Last week I talked about the Oscar season in terms of the narratives that can materialize…and frankly, the narratives we in the media often seek and occasionally contribute to creating. Narratives just make things more interesting – and above and beyond that, they encapsulate the duration of the season in a way that is far more palatable than the unclaimed frontier it actually is. So that’s why we got Avatar v. Hurt Locker, and Social Network v. King’s Speech, and even Gravity v. 12 Years a Slave, though that was far more organic to the season than the former examples.
In last week’s piece, I discussed Boyhood’s status as a freight train frontrunner, and posited that only a certain type of film could be skewed into the kind of opposition worthy of a classic “Oscar Season Narrative.” That film, in my opinion, was Selma – in broad terms, it could be perceived as black against white, insurgency versus status quo. It made sense…if we were willing to presume this season needed a supplementary narrative to get us through this last month.
Looking at the two films, the resulting controversy is much more fitting than the Boyhood-Selma quasi-competition I envisioned a week ago.
But forget any thought of that. Selma was summarily dismissed by the Academy, earning a Best Picture nomination, yes, but only a Best Original Song nod to go with it. That’s not the stuff upsets are made of – certainly not when going up against a consensus pick like Boyhood. But as it turns out, Selma found itself in the middle of a much different narrative…one it never asked for or lobbied to be a part of. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper expanded into wide release over this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend (irony of ironies), taking in $90 million at the box office and igniting a firestorm over all forms of media, most specifically the social variety. And let’s be fair – no one in the Sniper camp was seeking this type of outrage, either. Yet here we are, 31 days from Oscar night, and the primary discussion swirling around the Oscars is not who will win any trophies, but who will win the ideological struggle.
Looking at the two films, the resulting controversy is much more fitting than the Boyhood-Selma quasi-competition I envisioned a week ago. Not only do the two films fit the very unfortunate white-against-black paradigm that seems so tragically apropos for this moment in our cultural history, but every resulting tenet of how we understand each of those races – both superficial and complex, both stereotypical and legitimate – seems oppositional from one film to the other. Selma centers on a movement for black freedom, a traditionally liberal pursuit, while Sniper chronicles the life of a solider who fights for “American Freedom” in the conservative political sense. Ava DuVernay’s film places a mirror on the tragic state of current race relations, while Eastwood’s looks back on the controversial and costly invasion of Iraq. Whereas Selma represents an ongoing fight for equality, American Sniper could be viewed as a film centering on a crusade largely based on protecting the status quo. It takes some wiggling to make each and every one of those dichotomies fit precisely, but in broad strokes, these two Best Picture nominees are pitted against one another in that most perilous – and frankly, tiresome – of battles: blue versus red, liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican.
It’s not fair to either film, each made independently of one another, with no ill will toward the other in any material respect.
It’s not fair to either film, each made independently of one another, with no ill will toward the other in any material respect. Current circumstances have merely conspired to frame these two movies as diametric opposites. Nevermind that there are plenty of people who embrace and even love both films – easily a large enough majority of AMPAS voters, who bestowed Best Picture nominations on both. Likewise, there are those who are critical of both. Plenty of liberals have been outspoken in their praise of Sniper as a film attempting to explore multiple facets of the military experience, and plenty other liberals have taken issue with Selma for its alleged besmirching of Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy. Nevertheless, the die has been cast and the debate has been framed. It’s almost impossible to discuss one of the films without mentioning the other, and such a scenario places undue and unnecessary pressure on otherwise unsuspecting mainstream audiences to “pick a side.” Since nearly all of us have grown into this age of an adversarial two-party political system, we’ve been conditioned into picking sides and fall into line all to easily. And voila, the stage is set…the narrative materializes.
The resulting debacle has been positively despicable. I was among many to share a barrage of tweets essentially calling for American citizens to join forces and kill Arabs in the wake of American Sniper’s mega-opening. Liberal media ideologues hit back with disparaging claims of their own, and of course there was that briefly infamous defacing of a Sniper billboard with “MURDER!” spray-painted across. The antics are frustrating at best and disturbing at worst, but honestly, what should we expect? Each of the last several American presidential elections has resulted in a 51%-49% split in the popular vote, the basic tenets of two-party politics are to divide and conquer, and the Legislative branch of government refuses to work with the Executive all in the name of stymieing an “agenda.” The divide was destined to spill over into the entertainment industry, and already has in many ways. This is merely the latest, most high profile example.
All we seemingly well-adjusted members of the media (and the populace) can do is attempt to put the frenzy into perspective. That means being completely honest about our own opinions. For me personally, Selma is one of the ten best films of 2014, whereas American Sniper is one of its biggest disappointments. The Selma controversies have stemmed from the legitimate passion exuded from its narrative and how that passion informs current events. The controversy surrounding Sniper is largely the product of political posturing – not from the filmmakers, but from the audiences. Selma is, to be frank (and not even remotely suggestive about race), more “black-and-white” in its story and thematic elements, and it has a right to be; its story is about wrongs that had to be righted (and in some cases, are still awaiting action). Sniper, to its credit, attempts to not only elevate a would-be hero but also explore the adverse effects of said hero’s military service. It seeks nuance because nuance is essential to our understanding. But, as I discussed at length in my review, there is enough contradictory material as to blur that nuance, and what we’re left with is a film that unintentionally divides an audience in drastic and unnerving ways. Selma is inspiring, whereas Sniper focuses too much on inspiration and not enough on introspection.
All opinions aside, neither film deserves to be a part of this kind of upstart ideological conflict. Shouldn’t we as a people be more evolved than this? Can debate not be peaceful, reasonable, and humane? Can we not co-exist without reminding one another how one faction is superior or inferior to one another? That one side is right and the other is wrong? That one side is intellectually correct while the other is plainly idiotic? Or worst of all, that one is legitimate and widespread enough to carry on while the other must be extinguished?
Oh, right…this was supposed to be about the Oscars. All of this race-baiting and fear-mongering and hate speech can surely have an impact on the awards season – the Academy is, after all, made up of people. So what will this firestorm ultimately mean for the envelopes that will be opened on February 22? Well, the increased attention means you can bet every member of the Academy will now be watching both films, if they haven’t already. And depending on the perspectives of those individual viewers, each film may get an uptick in voter support in one category or another. Selma will surely win Best Original Song, though that was going to happen regardless of whether American Sniper existed or not. And it will receive its share of Best Picture votes; there is a movement out there backing this film. For Sniper, Bradley Cooper could be the chief beneficiary of this ordeal. His Best Actor stock will rise – enough to contend for the win, I’m not quite sure, but we will now be talking about him more and more over the course of the next month. Maybe the film will stand out to the Sound Mixers and/or Editors, and take home one or a pair of those technical prizes. And being the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee – which Sniper already is, by more than double its closest competitor – has always provided a boost to a film’s chances of winning, though it’s nearly impossible to imagine a film this polarizing garnering enough widespread support to take home Best Picture. In all likelihood, that pleasant, agreeable Boyhood will continue marching down the path to victory.
In the interim, though, we – unfortunately – still have a culture war to wage.