Oscar Nominations Reflect the Times We Live In

The Academy Award nominations were released last Tuesday, and the first thing that becomes clear is 2017 was an excellent year for film. Last year’s Oscar nominations were filled with a number of dramatically inert films with grave subjects and studied importance. The bounty of great films this year seems like a blessing.

La La Land continued its award season stampede by tying the record for Oscar nominations at fourteen. The film is a revitalization of the musical genre and a bridge back to the classic musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, as well as more contemporary-minded films by Jacques Demy. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a film about Hollywood. Its strongest award season competitors have been the revelatory Moonlight and the aching Manchester by the Sea. But this year the Academy also found room for strong genre films like Arrival (science fiction) and Hell or High Water (crime and western).

It’s impossible to divorce the best picture nominees from current political events. The nominations for four pictures led by actors of color comes in the wake of a racist president and fears that the justice department will curtail its defense of civil rights. Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge both speak to the abuse of military power, surely something on the mind of a president who has repeatedly asked why the US can’t use nuclear weapons. And Hell or High Water and Manchester by the Sea are both portraits of White working class men, the same people who brought this president into office (although the two films approach their subjects in radically different ways, and it would be unfair to assume the characters’ political affiliations).

Unlike the Best Picture category, which has been expanded in recent years beyond the traditional five nominees, the acting categories have stuck to the lower number, inevitably resulting in some head-scratchers. Denzel Washington is nominated for his occasionally hammy performance in Fences, but none of the leads from Moonlight were (the fact that the character was played by three different actors is probably to blame). Amy Adams and Annette Benning were excellent in the big budget Arrival and the indie comedy 20th Century Women, respectively, but both were beat out by Meryl Streep in the forgettable Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep is undeniably a great actress, but I wonder if even she is tired of having her worst work nominated indiscriminately.

In the wake of the “Oscar So White” hashtag, this year’s nominees reflected a more diverse view of America. But it’s not just a matter of nominating more people of color. The major Black-led films in consideration for awards last year were the very deserving Creed and the unworthy Will Smith-vehicle Concussion. This year had more films, and better films, starring and made by people of color. It’s not just a matter of recognizing great performances by non-White actors. Studios and investors have to support and champion these films. When they do, the makeup of the nominations changes. And we also get some great films.

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