The Oscars are (theoretically) a celebration the best film has to offer in our society, and therefore by definition they reflect the shifting values, social mores, and political debates throughout American life. Awards shows are political, period. This is reflected not only by the political incidents that take place during the actual Oscar show (among the most famous Sacheen Littlefeather accepting Marlon Brando’s Oscar at the height of the American Indian revival movement in the 1970s), but also is reflected by what films win Best Picture in individual years. While undoubtedly a classic whose filmmaking still holds up today, On The Waterfront and its portrayal of corrupt unions winning Best Picture while Elia Kazan was collaborating with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee nevertheless reflected the Red Scare that was going on across 1950s America. In The Heat Of The Night winning alongside fellow nominee Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner reflected the cultural impact of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
At last year’s Oscars, this held more truly than ever. It is generally agreed that the shocking upset win of Moonlight last year was partly due to the inflamed feelings of resistance against the white nationalism of newly inaugurated Donald Trump. But the politics on display last year went deeper than just Moonlight– Iranian director Asgar Farhadi’s film The Salesman was nominated and would go on to win for Best Foreign Language Film, but Farhadi refused to attend the ceremony in protest of Trump’s Muslim ban. Three films nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category- winner O.J. Made in America, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro, reflected social and racial justice themes in the black community that, by Academy standards, were radical in many ways. Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water’s tale of two outlaw brothers robbing banks to save their family’s home reflected the rampant income inequality and economic devastation taking place across the heartland of America. The point is, if you want to understand and predict who will be taking home trophies at the ceremony next year, you have to look to what films will be powered by the political and cultural zeitgeist.
So, what contenders this year fit that bill? Already we have some early contenders channeling the zeitgeist the same way that Moonlight and others last year did. Jordan Peele’s Get Out has been arguably the most talked about film of 2017 thus far, with tremendous critical acclaim and box office success. In spite of its February release date and status as a horror film (one of the Academy’s least favorite genres traditionally) it has shot up the early lists of awards contenders. While some worry that it will be forgotten at the year’s end, so far it seems to have the same kind of staying power and passion that helped propel another unconventional genre contender, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, to multiple top nominations including Best Picture and Director.
If Get Out is the major box office story of the year, the independent box office story of the summer might prove to be The Big Sick. The film deals with an interracial relationship between a Muslim Pakistani-American and his white girlfriend, and reflects the real life experiences of now married co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, both of whom are very vocal in progressive political circles. The film has done very well in limited release so far, and could have a run of success similar to what powered Hell or High Water last summer. When you take into account the fact that the film is backed by comedy powerhouse Judd Apatow, and its co-distributors Amazon and Lionsgate both have a strong awards season track record, I would keep an eye on The Big Sick as at the minimum a strong contender in the Original Screenplay category, and perhaps in others including acting and even Picture as well.
The Sundance Film Festival is typically a major source of awards contenders, and this year will likely prove no different. It has given us the critical darling of the year thus far- Luca Guadagnino’s Euro-American coming of age romance Call Me By Your Name. Focusing on a young American teenager’s affair with an older man while living in Italy in the 1980s, Call Me By Your Name could continue the trend of the Academy becoming somewhat more accepting of gay themes and films in recent years, symbolized most prominently by Moonlight’s win. The film has yet to make the rounds on the fall festival circuit, where it will likely solidify itself as a top contender in many top categories. The key questions here will be if the film can position itself as a true contender for the win- distributor Sony Pictures Classics has a strong track record of promoting films from foreign auteurs with the Academy- from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, to Talk To Her in 2002, to most recently 2012’s Amour, but has not yet brought home a win. One Achilles heel the film might have could be that, as it focuses on a wealthy family that lives in an Italian villa, it could come off as less accessible and universal than a film such as Moonlight. However, I wouldn’t bet against it thus far.
On the opposite end of the film marketplace, perhaps no contender is bigger on paper than 20th Century Fox’s The Papers, which focuses on Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and her chief editor Ben Bradlee’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which brought groundbreaking revelations to the public about the United States’ conduct and crimes during the war in Vietnam. Originally written by newcomer Liz Hannah, the script built up major buzz inside the industry as it first made the rounds through producer and executive circles in 2016. First optioned by former Sony Pictures chair turned powerhouse producer Amy Pascal, the script (originally titled The Post) landed on the 2016 Black List, and has since attracted incredible pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The legendary Steven Spielberg quickly stepped into the director’s chair, and multiple Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks signed on to play Graham and Bradlee. As if that wasn’t enough, Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer signed on to rewrite Hannah’s script. But more than all of that pedigree, the strongest element in The Papers’ favor could be its narrative of the media as heroes. Hollywood loves nothing more than to be told that they are the ones saving the world; this narrative powered 2012’s Argo to a runaway Best Picture win, and could have played a decisive factor in Singer’s own Spotlight taking home the top prize in 2015. The people boosting The Papers awards campaign are likely going to play this card for all it is worth and will heavily imply that the 70s Washington Post is a stand-in for Hollywood’s #Resistance to Trump, especially with Streep, who gave an outspoken anti-Trump speech at last year’s Golden Globes, in the lead role.
Finally, there is tremendous buzz surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which focuses on the 1967 Detroit riots, in particular the Algiers Hotel incident. Even three years later, the Ferguson protests still loom large in the national consciousness, especially as one police officer after another shoots black people and walks away with virtually no consequences. The Academy’s track record on civil rights-themed films has been mixed in recent years- while Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave took home the Best Picture prize in 2013, that very next year the more recently-centered Selma, while making the expanded Best Picture field, suffered from several major snubs including David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King, spawning the infamous #Oscarssowhite meme. Part of the reason for Selma’s underperformance was laid at the feet of former advisers to President Lyndon Johnson, who attacked the film in the media for portraying their boss as a political opportunist who was pushed into supporting civil rights by King and the movement. Detroit is going to have to watch out for one thing in its Oscar campaign, it may be for something like what happened to Selma, a media backlash campaign orchestrated by cynical publicists and powered by white “liberals” who love diversity and progressivism in film until it shines a spotlight on them. If I were running Get Out’s campaign I would be on high alert for this as well.
The year is still young, and we have no idea what political events will yet emerge throughout the rest of 2017, or what films as yet lurking on the festival circuit will be unexpected breakouts. But as we enter July, this race is already under way, and whether we like it or not, politics and the events sweeping our world are going to play a pivotal role in this year’s Academy Awards. The question on the mind of this awards watcher is whether or not the Academy, now bolstered by a crop of younger, more diverse, and internationally-minded members added this year and last, will continue along the course of real change it embarked upon with Moonlight’s win last year, or whether it will fall back into its history of disguising self-congratulation and navel-gazing for progress? Only time will tell.