When the Academy Award for Best Picture is handed out some 4½ hours into the ceremony on Sunday night, it will mark the end of Oscar season, and I will breathe a thankful sigh of relief.
Don’t misunderstand: I love film, I just hate what Oscar season has become. Historically, it was a tinsely time of year when Very Important Films got their due, standout performances were rewarded, and viewers at home got to see their favorite stars dressed to the nines. Lately, though, Oscar season has become notable not just for red carpet appearances or perceived award snubs, but because it’s increasingly an occasion when partisanship washes away any hope of nuanced conversation about movies.
The Academy Awards have always been political—being a cultural event that ostensibly honors artistic achievement, it’s unavoidable. We are, by now, all too familiar with the self-satisfied preening in awards speeches by liberals (here’s looking at you, George Clooney) as well as the triumphant artistic ignorance of many of my fellow conservatives, who trip over themselves racing to point out the chasm between which films are honored and which are popular at the box office, as if the point of awards were to honor commercial success rather than artistic merit.
What I’m talking about is something different: The discussion of the nominees hasn’t always had the knee-jerk sectarianism that so characterizes it today.
Partly, this might have to do where these conversations increasingly occur. Social media encourage tribalism while offering instant gratification with every retweet and “like”—the easiest way to get that dopamine rush is to say the thing you know like-minded people will respond to approvingly, no matter how unthoughtful. Mix that with the way our online discourse can feel so personal, and any disagreement can seem like it’s not simply a difference of opinion but a repudiation of your beliefs. When that’s the case, it’s not really enough for your favored film to win; the others—which reject your worldview—must also lose. This encourages a reductive and glib way to watch movies.
On the left, a film either embraces the latest sociopolitical cause célèbre, or it’s simply wrongheaded. If you pass that hurdle, you are “woke,” and if not, you are dismissed as “problematic.” This is especially true of Academy Award hopefuls, which are subjected to a battery of trials to measure how progressive they are. Films without prominent roles for women or people of color are subject to derision, regardless of the story being told. Failure to include as many voices as possible is judged as diminishing any artistic achievement.
On the right, it is not at all rare to hear conservatives shrug off a nominated movie as something that they haven’t even heard of, as though their own ignorance is itself a nuanced critique. Others comb through the nominated films to find any trace of liberalism as proof of Hollywood’s bias. If a film isn’t exactly what they want, it isn’t worth seeing because the quality of the art is outweighed by the politics of the filmmakers. And if their politics keep them from being interested, then those who might be interested must be so only for political reasons. Surely it couldn’t be because these films are actually compelling.
What do these lazy, knee-jerk, partisan approaches to film look like when applied to some of this year’s slate of Oscar nominees? Here’s a simple guide for how to argue about the Oscars like a mindless, partisan hack, depending on your political tendencies:
The Shape of Water
13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress
With the story of a mute woman in 1950s America who befriends a strange marine creature being held captive in a government laboratory, director Guillermo Del Toro delivers a film every bit as visually beautiful as his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. It features heartrending work from lead actress Sally Hawkins and some refreshingly playful music by composer Alexandre Desplant, a near-perennial nominee who has been nominated nine times in the past 10 years. It is, in many ways, a striking film.
The knee-jerk liberal take: This is a movie in which a disabled woman, a black woman, a gay man, and an exotic foreigner (here, a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type fish-man) all band together to fight against an oppressive government agency, unsurprisingly personified by a reactionary, bigoted white man in a suit. This is a movie about inclusivity! True, the cast is mostly white—though Octavia Spencer did get an Oscar nomination for once again playing a black woman working in a service job in mid-20th century America—but Guillermo Del Toro is from Mexico, so we get a nice little dose of multiculturalism in there. (Granted, some liberal critics seemed to forget that he is Latino when bemoaning the lack of diversity in the Best Director category of this year’s Golden Globes, but we’ll just ignore that.)
The knee-jerk conservative take: This is just another instance of Hollywood pontificating about how awful American white men are. The U.S. armed forces are made out to be depraved. In one storyline, we’re meant to sympathize with a man spying for the Soviet Union! It’s not mere happenstance that in a film filled with outcasts, the villain is a white military man who frequently quotes scripture, makes snidely racist and sexist comments, and in two separate scenes, physically silences his wife from speaking and sexually harasses a co-worker. In a film seemingly about inclusivity, it appears that it’s still OK to stereotype white Christian men.
Eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the rousing story of the British evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops surrounded by Nazi forces and stranded on the beaches of northern France, about 35 miles from the shores of England. In many ways, the film is a genuine artistic achievement: At this point, it can be very difficult to depict war in a way that feels new, but Nolan manages to do so, cutting between three intersecting stories happening over three different time lines (the weeklong struggle of the stranded troops on the beach, the daylong journey of the British civilians who drove their own boats to Dunkirk to rescue troops, and the hourlong endeavors of an RAF pilot trying to take down Nazi planes that are bombing British ships). Nolan tells an inspiring World War II tale in a way that is fresh—and that’s impressive on its own.
The knee-jerk liberal take: This is a film filled almost exclusively with white people, almost all of whom are men, most of whom are indistinguishably wearing the same uniform and haircut. It leaves out some of the soldiers of color who were also marooned on those beaches (e.g. roughly 1,000 Indian soldiers). It categorically fails the Bechdel test and is, in the words of a critic for Marie Claire, “an excuse for men to celebrate maleness.”
The knee-jerk conservative take: Finally, a big-budget celebration of military valor and the heroism of everyday people rallying to support the troops in a tangible way. It’s just like Ben Shapiro tweeted: “If Dunkirk doesn’t win Best Picture in this group of also-rans, it’ll just show that the Oscar voters are a bunch of out of touch, preening morons voting for their latest [social-justice warrior] project.” But they are, so Dunkirk will likely lose Best Picture—and we’ll be prepared to pounce on that fact.
Four nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor
An extremely effective horror/comedy from first-time filmmaker Jordan Peele, Get Out is the story of Chris, a young African-American man heading out of the city to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose. Once at their pastoral, somewhat plantation-style house, the young man begins to feel more and more paranoid as the family’s attitude toward black people—which we initially see as dotingly and self-consciously liberal (e.g., Rose’s dad telling Chris, apropos of nothing, that he would’ve voted for Obama for a third term)—comes into outrageous, horrifying focus. The film is boldly satirical, hauntingly surreal, and genuinely entertaining.
The knee-jerk liberal take: A great illustration of just how awful white people are all the time. Even the ones who profess to be allies are secretly out to use minorities and appropriate their cultural contributions. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat; to be white in America is to be oppressive toward black people.
The knee-jerk conservative take: Ugh. More liberal race-baiting! If the roles were reversed, and this were a white director making a film about a white man besieged by a malicious black family, all these liberals would crying racism from the mountaintops. But because it’s another movie about evil whites, it gets nominated for Oscars!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress and two for Best Supporting Actor
A single woman, still grieving over the brutal rape and murder of her daughter months earlier, rents three sequential billboards to proactively take the local police chief to task for failing to solve the crime: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police—and the town itself—come down hard on the woman, defending the well-liked chief and his department, which employs officers with a history of racist and abusive behavior.
The knee-jerk liberal take: This film is awful and out of touch. It takes an overtly racist police officer and tries to redeem him, but we all know that there is no redemption for racists, nor should there be—only lifelong condemnation and punishment.
The knee-jerk conservative take: An Irish director decides he wants to make a film that criticizes middle America and it’s immediately an Oscar front-runner. What are the odds? The film condemns our police officers at a time when it is fashionable to do so, and caricatures Midwesterners as angry rubes and racists. Why would I pay to see that?
Five nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress
This is the touching coming-of-age story of a young woman finishing her senior year of high school in Sacramento. During this turbulent time—both for her as a teen, and for the country (the film is set in 2002-03, with both the post-9/11 “Never Forget” and the buildup to the Iraq war going on in the background)—she falls in love, plans her future and clashes with her parents, all as she struggles to define herself. Writer/director Greta Gerwig captures the frustration of adolescence, when we are still trying to figure out who we are and what we believe, often through conflict with the people who love us.
The knee-jerk liberal take: Only a woman can be insightful about a female character, and here we finally have a film about female teenager-hood and the strains of the parent-daughter bond during adolescence. Yes, it has similarities to films like Juno, Ghost World, Pretty in Pink and Margaret, but those were all made by men, so who cares? (Please ignore any mention of coming-of-age films directed by women, like 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen.)
The knee-jerk conservative take: Aside from some good performances, the only reason that this movie was nominated in so many categories is that a woman directed it. It’s an equal-opportunity nomination. Lady Bird also flirts with sacrilege, but I suppose that’s what we can expect from Hollywood.
Two nominations: Best Picture and Best Actress
Steven Spielberg directs this crackerjack journalistic drama about the Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the thorny secret history of the United States' involvement in Vietnam. Under the threat of legal action from President Richard M. Nixon, the Post’s publisher, Kay Graham, and top editor, Ben Bradlee, boldly decide to run with the story, exposing years of government lies. An inspirational, old-fashioned movie about the role of the press.
The knee-jerk liberal take: Trump is just like Nixon, but worse! He is going to destroy the First Amendment and take down every major news outlet in the process (except, of course, for Faux News!). This film shows how the press always makes the right decisions without an ounce of political bias.
The knee-jerk conservative take: Aw, poor fake news is feeling irrelevant, is it? Funny how it needs to go back almost 50 years to tell a story of journalistic nobility and courage, as opposed to the smear pieces that we’ve seen on every Republican president and nominee since Gerald Ford. Hard to imagine a movie like this being made about the Obama administration, despite its Nixonian crackdown on leakers and its broken promise to be the most transparent in history. Plus, it has Meryl Streep in it, who gave that anti-Trump speech at last year’s Golden Globes. What a talentless hack!
The late Roger Ebert once described film as a machine that generates empathy. I’d be fascinated to see what he would think of the current landscape, when that empathy has been replaced with suspicion and tribalism. I remember a critic acquaintance of mine who, discussing 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, said, “It’s another sad white guy movie, and that’s OK,” prompting me to wonder why it would be OK or not OK to tell a story about a white guy. On the other side, a noted Christian conservative commentator dismissed Manchester by the Sea as “bleak, pointless, rambling, nihilistic [and] depressing for the sake of it,” later suggesting that the film was doing well with liberals simply because they enjoy feeling bad.
In both instances, the writer approached a soulful film about tragedy, guilt and the desperate need for forgiveness—all universal human experiences—first through their politics. One felt he needed to give himself permission to feel empathy for a character who has the audacity to be a white male, while the other couldn’t permit himself engage with anything that those pesky liberals might enjoy, and found a way to hate a film with a decidedly Christian message.
Movies, being the empathy machines that they are, have the ability to put us very intimately in the shoes of another person whose experiences might be miles away from our own. And while experiencing some of these things might be unpleasant, it can give us a true heart not merely for the characters on the screen, but for other people in the world, whether they agree with our politics or not.
A great film can come from anywhere and be about anything. It can be about a selfish dressmaker finally facing his self-centeredness, as in Phantom Thread. Or a young black man in a white world trying desperately to be seen first for who he is instead of the uses others have for him, as in Get Out. Or a disliked politician urging his peers to do the right thing, as in Darkest Hour. Or a young man discovering his burgeoning sexuality, as in Call Me by Your Name.
If we approach these films by first seeing how they affirm or offend our own political sensibilities, then our well of empathy begins to run dry and we cut ourselves off from the transformative nature of art. Suddenly we can’t feel for the soldiers in Dunkirk because there aren’t any women on screen. We can’t celebrate the journalistic achievements of The Post because of what that might imply about the Trump era. We can’t appreciate the aesthetic beauty of The Shape of Water or sympathize with the lonely mute protagonist because we see a progressive agenda. It goes on and on like this until we eventually come to approach every film with our blinders on and guard up.
And if we’re not transformed by a piece of art—even if we are actually upset by it—then at the very least, we can say that, for a moment, we put our own agendas aside and really listened to another person.