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Is the annual Oscar backlash trend becoming over-zealous?
An institution in need of checks, balances and reform
It is indisputable that the Academy Awards (or Oscars) ceremony has long been a contentious subject. Firstly, rather than picking from every film out there, their choices are always based on a select pool which has been promoted by big-money (often major studio) interests. Secondly, their selections have tended to lean towards specific types of films such as period dramas and biopics, often with a tone centred around manipulative emotional grandstanding and token nods at worthiness. Thirdly, their selections have often been rather conservative (with a small c), shying away from truly inventive films and/or those which engage with contemporary sociopolitical issues such as racism in a truly head-on manner. Fourthly, they have often been accused of either under-representing non-white actors or only representing them if they portray near-saintly “paragon of virtue” types rather than normal, everyday people exhibiting genuine feelings, fears and frustrations.
While many great films have received nominations and wins, there have been some true travesties over the years. In 1990, all and sundry were flabbergasted when Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s incendiary masterpiece Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. In 1995, while Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was well-deservedly nominated, it ultimately lost out to Robert Zemeckis’s slickly contrived Tom Hanks showcase Forrest Gump. Oh, and let’s not even get started on 1998, when James Cameron’s extravagant but sappy Titanic won Best Picture over Curtis Hanson’s thrilling neo-noir L.A. Confidential.
Is it time for a backlash against the backlash?
Thanks to efforts to hold this rather staid institution to task, things have been redressed somewhat in recent years. However, there’s also a danger of the ceremony merely going from ticking one set of boxes to another, as opposed to getting down to the true task of actually judging films by their legitimate merits. Unfortunately, certain well-meaning voices within the world of film criticism seem to be driving things down this path. This article in The New Yorker called The Dismaying 2019 Oscar Nominations - and Who Should Have Made the List by Richard Brody is a perfect example of this trend.
During the first half of the article, he praises the inclusion of Black Panther (which received 7 nominations) and BlacKkKlansman (which snagged 6 nominations) on account of the fact that they provide a strong representation for African-American talent. However, while the latter film (a chillingly relevant return to form for Spike Lee) is well worthy of consideration, Black Panther, in contrary to Brody’s claims, is not. While undeniably another solid Marvel Studios popcorn-muncher, it’s not a great film by any means or even one of the studio’s best. Michael B. Jordan turns in a powerful performance as antagonist Erik Killmonger but Chadwick Boseman is only blandly acceptable in the title role. The CGI world-building is elaborate and imaginative yet shinily unconvincing and the action sequences are often over-edited to the point of confusion. The story is largely by-the-numbers.
Moreover, Brody goes on to dig the boot into a number of legitimately deserving nominations including The Favourite and Roma, which received ten nods apiece. At specific junctures in his article, he accuses the former of “cartoonishness” and the latter of giving Hollywood “a chance to pay homage to domestic workers without actually having to listen to what they have to say”. Having watched and appreciated both of these films, however, I can only come to the verdict that he has missed the point in each case. The alleged “cartoonishness” in The Favourite comes from director Yorgos Lanthimos’s surreal approach to black comedy. In the case of Roma, meanwhile, director Alfonso Cuarón adopts his usual “show, don’t tell” approach to filmmaking. By sitting down and watching the film carefully it is made abundantly clear that Cleo, his central indigenous maid character played by Yalitza Aparicio, has plenty to say for herself. It’s just up there on screen more than emerging from her mouth.
There’s a real danger here that well-meaning attempts at reforming the Academy Awards will lose sight of true purpose of any prestigious film award, i.e. to seek out the true brightest and best cinematic talent out there. While there certainly should be a finger placed on the contemporary political pulse, it shouldn’t override everything else that the rich medium of film has to offer.