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The Oscars Reflect Talent, but also Money and Politics

February 10th 2017

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep

The 89th Academy Awards are upon us, and critics and Hollywood insiders are placing bets on which nominees will go home with the coveted statuette. The idea of the Academy is to judge films on their artistic merit, but as always, political considerations and even current events can have an impact on who wins an Oscar.

Damien Chazelle’s nostalgic musical La La Land may be the big winner this year. The film offers a tribute to Hollywood musicals, has great cinematography, good music and a tear-jerking story; but, some critics question if the film really deserves all of its 14 nominations. That number has been equaled by only two other movies throughout Hollywood history: the 1950s drama All About Eve starring Bette Davis, and James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic.

Ads, money influence Oscars

Giovanna Chesler, director of the Film and Video Studies program at George Mason University in Virginia, says that as in any other campaign, robust advertising and a large amount of money can have as much influence as artistic merit in securing a film’s road to the Oscars.

She says that in some categories, such as the Documentary category, filmmakers have to submit a $50,000 fee just to be considered for a nomination. She says such fees guarantee screenings of the prospective nominees’ films in core markets during the Oscar season.

A filmmaker herself, Chesler says she has renewed faith in the Oscars because, as she puts it, “in this year’s nominees you see more talent reflected, not just the marketing ability of the industry.”

Oscars less white

There are more nominations for minority films and actors. She points to art films like Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama about an African-American boy growing up in a drug-infested community, and Denzel Washington’s movie adaptation of the play Fences, about a struggling husband and father who, despite his personal flaws, is working hard to make his mark in the world.

Cast and crew of "Moonlight" poses backstage with their award for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, Jan. 8, 2017.

Cast and crew of "Moonlight" poses backstage with their award for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, Jan. 8, 2017.

These noteworthy films, Chesler said, might not have been registered in the consciousness of viewers’ and Academy voters had it not been for last year’s campaign and protests against “#Oscarssowhite.”

“We know that Hidden Figures dominated the box office, right? And continues to, and received a SAG award,” Chesler said.

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures — the uplifting tale of three African-American women who helped NASA launch the first American astronaut into space and later onto the moon — has captured the popular vote and is an Oscar contender.

The film went viral after scores of movie viewers marveled at the three African-American females’ mathematical genius and wondered how they had never before heard this story. Films such as Hidden Figures and Fences have helped build solidarity and pride among the African-American communities, and they also have created awareness among progressive moviegoers in America at large.

Politics can intrude

Political developments also can have an impact. President Donald Trump’s actions on immigration put a renewed spotlight on refugees. Giancarlo Rossi’s documentary, Fire at Sea, chronicles rescue efforts off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Rossi’s exquisite camera captures many rescues but also shows the body bags carrying some of those who died in the process.

“This is the moment for documentaries. It really is,” Chesler said. “So, the more questions and attention they get, the better for me to see the genre blossoming.”

She also points to some of the other strong contenders in the same category, such as I am Not Your Negro, by Raoul Peck, examining the state of racial relations in America, from the Civil Rights era to #Black Lives Matter, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

Chesler says these nominations were the result of changes in the Academy’s voting community after #Oscarssowhite. She also notes, though, it started two years ago with DuVernay’s film Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. The film received critical acclaim but no nominations.

“David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay laid the groundwork for this moment. I think Ava DuVernay deserves so much praise for changing the conversation,” Chesler said.

FILE - Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi and his wife, Parisa, pose after he was awarded the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters medal, at the French Ministry of Culture, in Paris, France, Feb. 27, 2014.

FILE - Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi and his wife, Parisa, pose after he was awarded the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters medal, at the French Ministry of Culture, in Paris, France, Feb. 27, 2014.

In the Foreign Language Film category, The Salesman, by Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi, may have received a boost after the president’s travel ban singled out people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Iran is one of these countries. The Iranian filmmaker says he will not attend the Oscars this year, even if he’s allowed into the United States.

The divided political atmosphere also could swing Oscar voters toward picking safer, more mainstream subject matters and actors.

Will voters play it safe?

“Well, La La Land is the barometer,” Chesler said. “And La La Land has just secured more nominations than any other film.”

Chesler hopes the statuettes will be distributed more equitably to talented minority artists this year. One of them is African-American cinematographer Bradford Young, who is breaking new ground with his work in the Oscar-nominated film Arrival. Chesler said such recognition would be a step in the right direction for Hollywood.

She cautions, however, that this progress only signals the beginning of change in an industry traditionally led by white men. She underscores that while minority films garnered many nominations this year, women and other groups continue to be excluded in many major Academy Award categories.

She highlights the exclusion of women behind the camera. This year, no females were nominated in the categories of Best Director or Best Cinematography. According to a Women’s Media Center analysis, women constituted only 20 percent of the nonacting nominations. It’s not hard to imagine the rise of a new movement: #OscarsSoMale.


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