If you’re so inclined to pay attention to award season, then you probably know (or glanced at your various feeds on Facebook or Twitter) that the 87th Academy Awards happened and there were quite a few politically charged moments that will undoubtedly garner more attention and discussion than the actual show. This is hardly new territory for the Oscars. The ceremony may be an over-long self-congratulatory tribute to Hollywood, but as far as ratings and viewership go, the Oscars, in one night, still reach more people than the average one-hour drama. It’s not Superbowl numbers by any means, but it still puts the award show in the advantageous position of political theater if one seizes the opportunity. And during the broadcast several award winners did their damnedest to do some carpe dieming.
Prior to the ceremony, the Oscars were already under fire for whitewashing the categories, snubbing critically acclaimed Selma director Ava Duvernay and star David Oyelowo but still nominating the film for Best Picture and Best Song. As noted by the Hollywood Reporter, this is the second time in two decades that the lineup of nominees was all-white, the timing of which couldn’t be worse in light of the racially insensitive emails leaked during the Sony hack and the Academy’s supposed promise to give diversity a greater focus. Is it any wonder that host Neil Patrick Harris’ opening joke – “Today we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. Sorry…brightest.” – and his sharp response to the audience applauding David Oyelowo during an interstitial bit – “Oh, sure, now you like him.” – were met with nervous laughter and timid applause? The saving grace of the snub, however, was the stirring performance of “Glory” by Common and John Legend that brought the audience to tears. Legend later used their Oscar win for the song to point out the parallels between Selma and current racial tensions in the United States.
Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you. [Source: Democracy Now]
The Oscars also served as a platform for women to make their voices heard through any and all means. Before the ceremony even began the Oscars were at the center of a Twitter campaign spearheaded by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls community and the Representation Project called #AskHerMore, which called upon correspondents covering the show to ask actresses more engaging questions about their work instead of asking about their clothes. Reese Witherspoon brought attention to the campaign on Instagram and on the red carpet, which Robin Roberts of ABC utilized in her coverage, though it sloughed off towards the end. Luckily, Witherspoon and fellow actresses Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyong’o were keen to talk more than fashion.
Once the show was in full swing, it was Patricia Arquette who took the stage after receiving the Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood and stated plainly to Hollywood and the viewing audience:
To every woman who gave birth to every citizen and taxpayer of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!
The rallying cry brought the house to its feet in applause and produced what will probably the greatest GIF ever of Meryl Streep.
Arquette’s speech was a definite response to the Sony emails between studio executives discussing the wage discrepancies between actresses and actors. And while we might roll our eyes at the idea of an actress getting paid more money, we still have to remember that it’s a job and, like any of us nine-to-fivers, if a woman’s skill set is the same as a man’s, then she should get paid the same amount. America’s workforce isn’t guided by gender roles anymore, but it is a country where single-income families are the norm and if a woman is the head-of-household, then what she isn’t being paid adds up. Arquette’s words similarly ring true for the state of Hollywood and its treatment of actresses. As indicated previously, beauty is often the topic of choice on the red carpet instead of the phenomenal work accomplished by women in the industry. The worst kept secret in Hollywood is the shelf life of an actress’ time in which she goes from sexy leading lady to fourth-billed, middle aged nag. By paying actresses less money, Hollywood reinforces this outdated attitude, valuing marketability over merit.
The night wasn’t just full of calls to action. Some speeches were poignant messages of understanding in the face of societal pressures and stigmas. After winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game, Graham Moore, bared his soul, saying:
Alan Turing never got to stand on a stage like this and look out at all of these disconcertingly attractive faces. And I do. And that’s the most unfair thing I think I’ve ever heard. In this brief time here, what I want to use it to do is to say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now, I’m standing here and I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird, stay different. And then, when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.
Moore’s speech struck a chord, tapping into the cultural atmosphere of isolation and alienation towards anyone deemed “different”. Whether you’re gay, straight, queer, trans, or just left of center, the truth of Moore’s words can apply to just about anyone. It was especially moving given that earlier in the broadcast Dana Perry, producer of the winner for Best Short Subject Documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, dedicated the award to her son who’d committed suicide in 2005 and proclaimed that suicide needed to be talked about “out loud” before the orchestra played her off. After the speech, Perry told reporters:
We need to talk about suicide out loud to try to work against the stigma and silence around suicide because the best prevention for suicide is awareness and discussion and not trying sweep it under the rug. [Source: ABC News]
When I was studying archival science in college there was one particular lesson that remained prominent: if you’re not in the record, then you don’t exist. The same is true of media and if there’s really an overall message to take away from this year’s Oscars, it’s that visibility equals legitimacy. Those in charge of crafting the Oscars ceremony love to wax poetic about how film reveals things about human nature or how the movies are a reflection of our society. So what does this year’s smattering of nominees say about our society now? Who are we? What do we value? Whose voice is coming through louder? Who has a voice? We need to see ourselves and we need to be challenged to experience the uncomfortable truths of our society. The movies can’t completely solve these issues, but it’s a familiar medium, a language we all speak, and those responsible for honoring the industry’s achievements might do well to realize that when they cast their ballots next year.