After award industry’s annus horribilis, do the Oscars matter anymore?
Today we consider the Hollywood awards season. Every year, celebs gather to stage star-studded shows where the industry pats itself on the back for its achievements, as all the while the media salivate over the spectacle. Who’s wearing what? Who arrived with whom? Who got snubbed? Who got drunk and threw up?
Sometimes, meaningful political statements come out of the celebrity circus surrounding the Oscars. Last year, after nominating only white actors in all four main acting categories for the second time in a row, the Academy faced a backlash and boycott driven by the searing #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
This year, they’ve returned with newly-appointed academy members and a group of nominees that is decidedly more diverse. Seven people of color received nominations in the Best and Supporting Actor/Actress categories: Denzel Washington (Fences), Ruth Negga (Loving), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Dev Patel (Lion); Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures).
Acting wasn’t the only category featuring more diversity. This year, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins became the fourth black filmmaker ever to be nominated for best director. His film about a black, gay man navigating a world where drugs, crime, and poverty rule was a standout for its authentic exploration of perspectives beyond typical Hollywood film fare. In addition, four out of the five directors whose films were nominated in the Best Documentary category are black.
However, after years of bypassing minority artists to nominate their white counterparts as well as largely avoiding complex, authentic stories about those outside of the straight, white, and well-to-do norm, is this slight shift in favor of diversity enough? Even if it is, do Americans care anymore?
Amidst headlines about unnerving new political realities, world conflict, terrorism, poverty, and refugees fleeing from the rubble of their bombed-out homes, can people change gears enough to lose themselves debating which actress wore it best? When real-world tumult hits closer and closer to home for so many, the awards show spectacle can seem meaningless – as empty as a very special episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians in which Kim discovers that she has belly button lint.
Historically, the hurrah around the awards season has been an attempt to push people to the box office. “See this film today! Nominated for seven Academy Awards!” In the age of streaming media, most folks avoid movie theaters altogether, in favor of watching the film in their own home on demand – often well after the golden statues have been handed out. There’s not much draw in watching self-congratulatory celebrities applaud themselves for films you haven’t seen yet. These celebrities, so far detached from the reality of our daily grind, command rising salaries while the rest of the world faces pay freezes and a rising cost of living.
While art and storytelling are constructive ways to express our feelings about current affairs, do we really need Hollywood to tell us which of these stories are the most valuable? The gap between the Hollywood mill and real people’s lives is growing wider.
Maybe the focus shouldn’t be on the big, showy display – getting dressed to the nines and handing out awards for making films that peers deem important. Our focus may be better spent telling those stories to inform, connect, and heal.