This year’s Academy Awards should be about the movies. But they’re not — at least not to the degree the Oscars are usually about film.
A shadow hangs over the Dolby Theatre on Oscar Sunday, as surely as it hung over the same venue when it was called the Kodak Theatre 14 years ago, and the U.S. invaded Iraq the week of the Oscars.
In its first five weeks in office, the Donald Trump administration has been so hostile to the values that Hollywood (yes, liberal Hollywood) holds dear, and the entertainment industry has become so politicized, that the questions going into the Oscars are these, in roughly this order:
How political will the show be?
Will host Jimmy Kimmel make many jokes about Trump?
What will Meryl Streep say?
Will the president tweet about it?
And, oh yeah, who’s going to win Best Picture?
The Oscars are supposed to be a joyous celebration of film, but this year will be something different: joy in the shadow of Trump, perhaps, or celebration with an edge of rebellion. The night will try to be about cinema, but it will inescapably also be about politics.
This year, that’s necessary. As “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle said at the Directors Guild Awards, “All art has a political dimension, whether the artist intends it or not.”
In recent weeks, Chazelle’s film has come under fire for not being political enough; for having a white character (played by Ryan Gosling) as the film’s only champion of an art form, jazz, created by African Americans; for using an escapist form, the musical, at a time when escapism feels to many like a luxury we can’t afford.
But “La La Land” is more nuanced than that. Chazelle found the melancholy in old musicals, drew his inspiration from the wistfulness of Jacques Demy as much as the bravado of Gene Kelly, and gave viewers a happy ending and then pulled it back and made us admit it was a fantasy.
His film is worthy of celebration, even on a night when Hollywood will feel compelled to stand up for immigrants and refugees and against intolerance and nationalism.
And so are many of the other nominees in a year in which there’s plenty to embrace in film and on the Oscars ballots. First and foremost there’s “Moonlight,” a transcendent and lyrical mood piece from Barry Jenkins that sounded a clear, bold call for inclusion and acceptance on multiple levels — racial, sexual, societal…
And “Hell or High Water” and “Arrival” and “Zootopia,” wildly different films whose statements about our world only spoke more clearly after the election.
And “Manchester by the Sea,” a devastating study of loss and healing, or loss with no chance of healing.
And “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” personal stories that traced the history of race relations in the 20th century (and whose stories were echoed in a trio of potent documentaries: “13th,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “O.J.: Made in America”).
We are the richer that these films and others were on our screens this past year, and that they’ll be celebrated on the Oscars stage. By themselves, they sound a call for tolerance and compassion, for humanizing rather than demonizing those who aren’t like us. These are films that ask tough questions, and films that earn their happy endings (or their uneasy ones).
For much of the night, of course, the messages of those films will take a back seat. The Oscars will be about entertainment, about how well Kimmel does, about who wins what and how many gold statuettes “La La Land” amasses before it either walks away with the Best Picture prize that we all figured was inevitable, or goes down to the most surprising Oscar defeat in decades.
But you can bet that Donald Trump will be the elephant in the room, and you can bet that elephant will be addressed on the red carpet, on the stage and in the audience.
And on a night that could well get angry and defiant amid all the celebrating, a “La La Land” lyric from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul might be the appropriate theme song:
“Here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make”
Welcome to the messy Oscars, 2017.