OS­CARS 2017

Pol­i­tics reign this year, which is why a di­verse se­lec­tion of win­ners is cru­cial


At a time when ev­ery­thing from the Su­per Bowl and the Gram­mys to Fash­ion Week and shop­ping at Nord­strom has taken on par­ti­san mean­ing, it stands to rea­son that at Sun­day’s Academy Awards cer­e­mony, we will reach Peak Ev­ery­thing Is Po­lit­i­cal. No less a mor­tal than Meryl Streep willed that it be so when she threw a deeply felt warn­ing shot across the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bow at the Golden Globes cer­e­mony in Jan­uary.

Since then, the tal­ent agency UTA has an­nounced that it will forgo its an­nual Os­car party and donate $250,000 to the ACLU in­stead (the com­pany also played host to a pro-im­mi­gra­tion rally at its head­quar­ters on Fri­day).

The Ira­nian di­rec­tor As­ghar Farhadi, whose film “The Sales­man” is nom­i­nated for best foreign lan­guage film, won’t be at­tend­ing the cer­e­mony, in protest of Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro­posed ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­gard­ing travel from seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries.

Af­ter some un­cer­tainty about whether they would be able to en­ter the United States, the Syr­ian first re­spon­ders who are the sub­jects of “The White Hel­mets” have said they will be there to re­ceive their Os­car, should the film win for best

doc­u­men­tary short.

From red car­pet re­marks and Jimmy Kim­mel’s pat­ter to ac­cep­tance speeches and sundry acts of ag­it­prop, the pol­i­tics that so of­ten in­fuse the Os­cars won’t be mere vent­ing or an­o­dyne pleas for mu­tual un­der­stand­ing. This year, they prom­ise to be more pointed, pas­sion­ate and om­nipresent, just like in real life. For years, the movie in­dus­try has been ac­cused of ex­ist­ing in a fatu­ous, self-con­grat­u­la­tory bub­ble. But if the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cul­ture has proved any­thing, it’s that we’re all in bub­bles now: Hol­ly­wood’s her­metic bio­sphere hap­pens to be this coun­try’s chief cul­tural ex­port, its an­nual cel­e­bra­tion a snap­shot of Amer­i­can life beamed across the world for many mil­lions of view­ers to in­ter­pret like a coded back-chan­nel mis­sive from the very core of our soft power.

As that kind of dis­til­la­tion of val­ues, the movies them­selves take on height­ened po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. Al­ready, the mu­si­cal “La La Land,” the best pic­ture fron­trun­ner with a record-ty­ing 14 nom­i­na­tions, has been sub­jected to its share of rit­u­al­ized take­downs ac­cus­ing it of be­ing too white, too het­ero-nor­ma­tive and too be­sot­ted with show­biz su­per­fi­cial­ity to de­serve the big­gest prize. A sort of proxy fight has been set up be­tween “La La Land” and “Moon­light,” with the lat­ter be­ing not only the more ar­tis­ti­cally ac­com­plished choice, but the most so­cially aware, be­ing about a gay African Amer­i­can man com­ing of age in Miami.

Like many of my col­leagues, I named “Moon­light” my fa­vorite movie of 2016, hav­ing been al­ter­nately moved and as­ton­ished by its story, the dev­as­tat­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity of its pro­tag­o­nist, and film­maker Barry Jenk­ins’s bril­liant writing and vi­sion­ary di­rec­tion. But root­ing for one over the other on the ba­sis of pol­i­tics misses the most wel­come out­come, which would be for the widest range of nom­i­nees to wind up win­ning awards on Sun­day.

As much as the Academy Awards should purely re­flect artis­tic ex­cel­lence, they also send more sub­tle mes­sages, hav­ing to do with the kinds of movies Hol­ly­wood wants to make (or likes to tell it­self it wants to make), and the iden­tity Amer­ica is lit­er­ally sell­ing around the world. To­ward that end, this year’s Os­cars is al­ready guar­an­teed to be more in­clu­sive than in past years, with seven ac­tors of color be­ing nom­i­nated for their per­for­mances, as well as the African Amer­i­can-cen­tered “Moon­light,” “Hid­den Fig­ures” and “Fences” be­ing up for best pic­ture. There are also films about the white work­ing class (“Hell or High Wa­ter,” “Manch­ester by the Sea,” “Hack­saw Ridge”), a fe­male aca­demic deal­ing with ex­trater­res­trial vis­i­tors (“Ar­rival”), a lit­tle boy sur­viv­ing on his own in In­dia (“Lion”) and those starry-eyed kids singing and danc­ing their way to mak­ing Hol­ly­wood dreams come true in “La La Land.”

Di­ver­sity isn’t just a mat­ter of eth­nic­ity or gen­der. The nom­i­nees this year span a wide va­ri­ety of genres and sto­ry­telling tech­niques, in­clud­ing a con­tem­po­rary Western, a mu­si­cal, a sci­ence fic­tion ad­ven­ture, a clas­sic war pic­ture and sear­ing do­mes­tic dra­mas. And most of them touch on themes that have only taken on more res­o­nance since they opened last year, whether it’s the is­sues of im­mi­gra­tion and mu­tual un­der­stand­ing that an­i­mate “Ar­rival,” the ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment eq­uity de­manded and won by the pro­tag­o­nists in “Hid­den Fig­ures,” the so­cial con­struc­tion of male iden­tity in “Moon­light,” “Fences” and orig­i­nal screen­play nom­i­nee “20th Cen­tury Women,” or the on­go­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis that forms the back­drop of “Hell or High Wa­ter.”

As a bravura piece of film­mak­ing that seeks to re­sus­ci­tate a by­gone form and make a plea for a cine­matic medium that writer-di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle clearly sees as threat­ened, “La La Land” is an un­der­stand­able, even de­fen­si­ble choice for best pic­ture. But the Os­cars will be most mean­ing­ful if that movie isn’t al­lowed to run the ta­ble. If “La La Land” takes best pic­ture, let Jenk­ins win for best di­rec­tor for “Moon­light” (the movie’s co-star, Ma­her­shala Ali, is al­ready a shoo-in for sup­port­ing actor). Or — and this wouldn’t break my heart — have des­tiny al­low those two films to split the vote to al­low room for “Hid­den Fig­ures,” the movie I rec­om­mended most of­ten and most un­con­di­tion­ally through­out the hol­i­day sea­son.

“Manch­ester by the Sea” is a mas­ter­piece of screen­writ­ing — but if its star, Casey Af­fleck, wins best actor as ex­pected, spread the orig­i­nal screen­play love to “Hell or High Wa­ter” or “20th Cen­tury Women.” Let Brad­ford Young be­come the first African Amer­i­can cin­em­tog­ra­pher to win an Os­car for his ex­pres­sive work on “Ar­rival,” and for best cos­tume de­sign to go to “Jackie,” a metic­u­lously con­structed med­i­ta­tion on his­tory, the cult of per­son­al­ity and myth-mak­ing.

Com­bined with Vi­ola Davis’s as­sured record-set­ting win for her turn in “Fences” and the widely as­sumed vic­tory for “O.J.: Made in Amer­ica” for best doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, and the re­sult would be an ar­tis­ti­cally de­serv­ing field of win­ners, but also a po­tent mes­sage to the rest of the world that the United States is still ca­pa­ble of cham­pi­oning fair­ness, hu­man­ism, so­phis­ti­ca­tion and self-aware­ness, our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cul­ture not­with­stand­ing. As in­op­por­tune as it may be to para­phrase Mao at the present mo­ment, this is the year for academy mem­bers to let a thou­sand flow­ers bloom — in their case, by throw­ing orchids at all man­ner of movies and film­mak­ers. The cul­ture they create, af­ter all, reaches mul­ti­tudes. Its most vis­i­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tives should con­tain mul­ti­tudes in turn.


Alex Hib­bert in “Moon­light,” about a gay African Amer­i­can youth com­ing of age in Miami. It’s more ar­tis­ti­cally ac­com­plished than “La La Land” and the most so­cially aware film of 2016.


Dev Pa­tel in “Lion,” about a boy sep­a­rated from his family.


Jeff Bridges and Gil Birm­ing­ham in “Hell or High Wa­ter.”


Casey Af­fleck in a scene from “Manch­ester by the Sea.”


An­drew Garfield stars in “Hack­saw Ridge.”


Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land.”


Amy Adams in “Ar­rival,” a best pic­ture nom­i­nee.


Den­zel Wash­ing­ton and Vi­ola Davis in “Fences.”


Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Cost­ner in “Hid­den Fig­ures.”

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