I love watching the Academy Awards. I love seeing the glitter of the people walking the red carpet, discovering what designer each actress chose to wear, the pomp and glamour of the award presenters, the “In Memoriam” montage, and even the possibility of seeing older stars come back for a surprise cameo. As a film-lover, the Oscars ceremony is one of the few cultural events that connect me to a past Hollywood and lets me know I’m engaging in a nearly century-old ritual that recognizes film as an important storytelling medium.
But ultimately, after all the cheers and excitement are over with, neither a win nor a nomination really means anything in ensuring longevity for a filmmaker or actor—least of all for filmmakers or actors of color. Director John Singleton, who at 24 was the youngest to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1991 for Boyz N the Hood, described in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview how doors didn’t automatically open for him to direct more films. “After I was nominated, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with me,” he says.
Halle Berry, who was the first African-American actress to win a Best Actress Award for Monster’s Ball in 2002, hasn’t made a movie with the same level of prestige since. And lest we forget Gone With the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 was the first African-American actress to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but was still relegated to sitting in a segregated area at the ceremony; she spent the rest of her career playing stereotypical maid roles.
As much as it likes to think of itself as both progressive and liberal, the Hollywood film industry is still very much the same old-school, elite, boys’ club it has always been. Despite recent years of more diverse nominees in each category, the pendulum always swings back the other way, and we’re faced with yet another year of #OscarsSoWhite. So, then, why should we still watch the Oscars?
For one thing, the Oscars ceremony is less a global affirmation of achievement than it is a site for understanding where our film culture stands presently, as well as how viewership—and the times—are changing. William Wyler’s World War II drama The Best Years of Our Lives took home a staggering amount of awards in 1947, including one for Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell, a disabled veteran who lost both his arms in the conflict. Russell also won an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” The fact the Academy championed a relevant film about veterans coping with life after wartime signifies a country still reeling from the throes of its second world war.
In 1969, Dennis Hopper’s biker odyssey Easy Rider won the award for Best Original Screenplay. Its story of two hippies and a hitchhiker riding across rural America while taking drugs and facing off against intolerant hillbillies echoed the sentiments of ’60s youth culture, and its win helped to pave the way for studios to depend on experimental young filmmakers to make their own social/political films thereafter.
A year later, Midnight Cowboy, the first film that was given an X-rating (the equivalent of today’s R) won the Best Picture award. A New Hollywood flick about a young sex worker in New York City, it tore down the studly, John Wayne-esque cowboy image and bested the big-budgeted, studio-produced Hello, Dolly!
In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight took home the Oscar for Best Picture, winning against La La Land. Uproar over the flimsy announcement by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty aside, Moonlight’s win reflected which film was more popular and desired in the cultural milieu: the one that presented a thorough and nuanced look at a young gay black man’s coming of age, not a familiar, old-fashioned love letter to Hollywood musicals of the studio era. While it is far and away not the first to represent a gay character onscreen, Moonlight’s win marks the moment an LGBT-themed film became so highly validated in the mainstream, echoing its bankability and desirability among movie-going audiences.
There are a litany of other memorable wins, hosts, guests and spontaneous political moments that have made Oscar-viewing especially remarkable in the ceremony’s 90-year existence. Looking back on the past year of film, there’s quite a lineup of nominees who don’t fit within the Academy’s typical white, hetero-normative male focus: Get Out, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, et al. Not to mention, we have recently seen collective political movements fighting back against sexual harassment in the industry, including #MeToo and #TimesUp. Consider also the fact that eight of the nominees involve Netflix-produced films, acknowledging the online-streaming service as a viable platform for quality cinema.
It’s possible that 2018 may be perhaps the biggest year of change in the Oscars, and it’s equally possible the pendulum of diversity among nominees swings back again in 2019. Either way, it’s important to understand that watching the Oscars is less about seeing who wins than it is about witnessing our cultural sensibilities and how the Academy chooses to recognize them. So tune in; from the looks of all the excitement, it’s going to be a bumpy night.