When one has written as many Oscar ceremony dissections as I have, it can become difficult to come up with a fresh angle on the story. The complaints start to run together — middlebrow nominations, the adventurous inevitably losing to the unchallenging, ceremonies too bloated and tedious etc etc ad nauseum. This year’s event, however, felt a little different following the protests surrounding the melanin-challenged roster of acting nominees. Issues of diversity often bubble up in conversations about the Oscars but 2016’s go-round was defined by these concerns. Props then to host Chris Rock and — credit where it’s due — ABC and AMPAS executives for leaning headlong into those criticisms and doing the best an 88-year-old mainstream commercial enterprise can do to address them in a single telecast.
Rock’s monologue was the crowning achievement of the evening. Oscar monologues, even when delivered by ostensibly envelope-pushing comedians, are usually scattershot and defanged, designed to appeal to the broadest possible demographic. Rock’s opener was perfectly modulated but ruthless — putting the audience at ease with a breezy “I counted at least 15 black people in that opening montage” then digging into every angle on the controversy, taking shots at a racist institution and industry while adding some welcome side-eye by contextualizing this particular issue within the bigger picture of race relations in America. Discussing earlier whitewashed decades of Oscar history, he noted the corresponding lack of protests: “Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.” While this cheeky rejoinder does nothing to undercut the genuine value of the questions raised about this year’s ceremony, it does take a step back to reappraise some of the more dubious and possibly solipsistic reactions to the vanilla nominations. Whether you’re a person of color or not, huffily refusing to watch the Oscars or — like some hashtag activists I encountered claimed to want to do — boycotting all films made by white people is not helpful. As Louis Gossett Jr. said on the red carpet, better to infiltrate and make changes from within.
While I do believe Miller was robbed of the Best Director award, I was also a little taken aback by the aggressive backlash against Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Was it overpraised in some quarters? Certainly. Is it a terrible film? Far from it.
Another deviation from the usual Oscar tedium was the fact that I greatly admired nearly all the films up for Best Picture. It’s a relief to avoid the frustration attendant to seeing cinematic pablum win statuette after statuette and, instead, experience the joy engendered by seeing the most fiercely feminist and viscerally entertaining genre picture of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road, walk away with numerous awards. Combining 21st century progressive politics with old-school action filmmaking of the most muscular kind, George Miller and company managed that most challenging of tasks — dragging what is generally (and stupidly) considered B-movie material into the gilded halls of respectability. Not that Fury Road needs such validation after becoming one of the most-praised and best-loved films in recent memory but it’s nice to see the Academy try to catch up with everyone else.
While I do believe Miller was robbed of the Best Director award, I was also a little taken aback by the aggressive backlash against Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Was it overpraised in some quarters? Certainly. Is it a terrible film? Far from it. The film — an exciting but ultimately conventional piece of work — was not the best directed of this year’s lot and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in it was eclipsed by the efforts of any number of other actors in 2015. That said, there have been far more egregious wins in the past. The visual artistry and sheer work ethic evident in The Revenant is undeniable. The big surprise of the night was Boston journalism drama Spotlight taking Best Picture over The Revenant, a development that — snub to Mad Max aside — felt welcome. Spotlight is the sort of unassuming but expertly made midsize movie for adults that’s becoming all too rare in the studio landscape. In the 1990s, it would have been just another prestige film, likely put out by a company like Miramax, but now, in a year-round slate characterized by low-budget indies and gigantic franchise films with diminishing returns in between, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Urgent, flawlessly performed and full of the sort of invisible but crucial filmmaking craft that the Academy rarely rewards over the flashy technique of Inarritu’s ilk, it deserved its day in the sun. If a major Oscar win means more time in the theaters for this movie and more green lights for projects like it, it’s a significant victory for the good guys.
And for all the deserved criticism directed at the Academy over diversity issues, it feels important to highlight that two individuals of South Asian descent won back-to-back awards in the documentary categories (not to mention Sanjay Patel’s nomination in the animated short category). Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy is an unsettlingly intimate look at the travails of early celebrity and while I haven’t seen Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River, I certainly will now. And that’s part of what still gives the Academy Awards value in my view. It’s a hopelessly out-of-touch and elitist institution but even monoliths like it can evolve over time. And while we wait and hope, the ceremony can still highlight work (and disciplines) we would not have paid attention to or even heard of otherwise. Louis CK, while introducing the documentary short award, made my favorite presentation speech of the night, noting that the marquee nominees will go home famous millionaires regardless of whether they win. It’s the smaller but no less important winners and nominees whose lives are transformed by these little gold statues. The first-time filmmakers, the artists toiling in unglamorous but crucial specialties like sound design, the documentarians who choose the least lucrative category of an already difficult profession for frequently noble reasons…a platform like the Academy Awards remains important to such people. Sure, the Oscars — this year and every other — can be retrograde, boring, navel-gazing and racist. However, unwavering cynicism and steadfast refusal to acknowledge progress (however minuscule) is probably not the way forward.