By Zeke Trautenberg
The highlight of the 2019 Academy Awards was Spike Lee’s rousing acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay. Lee acknowledged the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of slavery at Jamestown during Black History Month: “1619, 2019, 400 years. 400 years our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.” He also he gave thanks to his grandmother, the daughter of a slave, for sending him to college and film school. He ended his speech by exhorting the audience, in the face of the 2020 presidential election, to be on “the right side of history, make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”
The shocking low point and out-of-touch-Oscars moment came at the very end of the ceremony when Green Book won Best Picture. Director Peter Farrelly, speaking in a dull monotone, declared that his film is “about loving each other despite our differences.” His remarks only underscored the notion that the film is a racial reconciliation fantasy, and contrasted sharply with Spike Lee’s vigorous condemnation of racism and bigotry.
Although Lee’s speech and joyful reaction to his win made the ceremony, the buildup to the 2019 Academy Awards portended disaster. A proposed popular film category shelved soon after it was announced, a ceremony without a host, an uproar over the proposed elimination of categories from the live telecast, and years of declining ratings. An adrift, out of touch, and tarnished leadership at the Academy parallels an industry undergoing rapid and difficult change, marked by Disney’s pending merger with Fox, the growing power of Netflix, and the halting progress of the #MeToo movement.
Notwithstanding the lack of a host, the show kept up a relatively brisk pace compared to the slog of past years. The prototypical musical opening featuring Queen + Adam Lanza did not bode well for the ceremony. “We Will Rock You” left this reviewer with a cold heart and an icky feeling of fremdschämen for Javier Bardem’s vigorous head bobbing. However, the short opening monologue by Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, and Maya Rudolph was a more favorable omen (last year, Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue lasted eighteen minutes).
Some presenters made a more favorable impression, including Melissa McCarthy’s The Favourite-inspired gown replete with puppet bunnies, Trevor Noah’s riff on the “Wakanda Forever” catchphrase from Black Panther, and Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson’s flirtatious takedown of racism. The same could not be said of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s intense eyes-locked-in-forever-passion rendition of the chintzy ballad “Shallow,” which threatened to bury the first row under a treacly tsunami of Diva tears.
Several themes stood out at this year’s Oscars. First, the border wall. A number of presenters singled out the wall for scorn. On this point, Javier Bardem declared in Spanish: “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity or talent.” Of course, borders and wall do all of these things, but preaching movies as a profitable panacea to borders is a perennial Oscar truism.
Second, despite the #MeToo movement and the Academy’s recent moves towards creating a more diverse membership, the top awards and nominees did not reflect this rhetoric of inclusion. No women-directed films were nominated for Best Picture, nor were any women nominated for Best Director. Moreover, Brian Singer, the director Bohemian Rhapsody, who stands accused of serious sexual assault offenses, loomed like a phantom over the ceremony. The return of the stars of Wayne’s World served as a shallow effort to draw attention away from Singer’s absence.
Third, Roma’s wins for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film encapsulates the Netflix’s powerful place within the industry. Although it has 139 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix lacked this crucial marker of Hollywood acceptance. Although it fell short of winning Best Picture, the streaming giant’s concerted and profligate publicity campaign made it seem like a preordained winner.
The Oscar awards were the usual grab bag of the well-deserved (Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress) and painfully off the mark (Green Book). Despite nominating many worthy films, the Academy—as always—overlooked many of the year’s best and most exciting films, including Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama. The Oscars are over. These great movies are waiting.
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