LOS ANGELES — At a posh Italian restaurant in West Hollywood last week, the actress Alfre Woodard was in full barnstorming mode. Hours earlier, she had introduced a screening of the World War II-era drama “Mudbound” at the Pacific Design Center across the street, praising it for “showing us where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going.” At the after-party, having introduced the film’s co-writer and director, Dee Rees, as well as supporting actress Mary J. Blige, screenwriter Virgil Williams and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Woodard urged the crowd — many of them members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — to “tell 25 friends” about “Mudbound,” adding, “And tell them to tell 25 friends.”
Campaign season is heating up in Hollywood, where on Friday nominations for this year’s Academy Awards will be finalized. (They will be announced on Jan. 23.) And in many ways, “Mudbound’s” journey through the awards process crystallizes the anxieties, best intentions, blind spots and vertiginous changes gripping the motion picture industry.
After its premiere at Sundance a year ago, Rees’s film — an ambitious, multilayered saga of two families in the American South — should have been subject to the kind of legendary bidding war that made Sundance famous. It didn’t turn out that way. And to understand the reasons, one must recall Sundance one year earlier, when Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for the Civil War-era drama “The Birth of a Nation,” actor Nate Parker’s directorial debut, in just the kind of Cinderella story for which the festival has become revered by up-and-coming filmmakers.
Keenly aware that the film — about a rebellion of enslaved laborers led by Nat Turner — was well timed to address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Searchlight clearly saw potential for a marketing coup. Which explains why the studio vastly overpaid for a film that, while commendable, exhibited much of the awkward obviousness and clunky storytelling typical of first films.
Ultimately, “The Birth of a Nation” was scuttled by accusations that surfaced from an episode of alleged sexual assault perpetrated by Parker while he was a college student. The film tanked, its awards prospects torpedoed. When, just a few months later, buyers saw “Mudbound” in Park City, rather than judge it on its own merits, they saw a “black film” and period piece that bore too close a resemblance to “The Birth of a Nation,” even though it was thematically different, stylistically distinct and frankly, far more accomplished. The studio executives who could have shrewdly leveraged awards season to bring awareness to Rees’s classic, masterful film, instead gave it a pass, made skittish by their own unexamined biases, cynicism and racist pigeonholes.
Then who should step into the breach but Netflix, which paid a healthy $12.5 million for “Mudbound,” earning Rees’s praise for “paying what the movie was worth” and giving it a realistic and deserved shot of connecting with audiences. Unlike its closest streaming competitor, Amazon, Netflix usually opens its films in theaters in only one or two cities; for “Mudbound” they made an exception, taking it briefly into a handful of theaters while making it available to home viewers.
Because Netflix keeps box-office and streaming numbers private, we don’t know how many people have seen “Mudbound.” But we do know that the company is intensely interested in Oscars, having hired top awards strategists to help mastermind its awareness campaign. In addition to Woodard, Sandra Bullock co-hosted a party celebrating the film earlier this week at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles; Rees has been hitting the talk-show circuit with the likes of Trevor Noah; Blige was nominated for a Golden Globe for her revelatory performance in the film; and Morrison became the first woman to be nominated for an award from the American Society of Cinematographers. Even Barbra Streisand tweeted a few encouraging words.
The support bodes well for “Mudbound’s” chances of being nominated on Friday. But at the party after Woodard’s screening, the obstacles were clear, as well: Academy voters (many of them older white men) expressed ambivalence about Netflix, wondering aloud whether something can be called a “movie” if it’s mostly seen on small screens, while wistfully noting that they wished they could get a piece of the company’s deep-pocketed largesse. Although “Mudbound” has been nominated for a clutch of industry awards — including best ensemble from the Screen Actors Guild, a reliable harbinger for the actor-heavy academy — it was recently shut out for awards at the Directors and Producers Guilds. How it fares with the academy will be an index not only of its quality, but of changes in the movie industry having to do with technology, gender and race.
The biggest stumbling block might be the Netflix connection. Netflix founder Ted Sarandos is said to really want the prestige (and earned awareness) that Oscars bring. But he isn’t doing himself many favors by continually dissing an industry that still prizes the big-screen theatrical experience as an essential part of the cinematic art form. Amazon (whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) has been more diplomatic, making it a habit to open its movies in theaters before making them available for streaming.
Sarandos is far less accommodating. At Cannes last year, where Netflix premiered “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Sarandos told the London Telegraph: “Remember, we’re living in an age where everything is at our fingertips, and there are very few things in the world that you still have to do at a certain time and place. I know why I have to be at the airport at 8 o’clock to be on my flight, but I don’t know why I have to be at the theater at 8 o’clock to see the start of my movie.”
More insidious — and less quantifiable — than the Netflix problem is the fact that Rees is an African American woman; although this is a year when she and Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins and Jordan Peele could all fairly be nominated for their directing, they are in danger of being relegated to “slots” by the still majority-white-male academy, making it impossible for more than one to compete at a time.
All of these factors will come into play as academy members complete their nominations this week. So far, “Mudbound’s” best chances seem to be in the cinematography, adapted screenplay and supporting-actress categories. As for best picture: It would be a shame if voters’ conflicting feelings about Sarandos and Netflix wind up punishing “Mudbound,” not only because the movie possesses the scope, storytelling, acting prowess and pictorial grandeur that defines an Oscar movie, but because the artists who made it would make such an invaluable contribution to the cultural conversation that awards season inevitably entails.
As we’ve seen in the days since the Golden Globes ceremony (at which “Mudbound” was up for two awards), awards season isn’t just about the horse race, but about the zeitgeist artists can help interpret, clarify and reframe. By rights, “Mudbound” should earn multiple Oscar nods — for best picture, director, cinematography, writing and acting, to name a few — purely on the basis of its excellence and craft. But it’s also a movie for now, its refraction of history touching on questions of race, class, gender that feel both ancient and urgently of the moment. “Mudbound” deserves to be part of the Oscar race purely on the merits, but we could all stand to reflect on where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going.