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Oscars Countdown: The Academy, its power, and its responsibility in social politics

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The 90th Academy Awards arrive this year at a time of socio-political upheaval, practically and in social consciousness: the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, #NeverAgain, issues of racial tensions, and divisive bipartisan politics, with a misogynist and racist White House at its centre.

The Oscars have a long tradition as a platform for presenters, hosts, and winners to make politically-charged statements, though mostly these were exceptions to the rule and were often badly received both by the Academy itself and its audiences. Throughout most of its history, the superficial and political have remained separate. Now however, using the Oscars as a platform isn’t unusual, surprising, or proof of a lack of decorum. It’s expected.

In the age of Trump, it seems that everything is a statement on identity, and the Academy Awards aren’t exempt from this trend. The Oscars ceremony appears as a referendum on what identity Hollywood will choose for itself, whether it be more reflective of its true values, or of how it wants to be perceived.

Yet simultaneously, the people behind the Oscars telecast have expressed wanting the show to focus on the films, not the cultural movements around them. Jennifer Todd, one of the lead producers of the Academy Awards, expressed that “the Oscars should be a spectacle. Fun and funny and great performances.” She noted the show would emphasise its 90th anniversary milestone, and that “it should also be a giant commercial for the movie business, which we all need to keep going.”

I somehow doubt that the ceremony attendees will feel the same way, given Hollywood celebrities have been the most vocal in the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. What’s left to be seen is the degree of politicisation that will be deemed acceptable.

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Yet how sincere are Hollywood politics, anyway? The Academy body is still dominated by rich, older white men, despite attempts to diversify the body’s demographic in the past year. They nominated more diverse stories, actors, and filmmakers than ever before in the Oscars’ history, and so now can bask in self-congratulation for their progressiveness and ‘wokeness’, and can view themselves as apart from the crimes and injustices perpetuated by their own industries.

They get to congratulate themselves for being vaguely self-aware, but never have to acknowledge themselves as the perpetrators or benefactors of those inequalities systemic of their industry. The films they choose to be nominated only tell the stories of how the moneyed interests of Hollywood want to be viewed.

Some may deem this view overly cynical, but I see their nominations as a reflection of what they perceive to be good for business, a response to clamours for diversity and representation. What can they lose from being championed as bastions of progressiveness and leftist ideologies?  

A topical example was last year’s Oscar for Best Picture, in which Moonlight and La La Land were pitted directly against one another. Their competition reflects two ideas forced to coexist: Hollywood’s overwhelming and historical bias towards whiteness and its fitful progress towards diversity.

If the romantic film that avoids politics wins Best Picture, the Academy Awards are frivolous and irrelevant. If the difficult and moving portrayal of a doubly marginalised black life earns the award, suddenly the Academy is crucial in reigning in a new era of equality. Pessimism thus views the Academy body’s motivations as ones of self-interest; they are about preserving the Oscars’ relevance and smoke-screening the industry’s problematic treatments (and exclusion) of women and under-represented groups.

Do motives matter? In the end, the outcome is positive. The 90th Oscars nominations are the most diverse the Academy has ever had, and marginalised groups are finally being brought into the fold. But the real concern is, what happens to Oscars’ diversity when public pressures for it die down, when society has become so desensitised to constant arguing about equality and representation that they become fatigued with the debate altogether?

The Academy will go back to its old ways, and progress will regress. They’ll point back to these years and say, “Well, we are inclusive, look at all the stories of women, LGBT communities, and black culture that were represented those years!”. Sincere politics with principled motives are the only way to ensure progress is continuous, even after vocal public scrutiny quietens.

A crucial way to combat this is to remove the white male hold on the Academy’s voting body, and to opt instead for proportional representation. Only then can it be insured both that nominations are diverse and inclusive, and that there is a pressure on filmmakers and producers to create representational movies. After all, the renowned ‘Oscar bump’ suggests filmmakers seeking to make their reputation will create content catered to the Academy’s demographic. Thus diversity in the Academy means diversity in Hollywood’s content.  

The second drive for authentic politicisation and inclusivity lies in the celebrity element. These days more attention is placed on speech soundbites and headline-grabbing statements made by actors and actresses at the awards show than to the films themselves, and it’s what remains talked about days and weeks after the show airs.  

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With Trump in office and responding to every slight provocation and celebrity statement condemning his actions, politics has invited celebrities to be on its ideological front lines. The issue there is that neither side is directly engaging with the other; it’s a contest of who can shout loudest. Screaming into these political echo chambers only contributes to further demarcations along bipartisan lines of the political landscape, rather than an active conversation.

The value of celebrity activism is therefore not in its power to change the minds of those on the other side of the political fence. It’s in its ability to bring attention to political and social issues, in publicising rallying cries, like it did with Time’s Up. Celebrities have been politically weaponised, and though their attempting to change minds is futile, they are arguably the most powerful tool for expressing socio-political solidarity.

There’s longevity to celebrities’ calls for change, because those who speak out, those who are most vocal, are also those who suffer at the hands of the status quo. They have a platform, and they have the motivation to see through real change. Celebrities aren’t the silver bullet solution to solving injustices and misrepresentations, but their voices are loud enough to be heard and received by large enough swathes of society to affect real change.

For people to see themselves represented and treated fairly in film, and in Hollywood, one of the most powerful industries, and to have their issues voiced by powerful individuals, is to empower real change at a societal level. The Oscars are the moment when the film industry declares which stories are to be its most lasting contributions to society. Its responsibility is not to affect political change, but social transformation, to bring systemic inequalities into the limelight. Once they have a voice and a platform, people can take over from there.

The 90th Academy Awards will take place on March 4th.

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