If movies are escapist entertainment, shouldn’t the Academy Awards be our ultimate getaway from the world’s problems?
In another year, perhaps. Although the upbeat musical “La La Land” looks likely to dominate the Oscars, there may be no escaping the politics bubbling beneath the awards show. Much of it, of course, centers on Donald Trump, whose racially charged election campaign and controversial actions as president have riled up the largely left-leaning Hollywood community. At this year’s other movie-awards ceremonies, stars have turned their acceptance speeches into bully pulpits to target Trump and his policies. His recent travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries has led one Oscar nominee to shun the ceremony. The overall tone has become so heated that some issues — such as the dearth of female filmmakers in Hollywood — have gotten somewhat sidelined.
If you’ll be at home keeping track of who wins what on Feb. 26, you might also want to follow the hot-button issues and sore spots that could come to the fore. Here’s a guide to the biggest controversies at this year’s Academy Awards.
We’ve grown accustomed to hearing political broadsides from stars holding trophies, but Meryl Streep took things to a new level at last month’s Golden Globes when she blasted Trump — not by name — and encouraged the press “to call him on the carpet for every outrage.” Politicians praised or panned her along party lines, while Trump blasted back via Twitter, calling Streep “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” Later, at the Screen Actors Guild awards, nearly every winner had something to say about immigration, religion or civil liberties. “What sign should I make for the next march?” asked lifetime achievement award-winner Lily Tomlin.
Enough already? Maybe not. At a nominees’ luncheon earlier this month, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs equated artists with activists, and all but encouraged future winners to “speak out against those who try to put up barriers” — a clear reference to Trump’s recent travel ban.
“It’s an irresistible platform, a worldwide platform,” says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for Deadline. Although viewers love to hate a mouthy Oscar winner, he says, they might also tune in just to see how far the stars will go. Then again, “It’s hard to say because everything’s moving so fast,” he adds. “By the time the Oscars are broadcast, who knows what will be going on?”
THE DIVERSITY ISSUE
This time last year, the Academy Awards were being machine-gunned by the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was the second year in a row without a single black acting nominee, and the outcry led the Academy to announce several initiatives to diversify its membership. All told, the academy grew by 683 new members — 46 percent women and 41 percent people of color, to a total of 6,687.
Today’s list of acting nominees is more inclusive, with four African-Americans (including Viola Davis of “Fences” and Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures”); British-Indian Dev Patel, of “Lion”; and two black actresses from the United Kingdom — Ruth Negga (“Loving”) and Naomi Harris (“Moonlight”).
Is that a direct result of the Academy’s changes? Things aren’t quite that simple, according to Gary Lucchesi and Lori McCreary, presidents of the Producers Guild of America, which runs an annual workshop on diversity. Movies like “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” were in production before the controversy, Lucchesi says, “and they were nominated because they were great films, not for any other reason.”
McCreary says the real challenge lies in finding financing for films with diverse casts, though that may be getting easier after the success of the two recent “Star Wars” films, which featured Hispanic, Asian and African-American actors.
“Now people are calling us for movies I’ve had on my slate for 10 to 15 years,” McCreary says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, maybe that biopic of Duke Ellington really could sell.’ ”
THE PARKER-AFFLECK DOUBLE STANDARD
After the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, Hollywood seemed to find a savior in Nate Parker, whose drama “The Birth of a Nation” became a hit at Sundance. Here was a quadruple-threat African-American talent — writer, director, producer, star — whose film about a slave rebellion surely had Oscar written all over it. Parker’s movie sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, a festival record.
Then came headlines about 1999 rape charges against Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin, while they were in college. Parker was acquitted, but the ugly story — a sexual threesome with an 18-year-old woman who eventually killed herself in 2012 — would not go away. (Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, but the verdict was thrown out.) Parker launched a damage-control tour in the media, but to no avail. Oscar hopes for “The Birth of a Nation” soon evaporated.
Also last year, Casey Affleck starred in “Manchester by the Sea” as a loner living in the Boston suburbs, and rode a wave of critical acclaim for his performance — this, despite news of sexual harassment allegations from two female co-workers on his 2010 film “I’m Still Here.” Affleck settled with both women, but many a headline asked whether our differing treatment of Affleck and Parker stems from their differing skin color.
That remains a valid question, although the two cases — rape charges that went to trial, and sexual harassment charges that were settled — don’t make for a neat parallel. In the end, Affleck earned an Oscar nomination for best actor and seems likely to win.
THE GENDER GAP
Somewhat forgotten in the debate over diversity at the Oscars is the lack of female directing nominees. Several female-oriented publications, including Teen Vogue, and websites, like Refinery29, raised the issue after nominations were announced. The Womens Media Center crunched the numbers to show that women represent only 19 percent of non-acting nominees this year. To date, there have been only four women ever nominated for best director.
It isn’t as if women don’t make movies, says Ry Russo-Young, a longtime independent filmmaker whose teen drama “Before I Fall” goes into nationwide release March 3. “The numbers of women at Sundance is pretty remarkable,” says Russo-Young, but she notes that male directors seem more able to parlay a festival hit into a mainstream career. Consciously or not, she says, the producers who put their money at stake tend to trust male directors more.
“Sometimes in the fervor of the diversity discussion, we lose track of why it’s important,” Russo-Young says. “When you’re raising your daughter, how is that person going to function in society? If they don’t have any examples to follow, they’re going to take certain things off the table.”
THE FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM CONTROVERSY
The director Asghar Farhadi may not be familiar to most moviegoers, but he is the only Iranian to win an Oscar (in the foreign film category, for his 2011 drama “A Separation”). He is nominated again this year, for “The Salesman,” about a woman who is attacked by an unknown assailant.
Farhadi isn’t known as a political filmmaker, but when America banned Iranian citizens from entering the country, he declined, as a form of protest, to apply for a waiver to enter the country. His leading actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, will also stay home. “Instilling fear in the people is an important tool,” Farhadi wrote in a statement, “used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.”
As a result, there’s been talk about making sure “The Salesman” wins the Oscar. “At a time when governmental authority has divided the nation, that makes it a true movie of the moment,” wrote Eric Kohn of Indiewire. Whoever wins the foreign-language award, this often overlooked category could become one of the night’s most politically charged moments.