The Oscars are perhaps the most celebrated film awards ceremony. They are supposed to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements, judged by the Academy’s voting membership. However, they are historically problematic for continually supporting films made by, and primarily starring white men, and ignoring those made by, and starring, women or people of colour. Perhaps this is reflective of the voting body of whom around 91% are white and 76% male. In fact, from 1927- 2015, 99% of ‘Best Director’ winners were male. The Oscars have, to me, always been a self-congratulatory celebration of white patriarchal dominance within Hollywood.
It was at the 89th Academy Awards last year where the Academy made a step in the right direction. La La Land – Damien Chazelle’s celebration of the classical Hollywood musical/romantic comedy with established actor Emma Stone playing an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles – was touted to win Best Picture, having already won a record-breaking 7 awards at the Golden Globes. In fact, it did win Best Picture at the Oscars, albeit briefly. In an embarrassing envelope mix-up, it was later announced that it was Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight that won best picture. The triumph of an intersectional drama that deals with race, sexuality, and identity over a celebration of Hollywood’s history was no small victory.
Moonlight became the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT film, and the second lowest domestic grossing film to win Best Picture. This was a long overdue celebration and, looking at the nominations for the 90th Academy Awards Best Picture, was a harbinger for things to come.
This year’s Best Picture nominations include films such as Get Out, a film with a largely black cast and crew, that explores both overt and latent racism present in modern society, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a drama exploring the prejudice, racism, and misogyny of small town America. Other films nominated include Call Me By Your Name, a drama that explores a budding homosexual relationship, and Lady Bird, a coming-of-age film with a female lead and director. With this varied line-up of Best Picture nominations, it is apparent that the Academy has taken a more inclusive approach to its recognition of filmic excellence this year.
The 2017 Best Picture mix-up was a prophecy for change for the Academy. Both Lady Bird and Get Out are made by first-time directors, one female and the other a black man. With newer filmmakers and more progressive subjects being broached and recognized by the Academy, they may have finally found a refreshing medium in their nominations. This more progressive set of films being recognized by the Academy is a far cry from the Oscars that we know, resonating far more with younger film audiences. However, one may argue that this is an example of the Academy virtue signalling – perhaps this is a conspicuous act that may support a good cause, but is in fact performed in order to improve its public image. This belief may not be unfounded cynicism; categories for acting continue to feature a recognizable roster of established white actors including Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Alison Janney, Meryl Streep, Sam Rockwell ad nauseam. The domination of these categories by established actors is still problematic as the Academy continues to praise itself and fails to recognize new, alternative talent.
The Academy is certainly still taking baby steps to becoming reflective of the true talent of newer filmmakers and their stars. It is also highly likely that, while some nominations show a more progressive Academy, the Awards will still go the way of white stars and directors. One can only hope that Moonlight‘s victory last year was a signifier of change, that the outcome of the 90th Awards will shine a light on a newer generation of filmmakers rather than the established ones. With the Academy recognizing excellence from a variety of people, now one can only hope they are awarded justly. Whatever the outcome of the 90th Academy Awards, one thing is for sure, more forward- thinking films by younger and more diverse creators will be made and shown the respect they deserve by institutions such as the Academy, and by their audiences.
The 90th Academy Awards will take place tonight at 1:00 AM (GMT).