The Academy Awards are a delight to behold and engaging for any movie fan. For some, their appeal comes from the Red Carpet and seeing all those beautiful people gathered in one place. For most, the draw comes from getting to see all of your favorite movies talked about and celebrated in one night.
The Academy Awards also demonstrate the power of cinema and the power given to it. A case can easily be made that the most influential medium on the planet is film, noting the way it moves its viewers on a subconscious level and the scope of people that it reaches. Yet the influence we grant movies is even more fascinating. Movies have financial power—as seen by Kevin Hart’s sparkling tux last night—and social power. Nearly half of the Oscar winners on Sunday night used part of their limited acceptance speech time to make some sort of political or topical statement. Most notable was discussion of climate change first by Jenny Beavan and second by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The influence commanded by film is what makes the issue of race at the Oscars an issue. Given the metaphorical stage of the Academy Awards, the lack of black—or any other minority—nominees for Best Supporting Actor/Actress or Best Actor/Actress the last two years and the complete whiteness of the Best Picture nominees this year is disconcerting. Off hand, one might be tempted to dismiss this—it’s just an awards show, why does race have to be dragged into it? But I’ll begin by reminding you that this isn’t employee of the month at Tim & Robbins Hardware Store; this is a national/worldwide event celebrating the best of film, an art, and it is the last venue we want undermined by racial prejudice.
Chris Rock, as the host of the ceremony, dealt with the issue rather poignantly. He started out with the necessary—the elephant in the room needed to be addressed, and it was even funny later in the show when he kept bringing it up. But he wouldn’t let it go, the awkwardness thickening in the air every time he mentioned black actors, and he made his point clear.
Some may be resentful of Rock’s incessant hammering. The most obvious critique of all those angry with the academy still stands: what if, coincidentally, no black people deserved to be nominated this year? That is a real possibility, especially given the ratio of whites working in Hollywood (an issue on its own), but the likelihood of it happening two years in a row is absurd, especially given alternatives like Will Smith in Concussion, Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, and Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton, and given the demographics of the actual academy.
And while we’re on the topic of people who do or don’t deserve to win, let’s revisit the winners from last night. Most of those walking away with a statuette were pretty predictable. I will say that I was shocked by the first prize of the night going to Spotlight over Ex Machina, though the final result for Best Picture became even more clear. But my favorite movie, favorite performance (even though I don’t know anything about acting and neither do you), and favorite film direction were not chosen and lost to what I would again claim were some fairly predictable winners. The incongruity between my favorites and my predictions comes from the academy’s tendencies and genres of choice. There is clearly something awry when Amy wins the documentary category over a movie on the crisis in Ukraine and drug cartels, and Inside Out is competing against a Charlie Kaufman film.
Which leads us to our final point on the Oscars:
The Academy Awards, while they are delightful and influential, are not at all important. I’m going to completely take back what I said above: they matter, but they don’t matter. That’s because the awards are not a reflection of the advances and triumphs of art they claim to honor. The Academy has historically tried to limit the influence of outside groups and box office success, but has never been very successful. Also they’ve tried to steer away from certain voting tendencies—popularity, prestige, epic scope, sentimentality, or atonement for past mistakes—but they have continually swung too far in either direction (in the early 80s and 90s, movies of those exact description were often chosen). Consistently, the critical acclaim, artistry, and cultural impact of a movie has been forgotten by the Academy.
And so, as long as the Academy Awards garner the nation’s attention, let’s hope that they become less biased, honoring all who deserve honor. But if they don’t, don’t let it get ya down—it’s just an awards show.