“Why is this film relevant today?”
A question lobbied at every freshman filmmaker with big dreams on their first semester of film school. I was one of those college kids, and any film teacher worth their salt acknowledges the limits of story with this question. Whether it be via The Hero’s Journey or Robert McKree, everyone learns that most stories that can be told have already been told. The key is what makes that telling of that story important now. Today.
But before we get to that, we must talk about The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Oscar’s aired this past Sunday. True to form, each year the Academy always seem to punk themselves in some weird way, and it ends up playing perfectly to the times we live in. Take two years ago when the presenter misspoke and said Lala Land had won Best Picture when the true winner was the team behind Moonlight, or in 2015 with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that still hasn’t been quite righted, or this year when Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter became the first African American women to ever win awards in Production Design and Costume Design and the first to win in a nonacting category since 1984.
It’s clear the Academy has been plagued by a diversity issues since its inception. This systemic problem has come into sharp focus these past few years, so much so that Cheryl Boone Issacs, former Academy president, acknowledged the issue in 2015 and pledged to right the ship by opening up their membership to be more inclusive, encompassing more women and people of color. It’s unclear how successful they’ve been because while admittedly the stats are better than they were, according to a recent article in The Atlantic by David Sims, their membership still sits at a surprising 69 percent male and 84 percent white, with the average age hovering around 63.
All this is to say that the choices that once upon of time were reserved for the upper echelons of privilege now have widespread importance.
Equipped with that knowledge, some of the logic of the Academy’s more recent choices start to make sense. Suddenly, the first women ever being nominated for cinematography just last year seems tragically logical. It makes sense why the darlings of the Oscars tend to skew into period pieces or films that don’t push to many buttons and why Black Panther, a big-budget blockbuster powerhouse, never stood a chance. It’s why ninety years after the first Academy Awards, glass ceilings are still being shattered. None of these are great conclusions to be made, but it makes sense now. When you simply look at the makeup of the group voting in each category, the winners in a way are, and have always been, destined to win and the losers were always meant to lose.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s conclusive scientific proof that every single time you get a bunch of old white guys together to choose which films they like, they are always going to go for the people and films that resonate most with their specific experience. I’m just saying that the chances of this group proving me wrong aren’t great, and we have ninety years of history to back that up.
The Academy Awards has cultural significance though. Viewership was up 12% this year, clocking in at around 29.6 million viewers. The ceremony has consistently been ranked as the most watched non-sports event program, and is arguably the one awards show that has at least some wide spread appeal across industries. I mean, if my parents, a preschool teacher and a county-government worker, are inclined to stay up and watch the ceremony, than no one can deny the Academy wields some outsized influence.
All this is to say that the choices that once upon of time were reserved for the upper echelons of privilege now have widespread importance. Which stakeholders in the filmmaking process the Academy chooses to elevate is important. It’s a stamp of approval. It’s saying this film rose above everything else. It’s saying this person or film should be celebrated for their achievement, that they’re important, and that society should take notice of them, above all else.
All these movies are objectively good, compelling stories told my masters of the craft and technically flawless in their execution. At this level, what’s really the difference?
And that’s not to say that there aren’t going to be amazing transformative films that are snubbed, or even still nominated but that don’t get acknowledged. That’s also not to say that there needs to be universal agreement on what film or person deserves the highest awards. I fully recognize we operate in an extremely subjective field, and choosing between them can sometimes feel like choosing what to watch on Netflix while wearing a blindfold. That being said, there are rules, or at least, guidelines that help us generally measure which films are good and which ones are bad. It’s why we can all mostly agree that Jack and Jill is a terrible film, and The Shawshank Redemption is phenomenal. It’s why we can all acknowledge the cringeworthy cheese of The Room and the unquestioned greatness of The Godfather. These are the guidelines outlined in The Hero’s Journey and by Robert McKree. It’s why my college films will never see the light of day. It goes beyond just liking the film on a gut visceral level and into why exactly you liked the film, the specific qualities that resonated with you.
And largely the Academy has operated by these guidelines successfully. Few can argue about the merits of whether certain films or people deserved to be nominated. By the traditional standard, if you were nominated, this already means you are in the top of the pack, among the cream of the crop of films produced in the year. The past six best picture winners — Greenbook (2018), The Shape of Water (2017), Moonlight (2016), Spotlight (2015), Birdman (2014), 12 Years a Slave (2013) — are all well-made films when measured against these guidelines. They tell compelling traditional stories and are technically top-notch, employing high level talent to tell their stories. It’s true. But I’d argue if telling a good, technically proficient story is our only criteria, than what really makes The Shape of Water better than Phantom Thread, or Birdman better than Whiplash. All these movies are objectively good, told by masters of the craft and technically flawless in their execution. At this level, what’s really the difference?
“What really sets this person or story apart? “
Without getting too esoteric, the way I believe we best answer this question is to look at what great art is meant to do. The art that is remembered is the art that is transformative, art, not made for art’s sake or even for the individual person, but made for society, offering up new perspectives and ideas, absorbing meaning from outside the boundaries of its medium and reflecting back the inner workings of humanity today. It’s why Duchamp’s Fountain changed fine art forever. It’s what flows through the lyrics of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and the words of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. It’s what separates a pair of glasses from a pipe. For lack of a better term, it’s that extra seasoning that separates the good from the truly great. It’s relevance.
The vision I put forth is that we bring that extra relevance to our recognition and validation of films. We, as an industry, can no longer sit by and settle for just simply telling a good story. That can’t be enough anymore and it certainly isn’t enough for the films we bestow with the highest honor. The film industry has worked hard building up a reservoir of influence over large swaths of society and in so doing, has earned a lot of respect in the wider creative sphere, but entertaining and engaging are traits equally shared by The Godfather and Transformers, and I’m pretty sure Transformers made more money.
If you don’t somehow know, Greenbook was the winner of Best Picture at the latest Academy Awards. On the surface, the film checks all the boxes: entertaining and engaging story, technically proficient, executed by consummate professionals, and even at first glance tried to be relevant. Directed by Peter Farrelly, Greenbook in reality operates as a sort of reverse Driving Miss Daisy, chronicling the journey of a problematic white person becoming less problematic when this person actually gets to know and befriends a black person. Simple. Easy. Happy ending all buttoned up nicely, sporting Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as the two leads. Their characters’ relationship is admittedly fun to watch and their journey together is entertaining.
But, the problem is the fact that Greenbook received five Academy Award nominations, winning three of them including Best Picture for 2018, because if I could boil down into one word as to why it’s so problematic it would be because the film is cheap. Greenbook is the pair of glasses prank when several Duchamps, Bob Dylans, and Joseph Hellers were nominated. It’s the status quo vs. shaking up the system, ignorance vs. acknowledgement. The irony of all this is that Greenbook’s domination during the awards season fits in perfectly to the Academy’s own reckoning with diversity. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in the film’s fellow nominee, BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee.
Spike Lee has built his career on unapologetically tackling issues of race in innovative and concise ways. To my surprise, he won his first Oscar in a 30-year long career only last Sunday. The award was for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film was BlacKkKlansman, an adaptation of a novel by Ron Stallworth, a former black police officer who managed to infiltrate the KKK. In addition to being well-written and acted, the film expertly weaves in layer after layer of sublime irony, so thick that I viscerally could not take it at points. The film’s relevance is clear and unflinching. It made me uncomfortable, and that’s what was great about it. BlacKkKlansman is not surface level.
Why is the Academy relevant today?
Thirty years ago Do The Right Thing, arguably Spike’s greatest film, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for Best Picture; both films that tackled race just like Greenbook and BlacKkKlansman. Well, as we know, Do The Right Thing went home with nothing and Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture.
This makes me worried for the Academy, because I think it can be an effective cultural force for change and innovation within the industry and even outside of it. Half-measures aren’t going to cut it though. They can’t be dragged into modern day. They need to embrace it. Following Driving Miss Daisy, the Academy went about its business, patting itself on the back, as the film told them they should. In a lot of ways, it mirrored the results of this past ceremony.
If the Academy truly wants to reckon with itself it needs to be much more a leader of new and exciting media, and much less a relic of the past.