The Political Battleground of the 2015 Academy Awards

In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the film Julia, about a woman who is murdered by the Nazis for her anti-fascist activism. That same year, Redgrave also produced and narrated a documentary called The Palestinian about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In protest of her nomination, the Jewish Defense League picketed the Academy Awards and burned effigies of the actress. When Redgrave took the stage to accept her Oscar, she used the opportunity to take a political stand.

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She thanked her co-star Jane Fonda and Julia‘s director Fred Zinnemann, and then went on to express gratitude to the millions who sacrificed in the struggle against fascism and the Nazis. Redgrave then thanked the Academy for resisting intimidation from “Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” But she didn’t stop there. She continued, “I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt a final blow against that period when [Richard] Nixon and [Joseph] McCarthy launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believe in. I salute you and I thank you and I pledge to you that I will continue to fight against antisemitism and fascism.”

Two hours later during that Academy Awards ceremony in 1978, Paddy Chayefsky took the stage to present the awards for Best Writing, and he fired back at Redgrave, “I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

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The Oscars in 1978 provided a clear example of how conflicting political attitudes and ideologies compete on stage in front of millions. Under the surface, the Academy Awards always reflect the prevailing politics of Hollywood at a given moment in time, but sometimes these ideological struggles bubble over for all to see when participants in the ceremony seize the opportunity to speak out, or to condemn those who do.

Like the Oscars in 1978, last night’s 87th Academy Awards were also defined by politics, starting long before the ceremony even took place. Immediately following the announcement of the nominees on January 15th, a Twitter hashtag was created (#OscarsSoWhite) to mock and protest the Academy for failing to consider a single non-white actor or actress in any of the four acting categories. All 20 nominees were white for the first time since 1995. Many were also outraged that Ava DuVernay, the black, female director of Selma was also not nominated in the Best Director category. After the diverse Oscar ceremony from the previous year, it was clear the Academy was taking a step backwards, and controversy swirled leading up to the Awards, amplified by the context of recent events in Ferguson, MO and the social awakening in the wake of a rash of cases of police brutality.

When the Academy Awards broadcast began last night, race was an obvious elephant in the room. In an apparent attempt to compensate for the lack of black nominees, host Neil Patrick Harris conspicuously incorporated black people into the show, as if to say, “See, we’re not racist!” He enlisted Oscar winner Octavia Spencer to participate in a gag that ran throughout the broadcast, and she was also an award presenter. Harris also interviewed David Oyelowo from his seat in the crowd, and later on, when Oyelowo and Jennifer Aniston appeared on stage to present an award, Harris announced them as people “who absolutely deserve to be here,” in a not so subtle reference to their snubs by Oscar.

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But despite a drastically less diverse field of nominees this year, several of the winners rose to the occasion and spoke out on relevant and important progressive political issues, just like Vanessa Redgrave did in 1978. Patricia Arquette made the first bold statement of the night. On the issue of women’s equality she said, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she demanded from the stage, which got the audience fired up. Most notably, Meryl Streep jumped out of her seat, cheering and pointing at the stage in approval. Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for the film Boyhood, which depicts a single-mother struggling to raise two children over the course of 12 years, while suffering from a pattern of domestic abuse and financial difficulties.

The ceremony was also marked by a pointed political conflict in the style of Redgrave and Chayefsky, with a progressive speaking out on an issue, followed by the voice of the establishment responding. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour won for Best Documentary Feature, a film about how she and Glenn Greenwald worked with Edward Snowden when he came forward to leak classified documents about the NSA spying program. During her acceptance speech she said, “The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy, but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made that affect all of us are being made in secrecy, we lose our ability to check the powers in control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistle-blowers. I share this with Glenn Greenwald and the other journalists who are exposing truth. Thank you.”

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Immediately following Poitras’ speech, cameras cut back to host Neil Patrick Harris, who right before a commercial break said, “The subject of Citizenfour couldn’t be here for some treason.” The pun was not funny and the crowd did not laugh. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, perceptible even on TV, for a few moments before ABC faded out for commercials. The “joke” was reprehensible, especially after the meaningful speech by Poitras to raise awareness about the crimes of the government and the vital importance of both whistle-blowers and independent journalists. Even if Harris’ rebuttal was simply a poor attempt to improvise a joke while under the enormous pressure of live TV being watched by millions (which is giving him a tremendous benefit of the doubt), there can be no doubt that what he did, in a single sentence, was defend the establishment and mock the bravery of people like Edward Snowden while endangering future whistle-blowers by publicly floating the idea that what they’re doing amounts to treason, which is one of the most serious charges that one can have leveled against them.

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Later on, Graham Moore took the stage to accept the Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, a gay man who helped develop methods to crack Nazi codes during World War 2. Turing was later prosecuted for “Homosexual Acts” which were illegal in the UK at the time. He was chemically castrated, and not long afterward in what was a possible suicide Turing died from cyanide poisoning. Graham Moore used his moment in the spotlight as an opportunity to speak about those who are made to feel different in society being driven to suicide. “I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”

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However, given the controversy surrounding the all white slate of acting nominees, perhaps the most cathartic moment of the night came during the performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common, the nominated song from Selma. The crowd was flooded by an emotional release in which many in attendance were reduced to tears, culminating in a standing ovation. Shortly following the performance, “Glory” won the award for Best Original Song. During his acceptance speech Legend said, “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now! Because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised in this country today.” He continued, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery in 1850.”

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Of course the ceremony also had its negative moments, such as when Sean Penn yelled “Who gave this SOB his green card?” before announcing Alejandro G. Iñárritu the winner of the Best Director award, but at least in that instance Iñárritu had the opportunity to get the last word, using his time on stage to shine a light on immigration policy. First, in direct response to Penn’s “joke”, Iñárritu said, “Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the Academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious, I guess.” He was referring to Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director the year before for Gravity. He then concluded by saying, “Finally, I just want to, I want to take one second, I just want to take the opportunity, I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this incredible immigrant nation. Thank you very much.”

The 87th Academy Awards will be remembered for the way winner after winner used the stage to bravely take a progressive stand on one of many important political issues. There will likely be detractors who come forward to denounce this type of acceptance speech activism. They’ll say things like Paddy Chayefsky said in 1978, the essence of which is that people shouldn’t “abuse the platform” to drag whatever their “pet political cause” may be into the spotlight; that they shouldn’t “bring politics into it.” But when detractors make arguments like this, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want progressive politics brought up, because of course the dominant ideology in this society is the reactionary default of the ruling elite class, and that default isn’t considered “political” by the same standard. So, given this, that’s actually all the more reason why it’s important for progressive people to step forward and make their voices heard, both through their art, as well as on stage at the Academy Awards.

The Good Guys Won the Oscars (This Time)

rs_634x1024-140108134218-634.Ellen-Degeneres-Oscar-Promo.jl.010814This 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 WarsThe 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.

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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.

Why Argo Sucks

While some may say that entertainment industry awards shows don’t really mean much in the real world, they can indeed be used to take the pulse of society in some respects. Artists make art because they want to say something about the world, to promote an idea or to raise awareness of a certain topic. Even art that’s just meant to be purely entertaining reflects the worldview of the people who create it. And by extension, the music that’s rewarded at the Grammys and the films that are upheld at the Oscars can be a reflection of the collective worldview of those industries at that given moment in time.

Given this, Argo’s victory at the Academy Awards last night is extremely troubling. Not only is it a mediocre film generally speaking, but it promotes a particularly awful agenda and manipulates the audience into cheering for people who by any honest, objective standard would be the bad guys. That the Academy is upholding this manipulative propaganda film as the year’s best, and the fact that it’s a film made by some of Hollywood’s most famous liberals is downright frightening, and it may indicate a turning point in history. The “liberal establishment” in the age of Obama now seems to be openly embracing and promoting American Imperialism, conditioning society to do the same, and helping to pave the way for a reactionary agenda.

To explain, let’s take a closer look at the film in question. The best part of Argo, without a doubt, is the animated opening montage that briefly explains the back-story to the narrative, including America’s involvement in Iran up to the point where the film begins. The montage explains that Iran had a democratically elected government, led by the extremely popular Mosaddegh, which was overthrown by the United States via the C.I.A., in large part because Iran nationalized its oil supply in an attempt to grow its economy domestically, angering Western powers with a thirst for Iranian oil. The U.S. installed the Shah as dictator, allowing the West access to the Iranian oil supply once again. To repeat for emphasis, the U.S. openly overthrew a popular, democratically elected government and installed a brutally repressive reactionary dictatorship in its place… for oil. So, just to be painfully clear, when it comes to Iran, the U.S. and the C.I.A. are, by any rational and honest measure, the bad guys.

Righteously, the people of Iran rose up to free themselves from the tyranny created by the U.S. backed Shah, which is where the main narrative of Argo picks up, shortly after the revolution that forced the Shah into exile. It’s important to note, though it is not stated in the film, that the U.S. embassy at the heart of the story was the very same building in which the 1953 U.S. backed C.I.A. coup to overthrow Mosaddegh was orchestrated. In other words, the U.S. uses these embassies as C.I.A. outposts. The revolutionary students who raided the embassy were doing so because they were fearful (and rightfully so) that the U.S. was again plotting to squash their rebellion. Given the the past involvement of the U.S., who can blame them?

Argo’s opening montage, to the film’s credit, explains most of this history. However, the film then misuses this historical context in an attempt to establish a false “objective” position under which the rest of the story unfolds. It’s a false position because the entire remainder of the film takes place from the American/C.I.A. perspective as they attempt to “heroically” rescue embassy employees who escaped unnoticed out the back door before the Iranian revolutionaries could take them prisoner with everyone else stuck inside. The film’s prologue clearly establishes that the Iranian people rose up to righteously overthrow the repressive U.S. backed dictator, establishing the U.S. and the C.I.A. as the villains of the situation, and then the rest of the film turns around and asks the audience to sympathize with the stranded Americans and cheer for the C.I.A. to bravely rescue them.

The position the film takes in this situation is intellectually dishonest and makes no sense. To illustrate this point I’ll make a comparison to another film about people rising up to overthrow an evil dictatorship; Star Wars. The film begins by showing a rebel spaceship being boarded by Darth Vader and his storm troopers. Vader emerges as the story’s villain as he ruthlessly searches for a rebel princess who is trying to bring peace to the galaxy by defeating the oppressive Empire. Now, imagine if after establishing the Empire and Darth Vader as the villains the rest of Star Wars took place not from the perspective of the the rebels trying to bring the evil Empire to justice, but from Darth Vader’s perspective… as the hero! Just to drive home the point, imagine if Star Wars had been about Luke Skywalker and the rebels capturing a small group of bureaucrats from an Imperial base because they were trying to get info about the Death Star, and then the rest of the movie was about Darth Vader trying to come up with a plan to heroically rescue them. How ridiculous does that sound? Why should the audience sympathize with Imperial bureaucrats and Darth Vader given how evil the Empire is? Well, that’s exactly what Argo attempts to do. It establishes from the outset that the U.S. and the C.I.A. does some really bad things, but then asks the audience to turn around root for them anyway. And that’s why Argo is an incredibly dangerous propaganda film. It teaches the audience that the U.S. is still right, even when it’s really, really wrong.

I can’t fully explain how disturbing it was when I saw Argo. The entire audience was breathless, on the edge of their seats, held in a state of suspense, and when the film ended there was a spontaneous burst of applause and cheering while the credits rolled. It was sickening. I wanted to jump up and yell, “Do you realize what you’re cheering for?”  I didn’t, but maybe I should have. I should have at least given a nice, loud “boo!” just to make a statement. I hope this article helps to atone for my inaction that day.

See, the politics and worldview of a film matter. Agro isn’t just an exciting piece of entertainment, it’s attempting to say something about the world, and that should be factored into how a film is reviewed and evaluated by critics, as well as how it’s received by audiences. And in the case of Argo, it’s very clearly a blatant pro-American imperialist propaganda film. With every award and accolade the film has received this award season, Ben Affleck, Argo’s director, a well known liberal, has loudly and consistently praised the C.I.A. and the intelligence community, the same people who are now drone striking innocent civilians in the ongoing “War on Terror,” and it seems pretty obvious that Argo is a film designed to teach Americans to love the C.I.A. because of their “brave sacrifice” for the rest of us (The film even includes a shot that lingers on the stars on the wall in the C.I.A. headquarters to commemorate the fallen agents). But that position is ridiculous on the face of it. Again, imagine if Star Wars was about how brave and necessary Darth Vader and the storm troopers are for defending the Empire against those pesky rebels. It just wouldn’t add up, and neither does Argo. But what’s even more disturbing than the film itself is how the Academy just named it the best film of the year. That vote means something. It’s an indication of the industry’s collective worldview, and we need to send the message that the mainstreaming of this imperialist agenda is not acceptable.

Here’s a brief chronology of U.S. involvement in Iran for context.

Oscar 2013: Predictions and Desires

Every year at Oscar time, film fans wrestle with two questions: Who will win? And who should win? Here, I’ll answer both questions. This has been a very high quality and competitive year for film, so it’s somewhat less predictable than in years past, but here’s my take on how the 2013 Academy Awards will unfold. And I tend to be pretty good at Oscar pools, just don’t come after me if you gambled away your life savings on my advice.

Original Score

Will Win: Mychael Danna (Life of Pi)

Should Win: Thomas Newman (Skyfall)

Costume Design

Will Win: Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina)

Should Win: Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina)

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roger Deakins (Skyfall)

Should Win: Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi)

Makeup

Will Win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Should Win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Visual Effects

Will Win: Life of Pi

Should Win: Life of Pi

Editing

Will Win: William Goldenberg (Argo)

Should Win: Tim Squyres (Life of Pi)

Foreign Language Film

Will Win: Amour

Should Win: A Royal Affair

Animated Feature

Will Win: Brave

Should Win: I haven’t seen enough of these to judge, but sight unseen I would vote for ParaNorman

Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Chris Terrio (Argo)

Should Win: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Original Screenplay

Will Win: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)

Should Win: Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained)

Supporting Actress

Will Win: Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

Should Win: Amy Adams (The Master)

Supporting Actor

Will Win: Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

Should Win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)

Actress

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Actor

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

Director

Will Win: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

Should Win: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

Picture

Will Win: Argo

Should Win: Django Unchained