A neoliberal politics will always get caught in the commotion of optics—but ironically, with no vision. We can see a glaring example of this phenomenon in the Oscars, our charming American tradition which this season’s movie releases from Joker to Parasite to Judy and more are primed for. In recent years, conservative media outlets like Breitbart, Fox News, and the Washington Times have used the award ceremony as a vessel for both derision and moral outrage: Historically low ratings are apparently due to so-called divisive far-left hosts like, uh, Jimmy Kimmel, rather than the advent of streaming and social media, where the lore of celebrity now lives. And on the other side of those who care deeply about the Oscars are advocates for Marvel, Disney and the like, who decry the Academy’s general exclusion of comic book films from major categories. Last year’s nomination of Black Panther for Best Picture was an exception. And the upcoming ceremony, in early 2020, may continue to disrupt that narrative. At the moment, the endlessly-debated Joker, which attempts to transform the superhero movie form by imitating more institutionally-respected films (see: the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese), appears to be a frontrunner.
The Academy’s response to any criticism no matter how facile or valid—including accusations of radical leftism, elitism, racism, sexism, and general mustiness—has been to make vague, grand mission statements while frantically ushering some younger, less white, and less male Academy members into the ranks. The result has been generally non-transformative.
At this year’s 91st Academy Awards in February, Green Book, a film that seemed to satisfy mostly no one other than people who enjoyed Driving Miss Daisy when it came out but won’t admit it now, won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Ratings went up a bit, perhaps because people who still have cable are the general demographic for a film like Green Book. Roma, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s well-intentioned tribute to his childhood nanny, predictably won the filmmaker Best Director and Best Cinematography. Roma is not an English-language film, which usually means relegation to the Best Foreign Film category (depending on whether your non-white-Anglophone country happened to select your film for nomination) but Cuarón evaded this ghettoization by turning the tricks that Academy voters tend to love: period setting, black-and-white cinematography, digestible feel-good storyline with just enough extravagance to dazzle but not offend. (Best Picture winners and nominees are also, ridiculously but unsurprisingly, never documentaries.)
Attempting to write about the Oscars can be daunting because the awards are not, at their core, about honoring the best films or talent in a given year—they are about achieving, by whatever means necessary, an incoherent American mythology of politically moderate greatness. As my former colleague Richard Brody and I once argued, the only time the Oscars have ever gotten Best Picture right was in 2017 when Moonlight won (after, of course, the presenters mistakenly gave the award to La La Land). Often, the honorary awards—which tend to single out lifetime achievements—are more intelligent. Spike Lee bafflingly won his first in-competition Oscar this year—for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman—and was awarded an honorary Oscar back in 2015. Orson Welles received an honorary Oscar after winning in-competition just once—Best Original Screenplay for Citizen Kane, shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Honorary Oscar winners who have never won in-competition include Akira Kurosawa, Cicely Tyson, Agnes Varda, Charles Burnett, David Lynch, Buster Keaton, Gena Rowlands, and Federico Fellini. Since 2009, these honorary Oscars are not awarded during the regular televised ceremony, but rather, summarized via montage; they are mere footnotes to the fanfare.
The Oscars are cynical awards dressed in the guise of earnestness, which is what the people most vocally critical about them—from far-right news outlets to Marvel fans—miss entirely. Whether the awarded films are “the best” or not is beside the point. The Oscars are a television spectacle that mostly function as a marketing opportunity for large corporations. And these corporations have financial reasons to be concerned about ratings, which is why, every year, we hear about them.
The prolific and revered director Martin Scorsese has been at the center of Film Twitter squabbles since denouncing Marvel movies and the like as “theme parks” and “not cinema.” Notably, Scorsese won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for the first and so far last time in 2007 for The Departed, his 20th narrative feature as director. That his criticism was directed at “theme park” cinema (sorry, Marty) rather than the Academy—which tends to award a superhero-free version of the same kind of films—is indicative of the practical side of these awards: Many non-commercial filmmakers depend on Oscar nominations and wins to support careers that the big producers and studios won’t on their own. The Oscar stamp of approval can generate larger audiences by incentivizing theaters to program and streaming platforms to acquire the rights of non-“theme park” movies. And in turn, the directors of those films, like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and Dee Rees (Mudbound), may get the kind of funding and continued investment that eluded them previously. This could be the hope of Kasi Lemmons, who directed this year’s Harriet, and whose first feature, Eve’s Bayou, is a tremendous and deeply underrecognized achievement. This reality—that the Oscars only matter because there is big money attached to the prestige—is also the most contemptible part of the whole affair.
Still, great filmmakers can—and have, and must—achieve greatness without the Oscars. Limitations in resources do not necessarily deprive a film of quality, which the history of film can easily attest to. Directors like Shirley Clark, Euzhan Palcy, Elaine May, Vera Chytilová, Bill Gunn, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ousmane Sembène, Cheryl Dunye, and Julie Dash made their work anyway and whether we see their films or not is partly up to us—our own curiosity and love for art that is imaginative and doesn’t simply “make you think,” as the trite saying goes, but thinks itself. And as for superhero films, they will undoubtedly continue to get made and distributed to your local multiplexes and chosen streaming services; whether there’s any shame in consuming them will always be both a political and personal consideration.
Like the occasional theme park ride, I, too, enjoyed Black Panther. I also saw problems with the film, including its arrival at a middle-ground tech-capitalist resolution. The film is not director Ryan Coogler’s best or most imaginative—it’s his insurance. There are ideas in the film that approach a radical vision of the world and those that decidedly retreat from one. Coogler will be able to make more films because of it, and those films may very well be better. Still, it’s absurd to give films thumbs up or down, stars, grades, and superlative awards. Thinking is not linear, and forming opinions should require thinking. Of course, movies can be bad or good—but how exactly and to what degree, are the questions we might ask. Scorsese gave us his criteria, and we can decide on our own. But first, we must watch the movies, films, cinema—whatever—widely, curiously, and intelligently. Don’t let the Academy, or any institution, determine your course.