It’s been a while since I thought of the Oscars as something even remotely worthy talking about. They were conservative and boring, obvious and predictable. They were a self-congratulatory club that long ago lost touch with reality and troubles of today. However, I am someone who loves daring, experimental cinema that is not afraid to tackle hard, controversial, somewhat polarising subjects. Cinema that, instead of playing it safe, makes audiences think, question everything, at times even physically uncomfortable. I search for cinema that is cathartic, that teaches me about the world, shows me the world, introduces me different realities, makes me see and feel different perspectives – and ultimately, hopefully, makes me a better person. Yet, if the perspective is time and again that of a straight middle-aged white man, how can all of us really learn anything new? How can we become better, more emphatic and more prone to understanding different realities, cultures and traditions? I had no patience of following an award ceremony that rarely, if ever, acknowledged women working in any other department but acting, costumes and make-up. I also had no interest in an Academy that tolerated, if not supported, industry’s constant exclusion of the minorities – with some bright exception when they put golden statues into the hands of films tackling slavery or the horrific racism of pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow era, as if they wanted to pat themselves on the back. “See, we’re not racist! It’s important to talk about our country’s problems of the past centuries, yet continuing to ignore anything the ancestors of those people may be dealing with today.”
For the first time in forever however, this year’s nominations are different.
First of, Greta Garwig is nominated for Best Director (as well as for Best Original Screenplay, which is also incredibly deserving, yet somewhat less groundbreaking). Just let that properly sink in: this is going to be 90th Oscars ceremony, yet Gerwig is only the fifth (!) woman to be nominated in that category (Kathryn Bigelow is the only one who actually won so far). This means 85 ceremonies without even one woman director present. Not because of the lack of them existing, no, since the number of female film school graduates in directing and editing across the United States is almost equal to that of men. What then? This may be a somewhat wild guess as I am not a part of this industry myself, but I’d say we have to look into systemic unwillingness of studio heads, “big shot” film executives and producers not giving women even the slightest opportunities to direct. Instead, women are met with closed doors and pre-conceived (sexist!) conceptions of them not being able to do a good job. Or perhaps they are simply too hard to work with, for how could they possibly expect the entire film crew (especially that one male assistant director, not to mention the male lead) to be comfortable taking orders from a woman?
Women have been pushed outside the mainstream, yet they have continued to persistently work in the industry (granted, in obscure little indie films that only the most devoted among us usually see), or at least around it (not that working on a TV show such as The Leftovers is any less amazing and admirable nowadays). This was also the reality of Gerwig, primarily an actress, who first made a name for herself in mumblecore films, a low-budget, improvisational indie sub-genre. Yet her directorial debut, granted an absolute masterpiece, threw her into the stratosphere of critical acclaim and unexpectedly wide distribution deals that made her small film seen by a mass audience and irreversibly put her name on the map of the Academy.
Yes, there is some drastic change in the works within the industry, as countless revelations of its predatory and abusive gatekeeper and untouchable film stars came to light. Things blew up more than anyone could have predicted and it was indeed this unprecedented momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements (however commercial and questionably honest from some participants the later one is) that finally derailed this rigid Hollywood community into a new, refreshing direction.
However, Gerwig is hardly the only one celebrating slipping through the cracks of the institution that just a year ago seemed impenetrable for certain groups of people. Rachel Morrison, who has been doing an exceptional work ever since Ryan Coogler’s 2013 Fruitvale Station (they recently reunited forces for the box-office smash hit Black Panther), became the first woman cinematographer ever (!) to be nominated for an Oscar. And before you jump to conclusions and start defending the Academy with excuses such as “But there simply isn’t that much women cinematographers!”, think again. Names such as Maryse Alberti, Natasha Braier, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Ellen Kuras, Tami Reiker and Mandy Walker are all linked to some outstanding films, while Annette Haellmigk keeps kicking ass as a director of photography on Game of Thrones – and I think we should all agree the show’s photography looks really, really good, right?
Finally, what perhaps came as the biggest surprise to me, Get Out, a film very dear to me, got to be nominated for no less than 4 Oscars. Not just the horror/social satire itself and its brilliant actor Daniel Kaluuya, but also its genius, provocative creator Jordan Peele, who did not hold back one bit when uncompromisingly criticising and making fun of the liberal, upper middle-class white people and their often offensive and condescending approaches to the issue of race. Even if it undoubtedly addresses the whole American society, it also quite straightforwardly addresses the (mainly) liberal, rich white people that we know as the Academy’s members. And while I am quite certain that this film made some members angry as it shows us a mirror not every person is prepared to look at, not nominating this multi-layered, critical, satirical horror film and recognizing it as the brilliant work of art that it clearly is, would certainly irreversibly mark the Academy as racist – and there’s hardly anything worse for PR these days, right? Nevertheless, there hasn’t been a film tackling contemporary race problem with such sharp wit before, and it getting all the way to the Oscars truly makes me happy. Even if its inclusion truly hasn’t been for any other reason but for avoiding more controversy and bad reputation.
This is a year when women were finally recognized in categories that largely, if not always, ignore them. A year of a heartbreakingly beautiful love story among two men, of a stunning fairy-tale for the adults once again brought to screen by the genius that is Guillermo del Toro, of a contemporary story depicting the horrific reality of being Black in today’s America. Yet while this year’s Oscars included women, minorities and with that some wonderful auteurs that we did not thought would ever have the chance of becoming a part of this show, the Academy largely overlooked The Florida Project. We are far from a show-business that truthfully and actively promotes racial, ethnic, sexual and gender equality, but when it comes to the question of class we haven’t even begin to do our part yet and still have a very large first step to make.