At a time when everything from the Super Bowl and the Grammys to Fashion Week and shopping at Nordstrom has taken on partisan meaning, it stands to reason that at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, we will reach Peak Everything is Political. No less a mortal than Meryl Streep willed that it be so when she threw a deeply felt warning shot across the Trump administration’s bow at the Golden Globes ceremony in January.
Since then, the talent agency UTA has announced that it will forgo its annual Oscar party and donate $250,000 to the ACLU instead (the company will also play host to a pro-immigration rally at its headquarters on Friday).
The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film, won’t be attending the ceremony, in protest of President Trump’s proposed executive order regarding travel from seven majority-Muslim countries.
After some uncertainty about whether they would be able to enter the United States, the Syrian first responders who are the subjects of “The White Helmets” have said they will be there to receive their Oscar, should the film win for best documentary short.
From red carpet remarks and Jimmy Kimmel’s patter to acceptance speeches and sundry acts of agitprop, the politics that so often infuse the Oscars won’t be mere venting or anodyne pleas for mutual understanding. This year, they promise to be more pointed, passionate and omnipresent, just like in real life. For years, the movie industry has been accused of existing in a fatuous, self-congratulatory bubble. But if the current political culture has proved anything, it’s that we’re all in bubbles now: Hollywood’s hermetic biosphere happens to be this country’s chief cultural export, its annual celebration a snapshot of American life beamed across the world for many millions of viewers to interpret like a coded back-channel missive from the very core of our soft power.
As that kind of distillation of values, the movies themselves take on heightened political meaning. Already, the musical “La La Land,” the best picture frontrunner with a record-tying 14 nominations, has been subjected to its share of ritualized takedowns accusing it of being too white, too hetero-normative and too besotted with showbiz superficiality to deserve the biggest prize. A sort of proxy fight has been set up between “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” with the latter being not only the more artistically accomplished choice, but the most socially aware, being about a gay African American man coming of age in Miami.
Like many of my colleagues, I named “Moonlight” my favorite movie of 2016, having been alternately moved and astonished by its story, the devastating vulnerability of its protagonist, and filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s brilliant writing and visionary direction. But rooting for one over the other on the basis of politics misses the most welcome outcome, which would be for the widest range of nominees to wind up winning awards on Sunday.
As much as the Academy Awards should purely reflect artistic excellence, they also send more subtle messages, having to do with the kinds of movies Hollywood wants to make (or likes to tell itself it wants to make), and the identity America is literally selling around the world. Toward that end, this year’s Oscars is already guaranteed to be more inclusive than in past years, with seven actors of color being nominated for their performances, as well as the African American-centered “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” being up for best picture. There are also films about the white working class (“Hell or High Water,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Hacksaw Ridge”), a female academic dealing with extraterrestrial visitors (“Arrival”), a little boy surviving on his own in India (“Lion”) and those starry-eyed kids singing and dancing their way to making Hollywood dreams come true in “La La Land.”
Diversity isn’t just a matter of ethnicity or gender. The nominees this year span a wide variety of genres and storytelling techniques, including a contemporary Western, a musical, a science fiction adventure, a classic war picture and searing domestic dramas. And most of them touch on themes that have only taken on more resonance since they opened last year, whether it’s the issues of immigration and mutual understanding that animate “Arrival,” the education and employment equity demanded and won by the protagonists in “Hidden Figures,” the social construction of male identity in “Moonlight,” “Fences” and original screenplay nominee “20th Century Women,” or the ongoing financial crisis that forms the backdrop of “Hell or High Water.”
As a bravura piece of filmmaking that seeks to resuscitate a bygone form and make a plea for a cinematic medium that writer-director Damien Chazelle clearly sees as threatened, “La La Land” is an understandable, even defensible choice for best picture. But the Oscars will be most meaningful if that movie isn’t allowed to run the table. If “La La Land” takes best picture, let Jenkins win for best director for “Moonlight” (the movie’s co-star, Mahershala Ali, is already a shoo-in for supporting actor). Or — and this wouldn’t break my heart — have destiny allow those two films to split the vote to allow room for “Hidden Figures,” the movie I recommended most often and most unconditionally throughout the holiday season.
“Manchester by the Sea” is a masterpiece of screenwriting — but if its star, Casey Affleck, wins best actor as expected, spread the original screenplay love to “Hell or High Water” or “20th Century Women.” Let Bradford Young become the first African American cinemtographer to win an Oscar for his expressive work on “Arrival,” and for best costume design to go to “Jackie,” a meticulously constructed meditation on history, the cult of personality and myth-making.
Combined with Viola Davis’s assured record-setting win for her turn in “Fences” and the widely assumed victory for “O.J.: Made in America” for best documentary feature, and the result would be an artistically deserving field of winners, but also a potent message to the rest of the world that the United States is still capable of championing fairness, humanism, sophistication and self-awareness, our current political culture notwithstanding. As inopportune as it may be to paraphrase Mao at the present moment, this is the year for academy members to let a thousand flowers bloom — in their case, by throwing orchids at all manner of movies and filmmakers. The culture they create, after all, reaches multitudes. Its most visible representatives should contain multitudes in turn.