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91st Academy Awards: Part One – Art and Politics

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The other day, a cat offered its opinion on the Oscar nominations. At any other time, this would seem strange, but Oscar season is when all opinions on film quality and aesthetic worthiness become, according to all and sundry offering opinions, The Truth. Whatever the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates for awards, everyone from a broadsheet critic to a tweeting cat knows better.

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I have opinions on the nominations, but I’m more interested in what they represent rather than knowing, let alone deciding, The Truth about the best films of last year. I am pleased to see some of my favourites from last year nominated, and while other top films of mine have been largely or entirely overlooked, I don’t think the Academy members are wrong, just have different views. In the run up to the awards, I’ll post my views and predictions on the various nominees, but for starters, let’s consider the nominees for Best Picture.

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The dominant story around the nominations is the inclusion of Black Panther. The first superhero film to receive this accolade, it is also a significant black film. A blockbuster with a predominantly black cast, that succeeded critically and commercially with its incorporation of commentary about racial history and isolationism, the nomination of Black Panther is a hugely significant cultural event. Criticism of this nomination is largely based around the film’s lack of aesthetic quality: seemingly the film ‘is not really good enough’ to be nominated.

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These criticisms do not specify the standards by which film quality should be measured, and imply elitist attitudes against blockbusters and superhero films in general. This cultural prejudice is interesting, since while less harmful, it is no less a prejudice than that based on skin colour. Artistic merit is subjective, and while there may be critical standards that could be considered objective, perhaps from the practitioners such as editors and cinematographers, these standards are unlikely to be universally accepted. Therefore, it seems more appropriate, and certainly less arrogant, to embrace the various subjective positions and accept the wonderful diversity of perspectives.

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Speaking of diversity, I wonder if a predominantly white superhero film would have attracted such discussion. The nomination of Black Panther probably is more a political statement than an artistic one, as the members of AMPAS present themselves as progressive. The other nominees also suggest this different approach, with only two of the Best Picture nominees focused upon white men. Of these, I am yet to see Vice so will post my review subsequently, but at the very least it seems to be a satire of conservative white power, a point underscored by Christian Bale’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.

 

A Star Is Born is probably the most traditional and conservative of the nominees, being a remake of a popular rags-to-riches story in which a man helps a woman while wrestling with his personal demons. I loved the film and have no problem with it being nominated, but I am glad it is the only typical nominee. The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is also typical, but its focus on a gay musician of Asian descent makes it unusual. Films focused on gay characters have received limited awards attention, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight being earlier examples. I’m not the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, and controversy around its director may keep it out of the frontrunning, but I applaud its inclusion.

 

Another film with homosexual elements is The Favourite, a surprising inclusion because of its focus upon women but also because it is such an odd film. ‘Costume dramas’ do attract attention – see Sense & Sensibility, Elizabeth, Shakespeare In Love – but rarely with this level of frank sexuality and dark comedy. To me, it is another weird choice, and all the better for it. Roma I am yet to see, but from a racial and gender perspective it is refreshing to see a film about a working-class woman in Mexico recognised. Green Book casts an eye over American racial history, much like Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and Hidden Figures, and once I’ve seen it I’ll let you know what I think.

 

Speaking of American racial history, I am thrilled to see my favourite film of last year nominated in multiple categories. BlacKkKlansman draws attention to important events with contemporary parallels, while engaging with and subverting cinematic norms. Spike Lee has long been a public face of African-American cinema, and Academy recognition brings attention to this important film.

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It is easy to read many of the nominations as political. I do not see this as a problem. Film and the film industry are political, and in an age of social media everyone can be politically engaged. By engaging with debates over representation through their attention to films that address gender, race and sexuality, the members of AMPAS demonstrate social engagement. Ironically, to perpetuate lofty and undefined levels of ‘artistic quality’ would be more elitist and out of touch, as AMPAS has long been accused of. This is a radical time, and what we see in these nominations are contributions to debate and discussion. One of the most prominent platforms in the world is contributing to the debate, and that is something I applaud.

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1 Comment

  1. […] saw Green Book after the Oscars, and its win for Best Picture raises issues that I will discuss in a later post. For now, we shall […]

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