This year is the one in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally plumbed the fissures of American self-identity.
This year’s major Oscar films, by contrast, center protagonists living in the margins — or in opposition to the conformist values — of American society. Confronting everything from legal injustice to capitalism itself, many of the nominated films point to the darker, or at least, more cruelly realistic truths of American life that jingoistic fare tends to disregard. They openly critique the various corrupted social and governmental infrastructures the United States is built on. Reflecting the downbeat political sentiment of the past four years, Oscar-nominated films of 2020 were more invested in highlighting the U.S.’s sociopolitical faults than celebrating its moral spirit. They’re finally showing America its true face.
Though the nominees differ thematically, they share a suspicion about the United States itself. “Nomadland” tells us what happens to older wage-workers pushed out of the American economy. “Minari” shows us the challenges Asian immigrants face when trying to carve out a space for themselves in the rural heartland. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “One Night in Miami” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” each explore how difficult it is for Black political leaders and entertainers to gain traction when contending with racist forces. “The Trial of the Chicago 7″ and “Mank” highlight how leftists were sabotaged in the decades just before and after World War II. “Sound of Metal” and “Crip Camp” portray the ongoing marginalization of disabled people. And perhaps the most raucous films of them all, blackhearted post-#MeToo satires “Promising Young Woman” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” tackle the winkwink webs of complicity that enable sexual abuse against women and young girls. This crop of films elucidates what many Americans know to be true about our nation: That the American Dream is, at best, ephemeral and, at worst, mythic.
Are these bleak indictments against American power systems just another trickle-down anomaly of an already anomalous year? Yes and no. It’s true that cost-conscious studios delayed releasing many tentpole flicks, instead distributing smaller and more cerebral films that could play better on screens at home. But even the potential Oscar contenders among those postponed crowd-pleasers — Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights” — all have much to say about the evils of American imperialism and/or the complications of immigration (subtextually or otherwise). More than a year ago, Oscar prognosticators imagined that star-studded dramas like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “News of the World” would move the Academy, but after a pummeling year of plague, racial injustice, civil unrest, gun violence and isolation, I could understand why optimistic visions of American bootstrapping and pioneerism wouldn’t strongly resonate among voters. (Those films received just a few technical nods — and a career acknowledgment for Glenn Close — between them.) Simply put, Academy members are voting with more sober conceptions of the world than they did in 2019 and before.
Last year, the Academy seemed to lament a rapidly changing world, honoring films that excavated the psyches of (largely White) men who feel left behind in society: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “The Irishman,” “Joker,” and even “Parasite.” Other critically acclaimed films from female directors, such as “The Farewell,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Hustlers,” were disregarded entirely. Of course, there was no cabal of resentful voters colluding to oust female filmmakers, but I do theorize that many male Oscar voters couldn’t inherently empathize with — or see themselves in — the female protagonists in these otherwise striking films. Voters even snubbed director Greta Gerwig, who helmed the lauded six-time nominee “Little Women.”
Perhaps due to the resulting outcry last spring, or, just as likely, due to the cultural activism that swept the country last summer following George Floyd's death, the major 2021 Oscar nominees feel like an intentional course correction. For the first time in Academy Award history, two women were nominated in the same year for best director, becoming just the sixth and seventh women in 93 years to receive that distinction. Chloe Zhao, director of “Nomadland,” is the first non-White woman to receive a best director nod and is also the first woman to receive four nominations in a single year (for film editing, adapted screenplay, director and best picture). The Oscar roster also includes a record-breaking number of performers of color honored in the acting categories. Additionally, the best picture nod for six-time nominee “Judas and the Black Messiah” commemorates the first time an all-Black produced film was honored in that category.
This groundbreaking representation doesn’t just expand our image of what an elite filmmaker or performer looks like: It also reminds us that the word “Americana” should no longer merely imply Rockwellian sentimentalism. Although the Golden Globes chose to nominate it for best foreign language film, family drama “Minari” is a wholly American story and its majority Korean dialogue was spoken on American soil. Meanwhile, the political — and character — assassinations portrayed in “Judas,” “Miami” and “Billie Holiday” are as much a part of our history as the 19th amendment or Space Race.
This year’s increased cinematic attention to soul-searching subject matter did not suddenly arise in a vacuum. Attuned to the upheavals of the previous presidential administration, the rise of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and the disappearing middle class, filmmakers are tapping into Americans’ widespread anger. But maybe, too, it was the historic dark horse best picture wins for “Moonlight” in 2017 and “Parasite” in 2020 — respectively, about a young gay Black man coming of age during the crack epidemic and an impoverished Korean family who cons their way into a wealthy household — that emboldened production companies to take more chances on filmmakers who dig deep into untold or previously dismissed stories of American life. Those two films triumphed against a big Hollywood romantic musical and a grand World War I epic. The 2021 Oscar nominees are collectively prevailing against long-held apathy.