Tbh, I have never cared much for the Oscars. I LIVE for the red carpet, the host monologue, and the unplanned viral moments and memes. Like, can we just take a moment to appreciate:
But outside of the four-hour ceremony, I have never given much time to the nominated films. Growing up Afro-Latino and queer, I rarely saw myself represented in the films Hollywood celebrated as “the best”. Rather, a majority of previous nominees felt like an amalgamation of white hegemony. Those films weren’t so much great as much as they were relatable to a dominant culture that standardizes being American, White, heterosexual, and middle-class.
In 2014, the Oscars voter panel was still 94% White and 77% Men. Outdated rules made membership inaccessible to diverse voices and the lack of diversity was reflected in the nominees year after year. The white parade came to a halting stop in 2016 when April Reign popularized #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter and several entertainers of color like Jada and Will Smith boycotted that year’s ceremony. In response, the Academy has set a 2020 goal to double membership for POC and women, as well as having established a longevity rule that would weed out older voters.
The changes are working. The 2019 Oscars “Best Picture” race is stacked, top to bottom, with nominees that offer nuanced and timely stories about experiences that are rarely represented in the top category. From gender to race to sexual orientation, there was much to unpack in this year’s roster.
I also argue we are in a film Golden Age that is directly responding to the Trump administration’s attacks on already targeted communities. Art has always paved a way for political action and discourse – film included. But before Trump, films with a message largely went under the radar, because the Obama administration offered a guise that everything was alright. Since America has awoken to the fact that things are very much not alright, major production companies have responded with films made to be accessible blockbusters, but also made to be political. I can get into the problems with monetizing action and profiting off targeted communities, but I will leave that for a later time.
For now, I am just here to assess the eight nominees and discuss both who should win and who will likely win. As a PR pro and sociologist, as well as a pop culture lover I could probably write a whole book on this, but I’ll spare you all the details and ~try~ to avoid the spoilers as much as I can. Let’s dive in!
8. A Star Is Born
I recently got an AMC Membership with which you can see three movies a week for a monthly payment of $20. Best believe I saw A Star Is Born three times in one week (and then three times again the next). One of those times was with my mom who is finally on board Gaga’s Little Monster train. The movie is a moving cautionary tale about love and how fame gets in the way. It is the kind of story we see come to life time and time again. John and Yoko. Bobby and Whitney. Ariana and Mac. But, and gays forgive me, I don’t think there’s anything special or standout about the film when compared to the others on this list. Lady Gaga’s performance is stellar and she shares great chemistry with Bradley Cooper. The soundtrack is iconic and “Shallow” takes me places. The ending broke my heart and makes me not want to believe in love. But, this movie is the fourth adaptation of a story first conceived in 1939, so there is not much new to be said. While the script does tackle important matters like body image, mental health, and substance abuse, the issues are addressed in a storyline that is very insular to Hollywood, which isn’t particularly interesting.
7. Bohemian Rhapsody
QUEEN. This movie was nothing less than entertaining. What can you expect about a film that is about one of the most iconic groups of all time? The music was of course on point and the Live Aid sequence was masterful. I enjoyed getting a look into how the band came together, how some of their music was made, and how they almost fell apart. All this being said, despite being one of my favorites, Bohemian Rhapsody ranks lower because it is a by the books biopic. You go in knowing most of the story – it is simply brought to life before your eyes. But, in focusing so closely on the life of frontman Freddie Mercury, brought to life by Rami Malek (in a riveting performance), the film does still speak volumes to important social issues. It addresses the AIDS crisis (which Mercury was victim to) and is necessarily queer. About Mercury’s sexuality, I appreciate that the film lays it out before us without much explanation. Mercury loves women, Mercury also loves men. He is allowed to emotionally and sexually move around freely without justifying his choices. Mercury just lived as he pleased and I think beyond his music, that’s his greatest legacy. I do wish we had gotten a gay sex scene though because the Brokeback Mountain‘s gay sex scene was not the tea.
This film did not beat around the Bush (pun intended). It has been nearly 20 years since 9/11 and while I was not old enough to remember that day, I know its consequences very well. The response to the attack is one that we now look at as a grave mistake, but do those in the administration consider it so? Vice takes viewers into the life of Dick Cheney, vice president to George W. Bush. Throughout the Bush administration, Cheney flew relatively under the radar. The most noise he made was that one time he accidentally shot his friend in the face, which the film hilariously caricatures along with other pivotal moments. (It is a dark and depressing, yet funny). But while all eyes were on Bush to lead the nation, Cheney pulled several strings and Bush just acted as a talking head. While hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the unnecessary invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Cheney’s pockets grew thanks to his stake in Halliburton, an oil company with operations in those two countries. The political film pulls no punches in denouncing the effects of the unilateral executive theory (which holds that the President possesses full control of the executive branch). The film is necessary for a time in which the current President wields his power unchecked. However, its unabashed critique of political administrations probably won’t sit well with voters – even in “liberal” Hollywood.
Of all the explicitly Black movies that were nominated, BlacKkKlansman is my favorite. The subject matter is timely, especially on the heels of the Charlottesville riots and the rise of white nationalism in the age of Trump. The movie, which is based on a true story, pays respect to the history of the Black Power movement, its leaders, and the actions they took. The film is very in your face about its message and while some may favor subtlety, I think we need more movies that are this unapologetically Black because subtle messages can easily get lost on audiences. The call to action must be very clear in Trump’s America because the perception that America moved into a post-racial society after the Civil Rights Movement is exactly what got us into this mess. Beyond being a Black film, it also weaves in matters of anti-Semitism and homophobia. This film stands in stark contrast to another biopic nominee, which I have qualms with, but which is making greater waves with audiences because of its more pleasant take on race. I will discuss further down. BlacKkKlansman may be “too aggressive” to get the praise it deserves this year. On the flip side, the fact that the hero, Ron Stallworth, is a police officer, though opening up a greater discussion about policing practices against communities of color, might be something that actually alienates Black voters.
4. Black Panther
I am not really one for action movies. Normally, I fall asleep, wake up when I hear explosions, and fall right back to sleep. So, there is not too much I can say regarding Black Panther as an action movie, because I don’t have a strong foundation. But, I did not fall asleep and that says a lot! Further, I do know that action flicks are pretty damn white, so, that Blackness is so central to the film makes it a very important one. What is special about Black Panther aside from it being a first of its kind, is that it goes beyond where most would have asked it to go. Not only is this a Black movie, but it is a very global and very African film, too. From start to finish, African culture and history are placed at the center. This kind of representation is important and the positive waves it made could be seen all through social media. It truly made the Black community feel likes Kings and Queens. Speaking of Queens, the film also placed Black women at the center, showing them as strong and not subservient to men. This is rare and we need more Black intersectional blockbusters like this. Despite being the most culturally impactful film of the roster, considering its a superhero movie, I don’t foresee a win. Not that it needs one.
3. Green Book
Remember how I earlier said there was one Black movie I had problems with? This is it. I think Green Book was a fine movie for what it is worth. It flips the script on how race is conventionally portrayed in cinema. Mahershala Ali’s character has a doctoral degree, is an accomplished pianist and is extremely wealthy. Viggo Mortensen’s character is a working-class man who can’t write, speaks crudely, and has “low brow” cultural tastes. Mortensen is hired by Ali to be his bodyguard/chauffeur/personal assistant while he travels through the Jim Crow South on tour. The film is a buddy flick that is supposed to make us feel warm because a Black man and a White man are getting along. Like, ok, that’s great, but that is setting the bar a little low. The movie does have its nuances. Such as when Ali discusses not feeling Black enough (because he’s into classical music and plays for White people), not feeling White enough (because of his race), and not feeling man enough (because he’s gay – meant to be a shocker, but I copped that from the get-go). There is a ton of messaging in the way it is shot and how the characters interact that alludes at Black Power, as well as current struggles the Black community faces (See: “I can’t breathe” or the arrest scene). I just think there is a lot that can be lost on viewers and most dangerously, because the film is not given much modern contextualization, I can see many viewers walking away thinking that what the film portrays is a problem of the past, not the present. Also, while the movie did a good job of giving nuance to Ali’s character, Mortensen’s Italian family was so stereotyped. We need to move beyond the Italain guido/mafia trope. All the issues aside, this is the kind of performative flick the Oscars would for sure eat up.
2. The Favourite
The Faveourite was perhaps the most enjoyable flick of the bunch, yet it was the one I was most apprehensive about watching. I don’t really care about period pieces. They just feel boring and white to me. While the film was, in fact, very white; so, white that there was not a single person of color in it, I am still happy I watched it. The script was absolutely brilliant. It was incredibly crude, raunchy, and in your face 100% of the time. The way it was filmed, too, with random cuts and interlaced shots made it so viewers were always engaged and kept on their toes. Through most of the movie, I struggled to figure out where exactly it was going, however. Only when we find out the true motivations of Emma Stone’s character did I realize it is a film about wealth corrupting and eroding our minds. So much so, that wealth can move us from happy and loveable to bitter and irate. Further, the movie is special in the centrality of the female body (not for men, but for each other) and in its depiction of lesbian love. Though the movie is smart, it is still hard to dismiss how white it is and should it win that actually may be why. I easily foresee votes splitting between flicks like BlaackKklansmen, Black Panther, and Green Book – which could give way to a film like The Favourite winning. Twitter would be (understandably) upset. If Hollywood allows Stone to problematically play Asian roles than POC should be allowed to play White roles.
Let me be real. I was kind of bored watching Roma. It is a Netflix flick, but I don’t think it is made for the Netflix generation’s attention span. That is okay though. My qualms while watching the film were how slowly it moved and that it was shot in B&W. But now that I have had time to digest it, I get it and I appreciate it much more. The strength is in its slowness and sparseness. The movie conveys a lot without the characters saying much. The images are very carefully chosen so that you understand the film’s message even without dialogue. That message is that whether you are rich or poor, men are universally kind of trash and women must bond together. Yalitza Aparicio’s baby daddy knocks her up and abandons her. Marina de Tavira’s husband cheats on her and leaves her. Wealth separates the two woman, but in the film’s climax their stories merge together and the take away is simple, yet striking. There is a lot going for a best picture win. Besides being the most artsy flick, it is the only (and first) Netflix film nominated. Were the movie to win, the Academy would demonstrate an understanding of where movies are going thanks to streaming. Also, it is important to note Aparicio, the lead, is of Mixtec (Mexican-indigenous) descent. Not only are indigenous people not featured prominently in US cinema, but they are also not featured prominently in Mexican cinema either. They always get the short end of the stick, so this moment is a big one and one we need more of.
2018 was a great year for cinema and I expect 2019 will get better. As we get more political and streaming gives way to more film volume, storylines will get only more complex, diverse, and meaningful. See you next year!