This year’s Academy Awards were special and historic, and they stood in stark contrast to last year’s ceremony, and to the Oscar’s long history of stealing victory away from deserving progressive films. The tone of the broadcast was radically different than last year, including the way the show was hosted. A year ago we were subjected to Seth MacFarlane’s misogynistic, mean spirited, and offensive “humor” during a ceremony that culminated with Michelle Obama awarding the reactionary film Argo the top prize while surrounded by military personnel.
This year, a strong progressive wind blew through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If last year’s Oscars were a reactionary celebration of “guy culture” this year was a progressive tribute to the oppressed minorities of society, including women, the LGBT community, and black people. Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman, hosted the ceremony for the second time. Her jokes were funny without the need to be offensive simply for the sake of shock value, and her best line of the night was when she alluded to the ceremony’s racist history. “Possibility #1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: you’re all racists.” It was a joke, but it definitely contained an element of truth.
Ellen also made several genuine attempts to connect to the audience in a personal, fun way. At one point she ordered pizza for the audience, and then got the celebrities to cough up money for it later on. She also took a hilarious selfie with several actors crammed into the frame, and then posted it on Twitter, involving the audience around the globe. As of now that image has over 3 million retweets, breaking the previous record set by Obama’s tweet announcing his reelection campaign. The ceremony also included a tribute to The Wizard of Oz in which the singer Pink sang a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which reinforced the progressive theme of the evening, celebrating women in film and supporting oppressed minorities. Overall, it was a refreshing and much needed alternative to the open celebration of reactionary values from a year ago.
Most importantly, and perhaps amazingly, virtually all the major awards went to progressive films, capped off by the historic victory of 12 Years a Slave, now the first film principally about the oppression of black people to win Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen became the first black person in the history of the Academy to win a Best Picture Oscar. Lupita Nyong’o won the statue for Best Supporting Actress, marking just the 15th time a black actor has taken home an Oscar, and John Ridley won for 12 Years‘ Adapted Screenplay, which is only the 2nd time a black person has won an Oscar for writing.
Dallas Buyers Club, a film that powerfully skewers the corporate health care industry while embracing the humanity of the oppressed LGBT community and those suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, also won three Oscars. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto received both of the male acting awards for their transformative performances, and the film also won for Makeup.
The most prolific winner of the night was Gravity, which won seven total Oscars, including almost all of the technical awards as well as Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron. Given that female actors are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts and most major blockbusters are male driven films, Gravity proved that original, female driven films can be both highly entertaining and financially successful, and hopefully Hollywood is getting the message.
Best Actress went to Cate Blanchett for her brilliant role in Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine. Despite the controversy surrounding the director, Blanchett didn’t hesitate to praise Allen in her acceptance speech, which was brave considering it would have been all too easy to simply avoid the issue. Piggy-backing on Gravity‘s success, she spoke about the importance of making female-centered films and argued that they can connect with audiences, while celebrating Allen’s contribution to women in film.
While it’s important to focus on the progressive winners, it’s also worth noting what didn’t win. The film that glorifies Wall Street hedonism, The Wolf of Wall Street, went home empty handed, despite heavy campaigning by Leonardo DiCaprio. In a delightful irony, DiCaprio’s other film, the one he didn’t go to the mat for, The Great Gatsby, won two Academy Awards (Production Design and Costume Design). American Hustle, the drastically over-hyped snooze-fest, also went home with zero Oscars, and the deeply pessimistic film with the most publicized Oscar campaign of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis, received only a single nomination and also went home with its tail between its legs.
The only potential missteps during yesterday’s Academy Awards were in the Documentary Feature and Foreign Feature categories. While 20 Feet From Stardom is certainly a progressive documentary about important issues, considering the gravity of alternatives like Dirty Wars, The Square, and The Act of Killing, it was perhaps a missed opportunity for the Academy to make a major statement on some very serious and controversial issues.
It’s also a shame that The Broken Circle Breakdown, a brilliant Belgian film about a couple in a folk band suffering through a religious conflict during a personal tragedy, lost out on the Foreign Feature award. The Academy had the opportunity to make a significant progressive statement and they passed on the chance.
Though, it’s worth mentioning that this year’s Academy Awards closely mirrored the traditionally more progressive Independent Spirit Awards. All the same actors won in both ceremonies, as well as 12 Years a Slave for Best Film, and John Ridley for Best Screenplay. The Independent Spirit Awards also honored 12 Years‘ director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Gravity, which wasn’t eligible for the Spirit Awards, won those two awards at the Oscars.
You might be asking, who cares? What’s the point? Why does it matter who wins Oscars and who doesn’t? The Academy Awards have always been political, and these days the studios spend a lot of money to lobby for Oscar wins. Given that all films serve one sort of politics or another, and represent the worldview of the film makers in some way, the awards handed out by the Academy carry political weight and can be interpreted as approval for what a film stands for. An Oscar gives prestige to a film and guarantees that people will seek out those winners for years to come. So, when the Academy honors reactionary films, or chooses not to honor quality progressive work, it does actual harm to society.
This year however, progressive politics held sway at the Academy Awards in a way they never have before. In past years when powerful progressive films were up for major awards, such as Reds in 1981, Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Avatar in 2009, or even Django Unchained last year, invariably those films aren’t allowed to win, and often films with reactionary politics are upheld instead (The Hurt Locker, Argo). And given the history of progressive films being denied on Oscar night, that just makes this year’s progressive sweep all the more powerful and important.
Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave strikes directly at America’s ugly, racist history, and forces the audience to confront the true nature of this society. Its victory at the Oscars reinforces and amplifies this powerful progressive message against slavery and ongoing racial oppression, and guarantees that it will be seen for decades to come, rather than being swept conveniently under the rug.
Last night, for once, the good guys won decisively, overcoming the reactionary forces that often influence the Oscars’ outcome. Though you can bet that next year a strong campaign will be mounted on behalf of a reactionary film in retaliation for this year’s defeat at the hands of progressives, for now, we can celebrate the victories of Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, and especially 12 Years a Slave.