When I kicked off Year Six of Projection: Oscar way back on August 31 of last year – nearly six full months ago – I wasn’t sure we’d get here. Just over two months into the season – on November 8, to be exact – I was even less sure. But a funny thing happened on the way to total human extermination: the Oscar season almost functioned as therapy. Amid the torrent of inhumanity being foisted onto the general public, tracking the Oscar race became a focal point for navigating week to week. It wasn’t a distraction, per se – as loyal readers can certainly attest, my Oscar coverage this season has been fully politically charged – but it was a safe space.
That is, until it became abundantly clear that La La Land was the season’s juggernaut. To be fair, there was never a point during the season in which La La wasn’t the juggernaut, though the critics’ circuit infused some distractive hope into the notion that Moonlight could be “the film of the moment” in a post-election atmosphere. Such a dichotomous framing was, perhaps, inevitable under the circumstances, but this particular scenario was injected with a certain degree of pointed vitriol. All of the sudden, La La Land was the “white film” against Moonlight, the “black film.” La La was the film of privilege and Moonlight was the film of the insurgent minority uprising. La La was shallow, Moonlight was deep. La La was the film voters would choose to inoculate themselves against Trumpism (and later, further mangled into a perpendicular embrace of Trumpism); Moonlight was the film they’d pick if they were woke. Nevermind that both films were, rightfully, universally embraced upon their festival debuts and subsequent releases. Nevermind that neither film is particularly activist one way or the other. Nevermind that the respective filmmakers, Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins, have been among the more vocal champions of each other’s work all season, a display of unity that could teach the divide-and-conquer pundit class a thing or two, if only they’d be open to accepting that they aren’t always faultlessly correct at every turn. Nevermind all of that. As fallout over the pain of a wretched, violently divisive election cycle, the Oscar race was poisoned with residual bitterness, unfolding as a passion play of the horserace that had just ended.
So much for Oscar-season-as-therapy.
Now, we’ve arrived at Oscar Day, typically reserved for a combination of excitement over the pending ceremony and last-minute frustration over finalizing predictions. But there’s a certain heaviness that hangs over the proceedings, and not just the collective anger that has inspired so many of us to unite in resistance. It’s a heaviness of residual division, applied indirectly to a handful of Oscar-nominated films that never asked for it and don’t deserve it. Cynics like me generally talk about the grind of each Oscar race and how the post-ceremony respite from said grind is something of a relief. But there will be more than relief on the other end of this season – there will be a purposeful severing from these strands of discord. That wasn’t how this Oscar season should’ve played out, and it’s not fair to the lingering memory of this year’s winning films and filmmakers. But it is the reality.
Unfortunate, since this was the year that saw a near-unprecedented jolt of diversity in the Oscar sphere, both in terms of membership and the nominee slate. And best of all, no one could say this was a direct reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of recent years – films like Moonlight and Fences and Hidden Figures and Lion were already well in the works in the midst of last year’s outcry, showing that perhaps the industry was moving in the right direction even as we were raging against the Oscar machine. But even this heartening development comes with an uncertain caveat – this is merely one year out of 89, at least in terms of Academy history. We could have an extremely early idea of what films might be aiming for contention at next year’s Oscars, but in this moment it’s impossible to pinpoint how diverse the year’s filmic slate will be, and therefore what films the industry will champion. This year was just one pit stop for #OscarsSoWhite…because the Oscars still are so white, and so male. True diversity is broader and deeper than one year, or one different color, or one gender. To quote John Legend in a very recent Oscar-winning song, “Now the war is not over, victory isn’t won. But we’ll fight on to the finish…”
I offer this perspective not as advocacy of one film over the other, but as advocacy of unity over division – especially in this industry where we are all supposed to stand together in opposition against radicalism, tyranny, and oppression. Pitting La La Land against Moonlight or Hidden Figures is tantamount to the ridiculous false battle over who should be the next Chair of the Democratic National Committee. All of us in this business have a common enemy, and it isn’t one another. To purposefully initiate an internal rift is the swiftest way to stifle true progress. And regardless of how fresh these political wounds are – and holy hell, are they ever fresh, open, and seeping – we can’t further alienate ourselves from one another. That’s how we all lose.
Anyway….OSCARS, am I right? Ever the would-be galvanizing force of glittering Hollywood that is actually a microcosm of broader societal ennui. This year, more than any other, that disconcerting reality is abundantly clear.
Here’s hoping that tonight, Jimmy Kimmel is bold enough to skewer the political powers-that-be, the presenters have the presence of mind to go off script, and the winners offer speeches that inspire the masses to resist, and to persist, and to reclaim that glory that has been taken hostage.
And maybe, just maybe, the combination of alcohol and personal pride will transform the 89th Oscars into a therapeutic distraction once more, as I bear witness to the validation or total obliteration of my predictions.
Stay tuned and stay together, friends.