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. 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.
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