode.
If you look at the critics awards so far, they seem to be depicting a year of film where no white man made any good movie, with a few exceptions, like Charlie Kaufman for I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It is perhaps not even the films themselves, but the desire instead to peer through the gaze of someone other than a white male. What stories are they telling? What messages do they want to get across?
Despite how strong Regina King’s directing is and how interesting One Night in Miami is, the movie can’t seem to get traction – even though it is a movie told through the eyes of a black artist. Nomadland, by contrast, tells the story of mostly white Americans adrift in a country that no longer has a place for them. It gazes at white life through the eyes of a woman of color.
Whites are still the majority in America (60%) and in the Academy (roughly 60-70%), which means that our perception will inform our vote, for better or worse. While film critics groups have made efforts towards inclusion over the past few years, they too are still dominated by white members. In 2020, this is considered a high crime until you parse it out based on population and majority.
Praising a white director’s gaze telling a story of white people might strike some people as something that would be “wrong” for 2020. What we don’t know is whether the industry will fall in line with this attitude. Considering it is a prevalent ideology overall on the left, I would imagine that they will.
Now we have to imagine what movie would top Nomadland if none of this mattered. If we didn’t check off the boxes when looking at movies to see what needs from what community are being properly or adequately addressed with our film awards. How would the race look? I’m not sure you can separate it. The reason being, watching movies is a subjective, highly personal experience.
If you watch Hillbilly Elegy knowing it’s directed by a white male about not just white people but white people who are presumed to be “Trump country,” and thus deserve no sympathy or compassion at all, that is going to inform your emotional response to it. If you take that same exact movie and you put a non-white director behind it, then you are peering at that world which is being commented on by a person of color and that changes how you watch the movie – because we are always watching movies through the eyes of their director, at least where film criticism and awards voting is concerned. Most people out there in the world don’t. They just watch the movie.
All of this is to say that I believe this is a locked year – both because Nomadland is a great movie and also because of Chloe Zhao. Watching the movie through her eyes is, to my mind, what makes it great and not just because she is a woman of color but because of her specific sensibilities of the natural world, people’s faces, the music. It is simply a beautiful film. And it’s a bit unfair that it will be lauded in a year where so many in the white community are trying to atone for past sins. I would say she deserved better than that, but if you imagine a different kind of year without these dynamics at play then the film might not be rising to the top of the pile. Not because of its quality necessarily, but because in the past the most highly revered perspectives have been those of white men.
Some may wonder if the era of the “great man” is over. It might be where the Oscars are concerned. Big action-movies audience-pleaser are still driven by the “great man,” like Greenland, for instance. But the awards race is becoming more insular, more closed off from regular folk. The future of all of it remains predictable.
In an ordinary year I would say a lot can happen that would or could change things but this is not an ordinary year.
At this point I see it as a locked year in Best Picture and Best Director, but we’ll have to see what happens when we fold SAG/AFTRA into the mix.
How do you see it playing out?