By Ajay Chacko Feb. 28, 2017
To be a winner at the Oscars, you’ve got to have a BIG film that is about racial, sexual, or national identity.
Last year’s Guardian report on Hollywood’s biggest night maintained that despite accusations of #OscarsSoWhite, it was the most politically charged ceremony until 2016. The gala had included Leonardo DiCaprio’s impassioned speech on climate change and Lady Gaga’s performance alongside victims of sexual abuse, strung together by host Chris Rock’s many race-related jokes. For an awards show that had ignored performers of any racial profile other than Caucasian, this was the compensation that was necessary.
The report also pointed out that only 13 years prior, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was booed off stage for expressing his views on George W Bush and the Iraq War, during his acceptance speech for Bowling For Columbine. Moore had said: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons… Shame on you, Mr Bush!” The filmmaker would go on to get death threats for his speech.
How times have changed! In stark comparison, this awards season has been all about political speeches and taking stands. It began this year in January with Meryl Streep’s speech – calling out Trump, his vicious presidential campaign, and his appalling public conduct – when accepting the Cecil B DeMille award at the Golden Globes.
It set the tone for what we witnessed at the Oscars this year, where the unspoken competition for who could outdo the other in endorsing the cause du jour was palpable. Actor-filmmaker Gael García Bernal spoke about migrant workers and walls. Ruth Negga and Lin-Manuel Miranda showed their support for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is spearheading the campaign to oppose Trump’s travel ban, by wearing the organisation’s blue ribbon. Even Warren Beatty tried his best when he spoke about movies “that not only entertain us and move us, they show us the increasing diversity in our community and a respect for diversity and freedom all over the world” – although, we all know Beatty will be remembered for a very different reason.
Maybe every Hollywood celebrity has discovered a voice this season, egged on by the historic American presidential “upset”. Maybe the Oscars are the best possible platform to make political (and politically correct) statements and even Hollywood stars feel FOMO. Or maybe, everyone was attempting to make up for last year’s fiasco. I can’t help but feel there is a slight shadow that looms over the nominees this year.
More than five decades have passed since the race discourse saw its peak, or identity seemed like the big driver for cinematic themes.
Moonlight is a tremendous film because it pushes the boundaries of identity storytelling (it ticks the three buckets of “black”, “American”, “gay”), but would it have made it to the podium without the diversity debate? Then there is Sunny Pawar, who has our hearts because he’s comfortably brown-black, from a slum in Mumbai, not because he might be a fantastic child actor in an interesting movie.
The endless chase of labels, be it in storytelling or casting, has been the normal in Hollywood discourse – and especially at the Academy Awards. The political correctness when it comes to plots, characters, and even locations all seem too “manufactured” to even my liberal sensibilities.
To really be a winner at the Oscars, you’ve got to have a BIG, IMPORTANT film that is about racial or sexual identity (i.e., if your film isn’t about the monarchy, about American saviours, or about Hollywood itself). But the truth is that identity is a far more complex idea in today’s world than Hollywood will allow for. I might have been born a Mallu-Catholic, but choose to speak in Marathi, do not believe in the Church, and like watching a Housefull as much as Fauda. What does that make me? In the world of Hollywood, probably the “privileged brown guy”.
Moonlight is a tremendous film because it pushes the boundaries of identity storytelling but would it have made it to the podium without the diversity debate? Courtesy: Getty Images
Moonlight is a tremendous film because it pushes the boundaries of identity storytelling but would it have made it to the podium without the diversity debate?
Courtesy: Getty Images
More than five decades have passed since the race discourse saw its peak, or identity seemed like the big driver for cinematic themes. And yet, the Academy and some sections of Hollywood still seem to be obsessing over it. Just think about the whole 12 Years a Slave Oscar-bait debate.
Is it then really such a wonder that a bulk of the “mass” viewership of Hollywood continues to consume franchise or superhero films, or Netflix and Amazon Prime shows? Even Martin Scorsese despaired of this without touching upon the real reason.
The only way out that I can think of is for Hollywood to take a considered, a more nuanced view of identity that doesn’t simply fall into the race-sexuality-religion-nationality buckets. Arrival was a fine example of a film that played with these straightforward notions. Even though it didn’t win any of the big awards at the Oscars, I hope it has set the tone for films that we might see in the future.