By Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20
Note: Articles of this nature can only be so long. Thus, while I will address some of the other categories, I will primarily focus here on the Best Picture nominations due to its influence and status in the Academy Awards ceremony.
“The Oscars are one of those things that we care about because we are told to care about them, despite the fact that we say we don’t care about them. And then every year we vow not to care about them because they clearly don’t reflect our taste. And then we write big long think pieces about how irrelevant the Oscars are and how much we don’t care about the Oscars.”
I think Lindsay Ellis pretty much hit the nail on the head … so here’s that big long think piece! The Oscars have a long and proud history of rubbing pretty much everyone the wrong way. For decades, film critics in particular have taken it upon themselves to refute the notion that the Oscars are at all reflective of any given year’s best offerings. Back in the long, long ago times, American critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did a segment for their show At the Movies titled “If We Picked the Winners” in which they essentially did the Academy’s job for them. Years later, British critic Mark Kermode took it a step forward with “The Kermode Awards,” a sort of alternative Oscars for which films were only eligible if they had been snubbed by the Academy.
Of course, most refutations of the Oscars aren’t quite so elaborate, yet no less insistent on the show’s inaccessibility. Naturally, the primary complaints about the Oscars have evolved over the decades – so what are the current itches that we just can’t seem to stop scratching? Put simply, the two biggest problems at the moment are: (1) the preference for “Oscar-bait” films over good films, especially good films that happen to be popular with audiences (i.e. blockbusters), and (2) an embarrassing lack of diversity in the nominations. Although we tend to take these two problems as a given, it is worth noting that there is a distinct explanation for both. Ellis does an excellent job of documenting the root cause behind Problem #1 in her video Mini Canon: ‘Oscar Bait’: A History. The release of The Deer Hunter effectively created a cottage industry of films that get limited releases before the end of the year so that they can be considered for awards, but that most people can’t actually see until the start of the subsequent year, which conveniently coincides with the time when awards nominations are typically announced. A film that might have otherwise bombed at the box office now has a fair shot because it is “Oscar-nominated.” As for Problem #2? Well, historically the Academy has been overwhelmingly composed of old, white men … so you do the math on that one. It’s also worth noting that nominees are automatically considered for Academy membership; you can see how this lack of diversity could become a self-perpetuating system.
So, with these two factors firmly in mind, how do the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards fare? Well, let’s start with Problem #1. By and large, Black Panther’s nomination for Best Picture represents a seismic shift from years past. After all, Problem #1 ultimately came to head when The Dark Knight (2008’s highest grossing film) was excluded from the Best Picture race even though its staying power has far surpassed any of the five nominees that year. The Academy’s response was to allow for 10 Best Picture nominees (now anywhere from 5 to 10), yet the impact was limited. Black Panther’s nomination finally feels like the response to The Dark Knight’s snub that we’ve been waiting for. Both are powerful, thoughtful works of art that simultaneously managed to capture the zeitgeist of the moment while still possessing a certain timelessness. And while Black Panther may be a somewhat solitary example in this year’s nominations, it must be said that 2018 wasn’t a fantastic year for big, popular speculative fiction films of this kind. So, for as much as I’d love to keep complaining about how Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok and Wonder Woman were all snubbed at last year’s Oscars , I’ll give it a rest this year.
But if the Academy managed to finally address Problem #1 this year with a degree of success, then they almost completely dropped the ball on Problem #2. I mean, there are a few exceptions. Spike Lee finally getting a Best Director nomination is huge. That Yalitza Aparicio (star of Roma) is the first indigenous woman to receive a Best Actress Nomination is simultaneously a huge step forward and deeply embarrassing for the Academy. It’s a shame they weren’t feeling quite so generous when Smoke Signals was released in 1998.
My point is that the nominations for 2018 aren’t the least diverse that they’ve ever been; rather, in historical context, this feels like a huge step backwards. Moonlight winning Best Picture in 2016 was groundbreaking in a lot of ways. After the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, the Academy would have been hard pressed to find a better refutation. The Shape of Water’s win last year felt like something of a compromise. On the one hand, it didn’t feel like a regression; it was a film by a beloved Mexican filmmaker about marginalized members of society of various different forms. At the same time, few films owe as much to Hollywood classicality as The Shape of Water. In a way, it was perfect for that year; diverse enough to appease people with a conscience and familiar enough not to alienate the Academy.
And now it feels as though we’re almost right back to where we started. Yes, Black Panther and BlackKklansman are in the running for Best Picture (and, incidentally, are the two best contenders), but their chances of winning seems absurdly unlikely. Which wouldn’t be quite such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the majority of the most interesting work this year was not done by white, male filmmakers. It wouldn’t even have been that hard for the Academy to fill a Best Pictures roster without a single film by a white, male director. Here, let me make a few suggestions: Crazy Rich Asians, If Beale Street Could Talk, Leave No Trace, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Widows, You Were Never Really Here and Sorry to Bother You. Keep Black Panther, BlackKklansman and Roma and presto! I’ve given you 10 viable options, which is more than the number of nominees we had this year.
However, my biggest grievance on this front has to be the complete absence of The Hate U Give, arguably the 2018’s very best film, from this year’s nominations. Raniyan Zaman wrote an excellent article for The Dartmouth last year exploring why people seemed resistant to the idea of going to this adaptation of a young adult novel about police brutality and its excruciating, indelible impact on the life of a young African American woman from Garden Heights. What should have been the year’s standout cinematic experience slowly receded into the woodwork thanks to a middling box office return and lack of hype during the Awards season. There may be plenty of reasons for this, but, as Zaman discusses, the most obvious one is quite simply that America doesn’t really want to confront the issues that are at the heart of The Hate U Give. Yes, Black Panther and BlackKklansman both draw parallels to these issues, but The Hate U Give places them front, center and unvarnished. Audiences don’t get to take comfort in the fact that this story takes place in the past or in an entirely fictional country in Africa … because it doesn’t.
One might reasonably ask why I’m spending so much of my word count belaboring the issue of diversity at the Oscars, specifically in regard to The Hate U Give. It’s a reasonable query, and the answer relates directly back to Problem #1. As Ellis’s video about the history of “Oscar-bait” explains, the Oscars aren’t really about the very best films of the year. Yes, they pretend to be, but it’s reasonable to say that they’ve lost their way. So I see no reason for them to not focus on promoting films by women and minorities, thereby radically altering the nature of the film industry. What they might discover in the process is that these very films are often the very best of any given year. Thus, The Hate U Give might have garnered enough attention to become a box office hit and would have taken its rightful place among the pantheon of the year’s stand-outs. It’s funny how that works.
If nothing else, I hope this explains why I’m thoroughly uninvested in the following question of which film should win Best Picture this year. Again, the best options, BlackKklansman, Black Panther and Roma, don’t really have a shot, which leaves a field of mostly decent if rather unexceptional films. Vice is fine, if a little unwieldy, but it’s long since lost steam since it swept the nominations at the Golden Globes. Likewise, The Favourite will probably prove to be too weird too win. Which leaves Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book (the winners for the Best Drama and Best Musical or Comedy categories respectively at the Golden Globes) and A Star is Born, which basically everyone knew would be a front-runner this year the moment it was released. How Bohemian Rhapsody found itself among this year’s nominees I have no idea. That must have been the best “For Your Consideration” campaign since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close bamboozled its way to a nomination seven years ago. I understand that it won in the Best Drama category at the Golden Globes and that it would be awkward for the Academy to not include it, but that simply makes one wonder what the Globes saw in it. Which is not to say that Bohemian Rhapsody is an awful film. Rather, for a film about one of the most incredible showmen this world has ever seen, it’s surprisingly boring. It’s tame about Freddie Mercury’s showmanship, it’s tame about his Parsi background, and it’s embarrassingly tame about his sexuality. Moreover, Bryan Singer (the director who was fired half-way through production but whose name is still on the final product) has an extensive history of sexually assaulting and harassing minors. Such a man does not deserve to have his name even vaguely associated with the phrase “Best Picture.”
Which leaves us with Green Book and A Star is Born; both are good, and both would be extremely problematic as Best Picture winners. Both are buoyed by stellar performances and solid filmmaking, yet the former has taken flak for sanitizing racism while the latter has gained some notoriety for its rather troubling gender dynamics. Are they unworthy nominees? No, not entirely. But as quite possibly the two leads in a very unusual race, they both reflect a far less interesting year at the movies than we actually got. Sadly, its yet another reminder of why we “don’t care” about the Oscars.