I recently tried to explain to my friends that, for me, the Academy Awards Show is my Super Bowl. I watch all of the “buzz-worthy” films throughout the year leading up to nominee announcements, and I follow the most important reviews and predictions before Oscar night. It’s like watching the playoffs, rooting for your favorite teams, and then calculating the odds for a win. This awards season, I paid particular attention to the intersections of race consciousness and Hollywood cinema, and I came up with a list of my own winners and losers for this month’s big game:
In the category of “Best allegory for U.S. race-based struggle,” the Oscar goes to…
… Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film was aesthetically beautiful, and the young Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old at the time of filming) is a phenomenal performer. At nine years old, she is the youngest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award. Even though feminist scholar and activist bell hooks gave the film a negative review, I still think it does a decent job of highlighting the moral multidimensionality of a historically marginalized group of people. (At least, it does a far better job than Lincoln, which only has a handful of people of color (POC) actors in the movie…and they barely have any lines in A STORY ABOUT SLAVERY(!!!). For shame Spielberg, for shame.)
An honorable mention goes to Django Unchained, another 2012 film that received mostly positive (but several acerbically scathing) reviews. Personally, I like a good revenge-narrative-cloaked-as-a-violent-neowestern, but I can also understand the criticism that Tarantino takes contemporary socio-linguistic politics too lightly (the “n” word is spoken hundreds of times throughout the film).
In the category of “Most contentious representation of pop-Orientalism,” the Oscar goes to…
… Zero Dark Thirty: The theater of war can be grotesque, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t hold back in depictions of CIA witness torture as well as Al-Qaeda attacks that took place throughout the U.S. “War On Terror” in the Middle East. Her film has been criticized for being unapologetically jingoist and for perpetuating Islamophobia, while at the same time revealing the ethically questionable, decidedly nondemocratic methods of U.S. intelligence agents. But Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain says, “The film ends with an unanswered question…it asks ‘where do you want to go?’ and by asking the audience that question, you’re forcing them to participate.”
What American audiences are being asked to participate in is precisely the question at hand. Depending on a number of cultural factors, Zero Dark Thirty could either fuel more domestic racism and religious discrimination, open up a conversation about America’s role in foreign conflict, or both.
An honorable mention goes to Argo (which I have to admit is the one nominated film I haven’t seen). But from what I can tell, it’s a thrilling caper with plenty of suspense and political intrigue. However, many have noted that the film homogenizes Iranians as one big country full of terrorist conspirators. Indeed, producer/director/star Ben Affleck only referenced one piece of writing from an Iranian’s perspective on the events that transpired during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
And finally, in the category of “most surprising and heart-wrenching depiction of white allyship in racial justice” the Oscar goes to…
…Silver Linings Playbook: I was really surprised by the story’s focus on the main character Pat’s friendship with his Indian psychiatrist Dr. Patel (played by Anupam Kher). Dr. Patel is instrumental in helping the deeply troubled Pat find balance in his life, and they even bond over a mutual love for the Philadelphia Eagles. When Dr. Patel and his group of South Asian friends are harassed by bigots while tailgating, Pat springs to their defense and risks arrest by intervening in the ensuing fight. In a film that focuses primarily on a middle-class, white American man’s struggle with mental illness, it was incredibly impactful to witness a moment of interpersonal empowerment and “sticking one’s neck out” for the underdog. Call me sentimental, but when one of the most enduring Hollywood representations of Indians is that of the monkey brain eating, demon worshiping thugs from Temple of Doom, Dr. Patel in Silver Linings Playbook is a step in the right direction.
There you have it, my perspective on race and the 2013 Oscar nominees. Were there any categories I neglected or films you think deserve more credit (or less)? Share your thoughts in the comments!
(On an added note, Denzel Washington, for Flight, and Quvenzhané Wallis, for Beasts of the Southern Wild, are the only actors of color nominated for an Oscar this year).