#Oscarssowhite dominates the ceremony
The Academy Awards are normally awful, but this year, they traded in the usual tedium for a three-hour apology for #oscarssowhite that managed to cast a pall over the entire ceremony. It’s easy to see why it was such a focus — for the second straight year, all 20 acting nominees were white and prominent black directors were snubbed — but playing “Fight the Power” over the end credits after seeing Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs all but get down on her knees and beg black viewers’ forgiveness was just a touch over the top.
The problem with this whole reaction is that it is just that — a reaction. The Academy is not diversifying because it’s the right thing to do, it’s diversifying because it wants people to keep paying to go to the movies, and higher-ups view accusations of racism as a threat to that cashflow. Like any industry that is making a reactionary diversity push, it’s hard to trust. The first step explicitly involves diversity hires, which means that instead of no one worrying their race played into them not being hired — the end goal — for the forseeable future, everyone has to. It’s a necessary first step and is much better than only black people dealing with that worry, but it still sucks.
Moreover, it doesn’t solve the initial problem. Black people’s underrepresentation in Hollywood is a massive systemic issue that starts with studio executives’ idea that black people don’t come out to see the movies very often and continues that movies should be aimed at viewers that are more likely to come in the first place. But movies with primarily black casts aimed at black audiences top the box office all the time — a movie led by a black actor topped the box office nine weekends last year, and between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ride Along 2, black leads won the first four weekends of 2016 as well. Of the top five highest-grossing actors ever, three of them — Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Eddie Murphy — are black. Now, the biggest domestic hit of all time — The Force Awakens — has a black lead actor, but even before that it was Avatar, which has a black female lead. Yet the myth that black viewers don’t buy tickets and black actors don’t sell them persists, and so jobs for them are few and far between, and so fewer are selected for recognition, and so #oscarssowhite becomes a thing, and so the Academy promises diversity hires — but doesn’t promise to convince studio executives that hiring black actors is a lucrative decision.
The steps they’re taking aren’t going to lead to integration and real diversity. They’re going to lead to Affirmative Action Oscar winners. Again, it’s a necessary first step, but it still sucks.
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves
The expectation going into the evening was that Spotlight would win Best Picture and Fury Road would win Best Director and sweep the technical categories with The Revenant potentially swiping any of them, and that’s essentially what happened. The very deserving Ex Machina stole a surprise victory for Visual Effects, and The Revenant snagged Best Cinematography and Best Director. While many people, all of whom are completely wrong, would say six Oscars is enough, Fury Road’s loss of Best Director is an important one.
The thing to understand is the technical awards — Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, etc. — have, since Star Wars and the advent of blockbusters in the 1970s, essentially existed to reward these films. In the blockbuster era, viewers’ and studio executives’ ideas of what makes a movie good have changed rapidly, but the Academy’s idea has generally stayed the same. While more prestigious awards like Best Director and Best Picture have stayed locked in that line of thinking with talkies and art films, the technical awards have kept with the times — and that makes sense. Blockbusters are the cutting edge of moviemaking technology, but sometimes drop the ball on even the most basic storytelling mechanics.
Mad Max: Fury Road is just an extended car chase on the surface, but compare it to what blockbusters have become, and you realize how much more is going on. There’s almost no CGI and barely any of those awful slow-motion sequences. Where the typical Transformers movie would spend the first half hour introducing new characters with boring expository scenes and constantly break the action to give extended scenes to the dopey parents, the dialogue in Fury Road is so minimal they’re planning to release a “silent,” score-only version on Blu-ray. In fact, the visual storytelling in this movie is so efficient, you can watch it at 12x speed with the sound completely off and still know what’s going on. This movie is the platonic ideal of a modern summer blockbuster, a gigantic action movie with all the inane things that drive cinephiles crazy replaced with incredible stunts and elegant storytelling. This is a blockbuster made so well that it has much more in common with arthouse cinema than it does with usual summer fare.
A Best Director award would have represented Academy recognition of that. Only getting technical awards puts the film squarely in the category of a big, dumb action flick, despite being so much more.
The Revenant gets way more recognition than it deserves
It doesn’t help that the award in question went to Alejandro Iñárritu in purely a reputation call for a production he clearly didn’t have under control. The shoot was called a “living hell” — not just because it was cold and remote, but because crew members were fighting and quitting all the time. Production ran so far over schedule that and Tom Hardy had to drop out of his commitment to Suicide Squad. The budget, initially a cool $60 million, ballooned to $135 million by the end of production.
This is what incompetence looks like. These are just not things that happen when a director is doing his job. These are things that happen when a director is about to be fired. These are stories that come out of career-killing productions like Fantastic Four or Heaven’s Gate. Iñárritu will always get a pass with me because of Birdman, but you don’t get an Oscar for directing this movie.
Spotlight wins best picture, which might actually hurt it
Definitely one of the year’s best movies, Spotlight got its due, but after a long night of Fury Road and The Revenant going head-to-head in most categories, it still seems somehow pushed to the sidelines.
The Best Picture award has an extremely ugly history, filled to the brim with movies you haven’t seen or even heard of and bearing no correlation to what movies have actually had a long-term cultural impact. No one remembers Annie Hall or Chariots of Fire, which won over Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arc, respectively. Forest Gump is remembered with increasing scorn as more and more people point out it won over instant classic Pulp Fiction. Even in recent years, the trend is obvious — I don’t think anyone on Earth has watched The Artist since its victory, but fellow 2011 release Drive — which wasn’t nominated for anything at all, let alone Best Picture — has quickly become a film for the textbooks and is going to be remembered as one of the best of the decade. Argo similarly fell by the wayside almost immediately.
And while Spotlight definitely outdoes these films, it’s in a similar position. In the eyes of the fans and film analysts who really determine a movie’s legacy or lack thereof, it’s buried under not only Fury Road, but also Ex Machina and It Follows — surrealist, symbolism-filled masterpieces, the kinds of movies that are much more interesting to analyze than Spotlight — as well as Sicario and Steve Jobs, which are simply superior films. At this point, I almost wish they’d given it to something awful like Bridge of Spies or Brooklyn so Spotlight could become one of the great historic snubs and avoid suffering a similar fate to many of its Best Picture predecessors.