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Rethinking the Oscars

Aram Masharqa puts the AMPAS - and the shortcomings of its annual awards - under the microscope.

With cinemas closed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that many typical filmgoers haven’t seen the nominated films this year. However, as Stephen King asked in 2020, “How many of the older, whiter contingent actually saw Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, or The Last Black Man in San Francisco? Just asking the question.” We have no guarantee the Academy voters watch every nominated film.

Previous Oscar winners have often been predictable. The IMDb keywords with the highest correlation with nominations are “family tragedy”, “whistleblower”, “Pulitzer Prize source”, “physical therapy”, “domestic servant”, and “Watergate”. Hence the array of nominations for The Post (2017), a film about investigative journalism, or Marriage Story (2019), evidently a ‘family tragedy’.

The films themselves certainly merit success, yet at the same time they are films that are perfect examples of ‘Oscar Bait’. Both films were released towards the end of the year (December 2017, November 2019); both had a limited theatrical release to begin with; both featured a star-studded cast. The only risk taken by nominating Marriage Story was that it was a Netflix Original, and even then, the family storyline clearly shows a cushioned risk at most.

Conversely, we find that films with the keywords ‘black independent film’ are amongst the least likely to be nominated (Slate, 2014). When the main characters are black in a nominated film, the plot usually involves slavery, or a fight for freedom/against white supremacists – see BlacKKKlansman (2018), or this year’s very own Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). When a ‘black independent film’ won Best Picture (Moonlight, 2016), there was media outcry about La La Land being snubbed. It’s clear that the films that receive nominations and awards are the ones that reinforce preconceived, structural ideas. If the Academy’s decisions challenge the status quo they are criticised. Although many supported their choice in 2016, we simply cannot ignore the volume of the voices against it.

Naturally, as in any area of culture, there is such a wealth of originality, talent, and creativity that it can be helpful to designate certain works as ‘exceptional’ or ‘outstanding’. If not to congratulate their merit, then to direct audiences to films they may have otherwise missed. Indeed, the Academy Awards themselves state their role: ‘we recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures’.

Whilst they do often recognise talent in the film industry, I can’t help but feel as though the only ‘imagination’ they inspire is the imaginative marketing choices producers make. Given Parasite (2019) was the first non-English language film to win best picture, can we really say the ceremony “connect[s] the world”?

The Oscars, especially in a year like this, can be useful. When we’re all stuck watching the same three sitcoms on Netflix, it can be helpful to have a list of films that are guaranteed to be well-made, gripping, and moving. Nevertheless, we must always remain critical. We must keep in mind that the Oscars are just another fallible source.

Image credit: PrayItNoPhotography via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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