With the 89th Academy Awards a week from today, I’m thinking back about the 2016 season. And yes, I’m still catching up on last year’s movies! It’s always a scramble to see all the major nominees: acting, screenplay, director, and picture. Sometimes I roll my eyes at a mediocre nominee, then other movies are an enjoyable surprise.
Without the Oscars, I wouldn’t have made an effort to catch Mel Gibson’s grisly Hacksaw Ridge or David Mackenzie’s fun heist flick Hell or High Water. I just wrote about Hacksaw‘s violence, mostly because I can’t get that movie’s battle out of my head. Desmond Doss was bullied and ridiculed by his fellow men until he seized his moment at Okinawa. Outsider became accepted hero. The Hell or High Water protagonist, similarly, has fallen on hard times, and robbing banks is his way to get back at the institutions that leveled him financially. This is the reverse of Hacksaw: everyday American citizen becomes outlaw.
These movies were written and filmed before the height of the 2016 presidential race. But isn’t it so easy to give prescience to movies? We’ll be analyzing everything in terms of 2016 and Trump to grasp at political relevance; even the escapist La La Land has been analyzed for how it depicts race and music. How many times have Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer answered interview questions about the industry’s reaction to #OscarsSoWhite? These ladies are diplomatic about it, but I sense a subtext in their responses: Stop telling black actors to explain why we’re not cast. It was a great year for black stories on film—but let’s not pretend Hollywood’s whiteness problem is over.
Stories about black women and families were rightly praised last year. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington’s acting in Fences, breathing life into August Wilson’s classic, offers a rare alignment of talents—and if it doesn’t always feel like a movie, the play is there, in all its richness and humanity. Congrats are due for Ruth Negga for her Best Actress nom for Loving; I thought she and Joel Edgerton were the movie couple of the year. The movie’s too subtle and unsentimental for Best Picture, but hopefully Negga’s nom will encourage people to see it.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae make Hidden Figures a great crowd-pleaser. The biopic brings light to three amazing NASA women, all firsts in their respective leadership roles at the organization, despite some adjustments to historical fact. We didn’t need Kevin Costner to knock down the “Colored Bathroom” sign; the real Katherine Johnson (Henson’s character) took it upon herself to use the white women’s bathroom, without fuss.
Black lives were well-represented in the nommed documentaries, too. O.J.: Made in America is on my watchlist. I just saw I Am Not Your Negro yesterday, where James Baldwin’s eternally relevant words play over film clips of the past and photographs of black men shot in the streets today. Raoul Peck’s doc lacks structure and momentum; still, we are immersed in Baldwin’s voice and soul. Ava DuVernay’s 13th is stronger, and demands a call to action. The United States still enslaves our black brothers and sisters through mass incarceration, and DuVernay brings the receipts to argue her case.
21st Century Women
Have you noticed that “women’s pictures” receive Best Picture noms less often than male-driven movies? Compare this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress categories: 4 actors and 1 actress will find their movie up for the night’s biggest award. Five Best Picture nominees are led exclusively by men (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight), while only two are led by women (Arrival and Hidden Figures).*
This is a common pattern with Best Picture. Last year was close to even, but in 2014, the 8 Best Picture nominees all starred men. In 2013, it was 6 to 3. There are plenty more examples if you keep looking back.
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women were two of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, but both faded early from major-award conversation. They likely had smaller campaigns, fewer theaters showing them… and less appeal to male voters.
And it turns out there are roles for women over 60 who aren’t Meryl Streep! There should be more, absolutely. But Isabelle Huppert had a breakout year in the U.S. with Elle and Things to Come, and Sally Field was thoroughly delightful in the sweet Hello My Name Is Doris. Annette Bening gives one of her best performances. And not to be outdone, Meryl achieves Peak Late Meryl in Florence Foster Jenkins, and it’s hard to hate her for it. Meryl knows she’s a star, and she’s determined to continue playing starring roles—great or not—age be damned.
*I’d say La La Land and Fences have male and female co-leads, even though Washington’s role is a little larger than Davis’s.
The Re-Birth of a Nation
We can’t really write about the film industry’s output from an apolitical stance. Hollywood today is as left as it’s ever been. There are probably many conservative-leaning Oscar voters and industry veterans, but they are much less outspoken. A movie like Michael Bay’s 13 Hours Benghazi saga only merited a nomination for Sound Mixing.
Scandals don’t dissipate so quickly today. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tanked at the box office because of his sexual assault history (acquitted in court). Casey Affleck’s alleged sexual assault history (settled out of court) may end his path to Best Actor next Sunday. Parker and Affleck faced different levels of scrutiny all season, some suspected due to race; and Affleck’s movie was good, whereas Parker’s faltered.
It’s reassuring to see movies like Fences and Arrival alongside Hidden Figures. The latter makes us feel good, especially those scenes of white people becoming less racist. But a movie like Fences doesn’t settle for easy answers about our racial history. And Arrival speaks out for global unity and our shared humanity—led by the power of a woman in a male-dominated field to reach past our assumptions and prejudices.
Then there was Moonlight, the movie that moved and challenged me most. I’ll post a longer piece on the movie this week. Some movies fade from memory after you watch them; so many moments from Moonlight stay with me. It feels more “now” than anything else I saw, and not because it was trying to be buzzworthy or topical. Director Barry Jenkins is specific to the young black, gay man he watches from youth to adulthood. Chiron tries to understand himself, struggles to find his voice, and we feel his pain and yearning and his barely articulated hope. That hope is a powerful, transformative thing. And it’s as current as ever.