It's 2019, and the Oscars still aren't woke

For me, the arts have always offered respite from the tumultuous political landscape of reality. The Awards Seasons for film and music, launching each New Year with a sense of restored hope, typify the inclusive and welcoming ethos of the creative industries. In stark contrast to the News, artists and creatives actually use their public platform to broadcast progressive, liberal views in the hope of inspiring people across the globe. The stories told through screen and sound champion neglected voices, and restore my faith that the arts have the power to unify, beyond the pettiness of politics. That’s what I thought, at least.

This year, however, I have been unable to escape the continual and poisonous backlash surrounding the 91st Academy Awards. As a rule, I dedicate a lot of my (limited) headspace to the Oscars; carefully co-ordinating an organised schedule to see as many nominated works as possible, predicting a well-reasoned and rational winner for each category, and crying at every single acceptance speech. The idea of a creative collective that support and reward each other’s artistry is nothing short of heaven. But this year, the Academy was brought to its knees, revealing the vicious underside of this industry giant.

August 2018 saw the announcement of a new “popular film” category. Pinned as an attempt at accessibility, the Academy quickly came under fire from Hollywood veterans for being a sell-out, dictated by box-office success rather than cinematic talent. Vulture magazine’s Mark Harris put it plainly: "There is already an award for popular films. It's called 'money'." The Academy quickly pulled the plug on launching this new category at the upcoming Oscars, but I was left bereft, unsure of what to think of the whole thing.

Does the backlash stem from a systemic fear of change, which might bring with it a radical, but unrecognisable future? Is this a cowardly response to an essentially progressive move by the Academy? Isn’t it about time that the stuffy, pretentious Oscars became ‘woke’ and appealed to the people, not a few snobby critics? The general public reacted positively to the new category, excited that Black Panther could have the chance at winning that coveted golden trophy: surely this is a good thing?

And yet, I can’t help thinking: cinema is a broad, complex art form, and acknowledging specific areas of the industry is surely better than blindly pretending Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is akin to The Favourite. After all, the MTV Movie Awards isn’t criticised for not including the indie, serious content featured at the Oscars: they have different audiences, and this should be celebrated, not conflated. Either way, this years nominations have been tainted. Those recognised might be critically acclaimed, technically impressive performances, but there’s a sense that the general public wanted Avengers: Affinity War, not Roma.

What’s more, the drama surrounding the announcement, and subsequent firing, of would-be Oscars host Kevin Hart, consumed the ceremony in further scandal. With no new host announced, it seemed as if nothing could save the 91st Academy Awards. And then, as if destined to not only fail, but burn in hell for eternity, it was announced on 12th February that the awards for Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Short and Hair and Make-up would be relegated to the commercial breaks, and televised later in the show. Yet again, Twitter exploded with fury and outrage at the Academy’s utter disregard for artistic integrity. After all, Cinematography and Editing are integral parts of the process, without which you wouldn’t have a film at all. This decision places even more emphasis on the Acting, Directing and ‘Best Film’ awards, further pandering to the celebrity culture that has come to govern the ceremony.  What a shit-show.

Ultimately, the decision was rectified and all awards will be televised in the traditional format. And yet the whole debacle only highlights that something needs to change. The Academy has been irrevocably ridiculed: it not only demonstrated exceptional bad judgement, but a flippant weakness in giving in at every piece of criticism. However, all decisions were made in an attempt to boost the ever-dwindling TV ratings, and I can’t help thinking, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ Maybe, after all, the controversy surrounding this years Oscars will entice more people to tune in on 24th February, to fuel that primal, human desire to witness a ‘car-crash’ first hand. 

 

Words by: Hugo Beazley