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.

My Reflections on ‘Boyhood’

Somewhere along the line during my education I was taught that the best way to write to persuade is to express your opinions as statements of fact, and then use supporting evidence and information to explain to your readers why they should agree with your position. For the most part, that’s the kind of writing I do on FedRev. I generally try to take the “I” and “me” out of the equation, and put forward a reasoned argument based on facts. I take a position on a topic and build a case. But as I was watching Boyhood I knew I wouldn’t be able to take myself out of my analysis and that it would be impossible for me not to approach the material from a personal perspective.

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Boyhood is a film 12 years in the making. Writer and Director Richard Linklater cast a young boy and used a groundbreaking concept of filming the movie in short segments as the actor aged from childhood into young adulthood. A similar effect was achieved with the Harry Potter franchise, where we were able to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow up on screen in 8 films produced over 10 years. But the idea of intentionally making a single film gradually over 12 years to authentically capture the effect of aging, and having the vision, patience, and the opportunity to see it through, is unprecedented in film history. Perhaps not coincidentally, Boyhood contains several references to Harry Potter.

So much of this film felt familiar to me. Even though it’s about a child ten years behind me in age, the world he was growing up in was essentially the same one I experienced. Just like Mason in Boyhood, I too road my bike around my neighborhood with my friends, moved to a new house as a child, lived through some emotionally turbulent events at a young age, was bullied in the bathroom at school, and tried to develop as an artist, haunting my high school’s darkroom. I even came in 2nd place in a state-wide high school art contest, just like Mason did. And, just like Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, I always felt somewhat isolated, and had the sense, somehow, that something was inherently wrong with the society we live in. Even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, I was searching, and that’s really what the story of Boyhood is all about; searching for life’s meaning and struggling to find our place in the world as we grow up.

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Boyhood captures the process of surviving childhood with honesty and without a lot of sentimentality. It simply charges ahead through time, just like life does, without apology. A lesser film might have used clearly defined demarcation points to signal to the audience when one phase of life ends and another begins. There are no “One Year Later” or “Age 12″ title cards. Instead, despite being shot gradually over more than a decade, Boyhood is crafted as one cohesive piece; the years seamlessly blending together. The central gimmick of the film, the character aging, is barely emphasized. It just happens. Supporting characters enter and exit Mason’s life without any artificial Hollywood sentiment. One minute his mother’s second alcoholic husband is part of his life, and the next moment he’s simply gone from the film, never to be seen again. Even Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, gets a pretty unceremonious exit. In typical Linklater style, he doesn’t pander or feel the need to over-explain the details, he simply presents the reality of any given moment for what it is and trusts the audience to follow along without any unnecessary exposition.

Linklater is clearly interested in the subject of passing time, which is something I can definitely relate to. The universe and the concept of time and space is something that has always intrigued me for as long as I can remember, which is perhaps why several of Linklater’s films appeal to me on such a personal level. In addition to Boyhood, which was shot over many years, he is also the director of the ‘Before‘ trilogy, with 9 year gaps between the films, each depicting a single day in the life of one couple at various stages of their lives. But while the ‘Before‘ films weren’t designed from the start to be an ongoing document on love and age, Boyhood was intentionally conceived as a unique project, executed with a definite artistic vision, though lacking an overly pretentious attitude. Boyhood, while doing something daring and unique, manages to feel humble and grounded in reality. Linklater might be the anti-Wes Anderson.

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Though as much as I appreciate Boyhood‘s concept, it’s a film that causes me to feel a lot of conflicting emotions. There are many moments in the film that feel mundane and ordinary. As I was watching the film there were several moments where I found myself wondering why they made the final cut. Whole conversations seem to be about nothing of any major significance and there are long stretches of time where the central protagonist has very few lines and doesn’t even seem to be all that interesting of a character. In a film that’s almost 3 hours long, that can be a bit tedious.

But on the other hand, isn’t life like that? Not every moment can be a major life-defining event. Some things are just routine, everyday parts of growing up, like fighting with your sibling in the back seat of the car on a road trip. I’m sure my parents wanted to kill me and my brother when we did that, and Linklater makes sure to spend a significant amount of time on these “everyday” moments. So while in the moment I found some of these segments a bit tedious and maybe one of the film’s weaknesses, upon further reflection, perhaps they’re actually one of the films strengths. Even my initial reaction of being slightly bored with the main character makes sense. Mason is just a kid, just like I was, and a film about my life as I grew up might have felt a little mundane at times, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and worth examination.

It just goes to show how conditioned we are to Hollywood formulas, where there’s no room for any “wasted” screen time, and everything in a script has to deliberately, and sometimes artificially, drive a narrative forward and manipulate the audience into feeling certain emotions at specific moments. Boyhood totally throws this mindset out the window and, like I said before, trusts the audience to hang in there throughout a more organic, natural experience. The film doesn’t tell you how to feel, it simply shows you one boy’s life and allows you the space to react to it on your own terms, as well as the time to reflect on your own experiences as you witness Mason’s.

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In a Hollywood landscape dominated by formula-driven films, Boyhood, like a lot of Linklater’s work, is a breath of fresh air. He’s a director whose career began by taking experimental concepts and presenting them in a very accessible, down to Earth manner. Dazed and Confused, the first Linklater film I fell in love with, perfectly captures the atmosphere of small-town, USA in 1976 and takes place on a single day as several kids contemplate their lives, and Slacker, his claim to fame, was a film with a huge cast of characters who briefly own the screen for a few minutes at a time before passing the baton to the next person the camera decides to follow, giving the audience a whirlwind tour of Austin, Texas. It’s a disconcerting experience, but once you get used to it, you suddenly realize the limited range to which most mainstream film-making is confined, and that disconcerting feeling becomes a sense of liberation. Linklater has never allowed himself to be confined. Even his more conventional films feel refreshing somehow, like Bernie and School of Rock, perhaps because they tap into a kind of universal humanity that we can all relate to.

In the end, I think my biggest issue with Boyhood is the way politics are discussed by the characters. Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, bashes George W. Bush, which is fine, but does so while encouraging his kids to grow up to vote Democrat. The film even has a segment in which a woman talks about how cute candidate Obama is while the children are putting Obama campaign signs in people’s yards. I suppose at the time those segments were filmed it wasn’t yet known how blatantly criminal Obama’s administration would be, but, given what we know now, those scenes leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I understand that people in real life are democrats who support Obama, and on one level the film is simply reflecting that fact, but I get the sense that Linklater got caught up in the excitement surrounding Obama back in 2008, and then failed to take the opportunity to challenge those views in any way as filming continued over the years. The way I see it, there’s really no excuse for this, given the now well-known abuses of the Obama administration, especially considering it would have been easy to craft a scene in 2012 showing how the “hope” of Obama had worn away.

But this aside, the film is an unprecedented and groundbreaking work of art. It’s raw and real, and yet refined and accessible. It’s simultaneously a challenge to sit-through and somehow very easy to watch, because it defies the standard formulas we’re so accustomed to and refuses to explicitly spell out every detail, yet it’s so natural and humanistic that the audience can’t help but connect with the film on a personal level. I know I did. And given the leap of faith Linklater took when casting a 6 year old boy, not knowing for sure how the child would develop as an actor as he got older, or even if he’d want to continue the project as the years went on, makes Boyhood a near miracle.

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The way Boyhood was able to capture the essence of what it was like to grow up in that specific time and place, and include a lot of details that make the cinematic experience ring true, while also making the film interesting and absorbing to an audience, is quite a feat. It manages to feel personal and intimate while simultaneously feeling universal. The mundane, everyday experiences of childhood are illuminated beautifully, and the dramatic moments are heart wrenching and real.

The magical experience of watching this film is that even though it’s a movie about one child’s journey into adulthood, it subtlety reveals how all of our lives are important, not only to ourselves, but to the larger fabric of the human experience. Life is something to cherish and celebrate, even while we struggle for understanding and search to find meaning in an infinite universe we’re only a tiny part of. Richard Linklater has somehow managed to bottle up that feeling and share it with everyone in the form of Boyhood.