My wife loves the Oscars. Each year, I dutifully watch them with her and enjoy some of it. But the increased magnitude of the spectacle side of things, with the enormous screens magnifying the people on stage, the outrageous overpriced outfits, the sheer wealth in the room, always turns me off a bit. I keep wishing they’d hold them in a high school auditorium.
And last night, thanks to the pandemic, the spectacle was downsized to a more intimate gathering, akin to Yoshi’s Jazz Club. That was the first thing that helped me enjoy it more.
The second was the representation of women and people of color, not only in the audience, but in the awards. Which not only shows that these previously excluded groups are more present in Hollywood, but they’re making films and the films are memorable and Oscar-worthy. And did you notice that just about every ad also featured people of color? Between the ads, the awards given and the show, it felt like the white folks might have been in the minority. Or at most around the 50% line. If I was a card-carrying white supremacist, I’d be freaked out! I’m imagining them cowering in fear, “They’re everywhere! They’re taking over!”
Me, I couldn’t be happier. So long overdue and unlike white folks in power, I’ve never felt concerned that either black folks or women would start keeping me out of their neighborhood, deny me work, shoot me for driving a car, hit on me inappropriately in the workplace without shame or consequence, take away my votes and the long, long list of systemic racism and sexism suddenly reversed. Theoretically, it could happen. Being black alone is no guarantee of justice and compassion (note Papa Doc and Idi Amin) nor is being a woman a guarantee of more empathy and intelligence (see Marjorie Taylor Green and Kelly Anne Conway), but I’m not worried about it. I’m just thrilled to see the depth of humanity on display last night.
And thirdly, remember when Michael Moore was booed off the Oscar stage in his acceptance speech for making political comments about the Iraq War? That was a mere 18 years ago in 2003. It was tacitly understood that politics had no place in entertainment, a luxury we now have the name for—“white privilege.” Even as recently as 2016, it was considered bold and radical for Meryl Streep to criticize you-know-who for mocking a disabled reporter.
But now? Did you notice the number of people accepting awards that included reminders of the humanitarian work we all need to do? The new agreement that this is not only okay, but important? And note also that most of the time, it related to the subject of the films themselves that were tackling the issues, educating the public through expertly crafted story or documentary, helping us walk in the shoes of others, to feel the world from their perspective, to understand struggles others face that are different from the struggles we face—whichever "we" you may be.
Hollywood has long been a see-saw between pure escapist fantasy, to entertainment as distraction and direct engagement with important social issues, with the scales tipped heavily to the entertainment side. The serious movies about serious issues were few and far between— Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Defiant Ones, The Miracle Worker, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and so on.
But the balance is shifting. The films nominated for Best Picture dealt with issues around the elderly, the disabled, the environment, the Chicago protest in the 60’s and recent Hong Kong protests, dispossessed American nomads in the West, poverty in Appalachia, immigrants in Arkansas, racist imprisonment in Louisiana, the police murder of black activist Fred Hampton, the French resistance, a lament for a murdered black girl, health care fraud in Romania and yet more. Are you feeling this?
Every day I feel an enormous shift in the wind (literally in San Francisco!), noticing how even watching movies or sit-coms from the 80’s or 90’s feels so outdated in terms of attitudes, assumptions, portrayals of women, people of color and so on. What I laughed about then suddenly seems not so funny.
This is a good sign. It reveals that we are expanding our awareness at exponential rates. Just as the i-phone or computer from four years ago seems so antique, so do the attitudes and assumptions that kept systemic racism, sexism and other ism’s going seem like yesterday’s models. Time to upgrade. And we are.
Of course, not all. Those resistant to changing their attitudes are clinging to them like old dial phone landlines who nobody calls. But the groundswell is growing and the punchline is that the Oscars last night were a good indication of the change. I nominate last night’s show for Best Oscar Program and suggest Stacey Abrams gives the acceptance speech and receives the statue.