Sundays Oscars loom in the shadow of Donald Trumps fledgling presidency. As with every awards show this year, we can expect copious equal-rights diatribes mounted in resistance to the regressive legislationand callow disregard for traditionthat has defined the Trump administrations debut.
But before arriving at the annual ritual,we will have already seen one of the most politically driven Best Picture debates unfurl in the media.This time, its personal.
Perhaps more than ever, the Best Picture contest seems to double as a referendum on our cultures conscience.Its bigger than the Oscars, just as Beyonc losing Album of the Year to Adele wasbigger than the Grammys. If movies are statements about the world around us, then one purpose of the Academy Awards is to adjudicate the years best cinematic manifestos. Thats complicated when titles from Obamas America are being feted in Trumps America.
Its especially complicated when considering the Oscars thorny political backdrop. Throughout its 89-year history, the event has, after all, become a shrine to Hollywoods liberal values even when the movies themselves arent explicitly political.
In 2014, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen ended his Best Picture acceptance speech by dedicating the award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today. He then turned to the cast and crew surrounding him onstage and leapt into the air enthusiastically.
In 2016, Spotlightproducer Michael Sugar addressed his Best Picture acceptance speech to Pope Francis, saying he hopes the recognition will inspire a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. He then turned and gave Michael Keaton a bear hug.
In both cases, it would have been surprising not to hear rallying cries related to the human-rights transgressions depicted in these films.
Sandwiched between the 12 Years a Slave and Spotlight victories was Birdman. The closest that movie came to tackling social ills was something along the lines of middle age = hard. Yet director Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu, a Mexico native, politicized hisacceptance speechanyway, ending with a sweet pro-immigration sentiment.
This all took place during Barack Obamas tenure. In terms of Hollywoods nerve center, it was a time of relative political ease.
But amid radical unrest, what does it mean to score popular cultures most luminous prize?
If theres one thing we know about the Oscars, its this: Even by subjective standards, the years best movie often doesnt nab Best Picture. The Greatest Show on Earth beat Singin in the Rain because Singin in the Rain wasnt even nominated. How Green Was My Valley topped Citizen Kane, frequently cited as the greatest film ever made. Out of Africa outpaced The Color Purple.Dances with Wolves stole the trophy from Goodfellas. Perhaps most infamously, voters preferredCrash over Brokeback Mountain, a groundbreaking masterpiece if weve ever seen one. Some would add Birdman to the list of failures, too it did compete against Boyhood and Selma.
HuffPost Entertainment is your one-stop shop for celebrity news, hilarious late-night bits, industry and awards coverage and more sent right to your inbox six days a week. Learn more
Understanding that the minutiae of a Best Picture race has little to do with pure quality, any Oscar pundit will tell you this years front-runner is La La Land, a bubbly musical romance about an aspiring Los Angeles actress and a stubborn jazz purist. Moonlight, one of 2016s most acclaimed releases, could unseat La La Land in an underdog triumph, partly because its a phenomenal movie and partly because of the important story it tells, about a black latchkey kid grappling with his sexuality in the Miami projects. But watch out for Hidden Figures, the charming box-office smash about three black women who were pivotal at NASA in the 1960s. Hidden Figures became a veritable threat to the La La-Moonlight two-hander when it won the Screen Actors Guild Awards top prize, a coveted Best Picture pacesetter.
(Apologies to the other six nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Lion and Manchester by the Sea. Thanks for playing.)
During awards season, that bastion of expensive politicking, offscreen narratives supersede art. This years narrative goes like this: La La Land is the escapist swoon needed to distract from Trumps horror show, Moonlight is a socially vital tale not seen often enough, and Hidden Figures is a healthy blend of escapism and import.
Put another way, some journalists and Twitter objectors accuseLa La Land of being a mansplain-y letdown with subpar dancersand a misguided homage to old-school musicals. They argue its simply not the movie Trumps America needs, at least not when competing against stories about the very sorts of people our government would rather marginalize. The objectors objectors call them killjoys who fail to appreciate Damien Chazelles colorful flourishes and bittersweet enchantment. These arguments have occurred in countless think pieces since the moment La La Land opened. The New York Times arts writers, for instance, chimed inone by one on the musicals merits, and lack thereof, last week.
Such political undercurrents offer a narrow, though not necessarily unfair, rubric for an awards show long granted an inflated premium within our pop-culture landscape. But if politics haunt the Oscars, shouldnt the recipients reflect the moments political mood?
Maybe. History shows that honoring exemplary art has always been a mere slice of the Oscar pie.
When a coterie of Hollywood bigwigs created the Academy Awards, first held in 1929, they intended to harmonize the ballooning industry, which was facing labor disputes and struggling in the transition from silents to talkies. Within two years, subtle lobbying had started, with studios purchasing ads in trade magazines touting their candidates. In 1953, television broadcasts began, further romanticizing the event. As the years progressed, offscreen solicitations swelled. In 1979, the major studios reportedly spent a collective $1.8 million on Oscar campaigns. Two decades later, Miramax dropped an estimated $5 million on its successful Shakespeare in Love crusade alone. By that point, one has to wonder how much a movies quality even matters.
Mudslinging, strategic film-festival debuts, baby-kissing industry events and an endless parade of media appearances have become part and parcel of the months-long Oscar season, ultimately defining the derby in tandem with an onslaught of predictive precursor prizes and lingering mythology about who is overdue for a win. (See: Leonardo DiCaprios Revenant sweep.) The nearly 7,000-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a persuadable, navel-gazing hive mind that, despite recent diversity initiatives, remains dominated by older white men the very group that decidedCrash better reflects its values than Brokeback Mountain.
It cant be over-emphasized: No matter how many A-listers wax poetic about the power of great art on Oscar night, the Oscars are never really about great art, not exclusively at least.
Which is why a Trump-era victory for Moonlight or Hidden Figures would be more significant than any other socially relevant winner from the past, including Obama-era champs Spotlight and 12 Years a Slave. Following two consecutive years without any acting nominees of color, were blessed with one of the most diverse Oscar rosters in history. Why, some ask,would voters select La La Land, in which a white dude mouths off about the death of jazz, an art form historically associated with African-Americans?
Because its about Hollywood, of course. A Best Picture selection exemplifies the way the Academy wants to portray itself. In picking La La Land, the electorate advances the notion that movies are the dream ballets to which we all aspire. In opting for Moonlight, the Academy can confirm that art is inherently political, and that Moonlight is the film America needs to see now. Hidden Figures, again, combines the two value systems.
In every sense, theres room for both styles of movies. Cinema does provide an escapism that has become woven into the fabric of our culture, and thats perfectly fine. It also tackles hot-button issues in ways that shape how we see the world around us. Theres a reason Vietnam War epics The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now both Oscar winners were such important works in the 1970s, for example.
As mass media has mushroomed throughout the Oscars history, so has our treatment of the Academy as a cultural figurehead. It means something it means a lot, in fact that so few filmmakers of color have been nominated, or that the Oscars have spotty credentials when it comes to stories about queer subjects.If these awards are Americas gold standard, people of all backgrounds deserve an invitation.
But no matter the political jeremiads that flank Oscar night, the compulsion to gauge nominees based on the White Houses affairs has never been this frank.Just look at the past decade. Analyses of 2010s campaigns indicatedThe Hurt Lockerbested sci-fi behemoth Avatar because it staged a fierce dark-horse coup, not because it tackled the then-ongoing Iraq War. 2011s titleholder, The Kings Speech, a typical Hollywood period piece, is one of the more divisive Best Picture upsets, largely because the moral ambiguity and topical timeliness of The Social Networkmade for a more progressive filmmaking style. Many chalk up the next two choices The Artist (over, say, The Tree of Life) and Argo (over Lincoln) as evidence of Hollywoods love affair with itself.
These competing codes potent campaigns, forward-thinking filmmaking, masturbatory interests create a hodgepodge of Best Picture history that hasnt prepared us to agree that Trumps election should determine the winner. It is only within the Oscars limited scope that La La Land and Moonlight movies with little in common are pitted against each other. And thats where it helps to realize the Oscars create more phony narratives about popular culture than perhaps any other institution. Suddenly, youre either a Moonlight fanora La La Land fan, creating a false choice between supporting inclusivity or encouraging the same old Hollywood frolics.
But if theres one consistent message the Academy sends, its that a Best Picture winner reflects the product Hollywood is proud to have made. Knowing the economic boon such a victory can bring to a movie, the Academy seems to say,Go see this so we can make more like it.
For many playing along at home, that theory leads to an easy answer: Weve seen movies likeLa La Land before, and well see them again. Instead, we must fight for movies like Hidden Figures and, especially, Moonlight, which would be the second-lowest-grossing winner in history after The Hurt Locker.
Its encouraging to know the Academy has proven increasingly capable of crowning films that arent the box-office bonanzas so cherished in a mercurial industry. Look no further than the little-seen Birdman conquering the lucrative American Sniper, or the fact that Spotlight was every bit as worthy as Mad Max: Fury Road.Despite rapacious business models, money isnt the only form of profit. To coronate low performers is to risk seeming out of touch with common moviegoers, but the Oscars were never designed to be populist anyway.
That timeworn tug-of-war is on display again this year.The box-office success of La La Land and Hidden Figures make them far more popular, and arguably more relevant as a result.Yet despite initially positive reviews, La La Land does not mean to its fans what Moonlight means to its admirers, especially considering the latters smaller marketing budget. Few will leave La La Land thinking, Finally, my story is being told. And anyway, La La and Hidden Figures did not muster the volume of critical enthusiasm that Moonlight enjoyed.
What, then, makes one deserving of Best Picture over another? The weight of Hollywoods future.
For a final example, lets turn to the most glaring anecdote: In 1995, the edgy oddity Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump, a box-office medalist drenched in conventional bathos. Its an indisputable travesty, as Pulp Fiction is superior by every rubric except revenue. Critics knew it then, and just about everyone knows it now. Moreover, there would be ample Forrest Gumps, aka fables about heterosexual white men overcoming adversity in fantastical ways. Less reliable was the assumption that mainstream moviegoers in the mid-90s would turn the next Pulp Fiction into a notable hit, thereby encouraging studios to invest in more like it and thats a big part of why the Academy made a mistake. (Case in point: Quentin Tarantinos next film, Jackie Brown, grossed one-third of what Pulp Fiction made domestically.) Its not that there isnt room for movies like Forrest Gump. But they do not boast the same flash-in-the-pan singularity of Pulp Fiction, just like La La Land does not carry the same dynamic originality ofMoonlight.
At some point, the Academy has to decide for itself what the future of moviegoing must look like. What should people want to see? What should filmmakers aspire to? Dream ballets or mirrors held up to a knotty world? In other words, will voters pick more of the same or blaze a fresh frontier? With so much of the Obama administrations progress in flux, our democracy awaits the answer.