The biggest night of the year for movies is coming up on Feb. 24, 2019, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor what it has decided are 2018’s best films.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy began in 2015, and by the following year, the Academy’s then president Cheryl Boone Isaacs had pledged to double the number of members who are women and people of color by 2020. In June 2018, NPR reported that “the Oscar-granting body has invited a record number of 928 new members, making the 2018 class the largest in history. … Should everyone who has been invited actually agree to join, it would raise overall female membership from 28 percent to 31 percent, while non-white participation would inch up from 13 percent to 16 percent.” Can the Academy live up to its 2020 goal?
And has its new crop of members done a better job this year of choosing diverse nominees? The current front-runner for Best Actor is Rami Malek, whose family is Egyptian, and a Best Actress nod went to Yalitza Aparicio, who is an indigenous Mexican woman. Five of the eight Best Picture nominees feature people of color in prominent roles. And The Hollywood Reporter says, “GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis noted that more than half of the best picture nominees—including A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, The Favourite and Vice—involve LGBTQ themes and narratives.”
Tony Hahn, web services manager at Des Plaines Public Library in Illinois, says, “This year’s nominations seem to help challenge mainstream narratives by giving us more vivid perspectives to consider.” Danielle Aloia, collection management librarian at the New York Medical College’s Health Sciences Library, says that the Academy “is getting better at recognizing and appreciating diversity in this year’s nominations, but they still leave much to be desired. The movie nominations represent the cultural and societal forces that push boundaries: suicide, addiction, and racism. Unfortunately, the actors nominated this year do not represent this move forward. There’s not much diversity in this group. I think they have played it safe.”
However, says Scott Handville, assistant director of Gardiner Public Library in Maine, “In almost every [award] category there is a person of color or a film focused on people of color. This may not signal a constant change in Hollywood’s focus, but may be just Hollywood trying to catch up with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. … Time will tell.”
Heather McCartin, adult information specialist at Monticello and De Soto Libraries, part of Johnson County Libraries in Kansas, feels that the Academy “has taken note of previous backlash due to lack of diversity in past award seasons. This year, the Academy has recognized diversity in directing; Spike Lee has received his first Academy nod for directing in BlacKkKlansman. If he wins, he will be the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Director. This year also sees Alfonso Cuarón with the opportunity to win another Oscar for directing with Roma.”
Jessica Hilburn, historian at Benson Memorial Library in Pennsylvania, says, “While there are some ‘diverse’ films nominated, half of those that feature people of color have racism as the driving plotline (BlacKkKlansman and Green Book). Why must non-white lives be painted as so one-dimensional? How many times must we complain that women directors, of which there are many, are ignored in favor of their male counterparts?”
Slaven Lee, who has 20-plus years of experience in libraries and is currently doing operations consulting, says that “Green Book and BlacKkKlansman are two films that have received a great deal of criticism for glorifying problematic tropes: white saviors and taking creative liberties with ‘true stories,’ among other things.”
Hilburn has strong feelings about a couple of movies that missed out on nominations: “Beautiful Boy was an Amazon release that was based off the memoirs of its two main characters. … The film deals with drug addiction in an emotionally raw way that will resonate with many people in this country and was the second biggest snub of the season for me. The biggest snub by far was Crazy Rich Asians. [It] not only featured people of color, but celebrated them in a story that had nothing to do with racism.”
Cecilia Cygnar, adult program coordinator at Niles-Maine District Library in Illinois, is asking similar questions: “Why was Adam Driver nominated for Best Supporting Actor but John David Washington not nominated for Best Actor for the same movie, BlacKkKlansman? Why was If Beale Street Could Talk left out in the cold in most major categories, getting only Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations?”
Lee mentions Crazy Rich Asians, Widows, and Blindspotting as movies that should have been nominated.
“This year’s nominees feature a blend of popular blockbusters (Black Panther, A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody), mid-level blockbusters (Vice, Green Book, BlacKkKlansman), and artistic films (Roma, The Favourite),” says McCartin. “This year’s nominations also recognize the fact that film audiences are able to access films in a variety of ways; through streaming (Netflix’s Roma), small releases (The Favourite), and wide releases (Black Panther, A Star is Born). The majority of the films are based on actual events or people (with the main exceptions being Black Panther and A Star is Born). The films may play with the truth and add or [subtract] details for the sake of the story, but there is a clear historical element that is present. Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice are biopics on individuals, while Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, and Roma are based on time periods and events.”
Cygnar points out how different each movie is: “From the dark, political satire of Vice to the racial satire of BlacKkKlansman to another type of satire entirely with The Favourite to a drama/comedy about race relations with Green Book. Then, on the serious side, the highly powerful Roma, a black-and-white tale about a maid in 1970s Mexico City is up against a superhero movie, Marvel’s Black Panther, which is everything that Roma is not. Lastly, there are two musicals which could not be more different if they tried: a tried-and-true classic story of love and fame with A Star is Born and a wild, exhilarated musical ride with Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“There’s no denying that the Academy Awards drive theatrical demand for more diverse, challenging, complex films. The Oscars set the tone for this type of film experience,” says Charles Cobine, cinema and media studies librarian at the University of Pennsylvania. “When blockbuster films that have already seen box office success are included in the ceremony and go up against lesser known films that audiences have not yet discovered, some critics would claim that it throws many of the award categories out of balance. This continues to be the enduring controversy. Is the award an achievement or an opportunity to make a statement about the zeitgeist, recognize a socially significant moment in cultural history, and offer recognition to historically overlooked talents and achievements?” The Academy “has to take into account that there is an expectation that they will nominate films that qualify as groundbreaking and innovative in their subject matter, adventurous in their production, or which feature inspiring technological achievements.”
Let’s take a look at various reviews of and reactions to each Best Picture nominee. All synopses are from oscar.go.com; posters are from imdb.com.
After the death of his father, Prince T’Challa returns to his African homeland of Wakanda, which has hidden its wealth and advanced technology for generations. T’Challa assumes his father’s throne and must also accept his mantle as the superhero Black Panther to protect Wakanda from numerous enemies intent on pillaging its resources.
Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh writes that Black Panther, “directed by Ryan Coogler, is a movie that doubles as a movement, or at least a moment that feels groundbreaking. … [It] marks the first time that a major studio has greenlit a black superhero movie with an African-American director and a primarily black cast. …”
“The nomination of ‘Black Panther,’ the biggest [box office hit] of them all, is entirely justified on artistic grounds,” writes The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy notes that “Marvel takes its superheroes into a domain they’ve never inhabited before and is all the better for it in Black Panther.”
Kyle Smith at National Review liked the movie too. He says it has “a jovial wit and … a fast pace” and its villain is “brilliantly realized.” He writes, “Black Panther takes the side of sober, wise elites patiently enacting incremental change rather than of charismatic mob leaders fanning the flames of rage and revolution. Its most compelling character may be an analogue to Malcolm X, but it’s very much a Martin Luther King Jr. kind of film.”
Katherine Moody, a librarian from Christchurch, New Zealand, is glad to see the movie nominated: “I just loved seeing a film that came from a range of different perspectives and had a really interesting storyline.”
Cobine says that “Black Panther straddles several box office categories that make it an unusual choice [for Best Picture]: a superhero and comic book film, a blockbuster, and an empowering African-American milestone of a movie. It has amazing art and an Afrocentrism unlike any film that has been in the running in recent years, but there have been films similar to it in terms of arts and effects in recent years that probably would not have received a nomination. I think its inclusion is an indication of the rising cultural currency of a nomination.”
Hilburn makes the point that the nomination “feels like pandering. The Academy made sure to tell us what they really thought of the movie by not nominating any of the actors for individual awards, basically tanking its chances.”
McCartin says, “An excellent film that gave a voice to diverse characters, it may not win Best Picture, but it has legitimized the superhero movie genre for many viewers.”
In the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth becomes the first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Hoping to distinguish himself, Stallworth organizes an investigation into the local chapter of the KKK, recruiting Jewish officer Flip Zimmerman to go undercover and infiltrate the hatemongering organization.
The movie’s nomination is “a pleasant surprise,” writes Richard Brody for The New Yorker. “Spike Lee’s film is less a depiction of a historical event than a counterfactual history of grievous omissions—a story about the sorts of things that law enforcement and government could and should have been doing in recent decades, things that, if they had been done, might well have prevented the rise of the racist radical right to the White House.”
National Review’s Kyle Smith has a different take: “The movie is a typical Spike Lee joint: A thin story is told in painfully didactic style and runs on far too long. … If the point is made, he keeps making it. If the plot tends toward inertia, that’s just Lee saying, ‘Don’t get distracted by the story, pay attention to the message I’m sending.’” In another National Review article, Armond White calls the movie “a poor detective tale and simple-minded Millennial noir. … Only poorly tutored Millennial film students will swallow this bilge.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy sees the movie as “boisterously exaggerated”—“BlacKkKlansman is certainly Spike Lee’s most flat-out entertaining film in quite a long time, as well as his most commercial.” However, he admits that “Lee crosses the line between seriousness and near-slapstick countless times. … Keeping it all credible is another issue, and one can feel the sometimes wobbly tone and credulity-straining contributions of the … screenwriters crashing into one another as Lee attempts to establish a consistency while continuing to fire his broadsides again the Klan specifically and racial injustice generally.”
Slaven Lee points out that Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You—which was “sadly not nominated”—said about BlacKkKlansman: “For Spike to come out with a movie where story points are fabricated in order to make a black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.”
See page 2 for the rest of the nominees.