The 89th Academy Awards: Robespierre at the Oscars

Robespierre at the Oscars
The unfortunate not winners of Best Picture

            Whenever a great blunder occurs, like that at the Oscars last weekend, the tabloids revel in trying to point the finger of blame. Was it Warren Beatty? Fay Dunaway? The accounting firm? Some are even blaming Emma Stone. Yet in the chorus of voices, the real enemy lurked hiding in the shadows – not the person who switched the envelopes, but the one who orchestrated Moonlight’s unprecedented win in the first place. Who is responsible? Three words: Cheryl. Boone. Isaacs. Her reckless gerrymandering and grandstanding last year not only gave Moonlight a distinct advantage but further widened the divide between Hollywood and heartland American. It is unknown whether a true crowd pleaser like Forrest Grump, Gladiator, Slumdog Millionaire, or La La Land can ever win best picture again.
            The Academy Awards has always been plagued by accusations of bias from both the right and the left regarding the type of films it rewards. The first example of formal protest began in 1973 when Marlon Brando refused his Oscar for The Godfather to address Hollywood’s on-screen portrayals of Native Americans. A great deal of this criticism is pure jealously. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to deny that there aren’t patterns within traditional Oscar nominees. Only one black woman has won Best Actress. Only one fantasy film has won Best Picture. In 2009, the Academy tried to diversify by expanding the list of Best Picture nominees to ten films. Although this experiment lasted only two years, it produced perhaps the most compelling crop of films ever nominated including two animated features (Up, Toy Story 3), a Biblical adaptation (A Serious Man), a war comedy (Inglourious Basterds), three tales of science fiction (Avatar, District 9, Inception), a sports drama (The Blide Side), and whatever the heck Black Swan was. Yet despite true progress, they also included a big problem: a preferential ballot system. This meant that a film could have the most No.1 votes and still not win Best Picture if a lesser film had more secondary support.
            Then the internet exploded. For two years – 2014 and 2015 – the Academy did not nominate a single non-Caucasian actor in any of its four categories. Many social activists – including unfortunately many industry workers and film critics – hopped on the Twitter wagon and began the #OscarsSoWhite movement. They blogged and raged and threatened protests, completely ignoring the fact that 12 Years a Slave had won Best Picture just two years prior – an excellent film that in no way bears the guilt of its supposed successors. Rather than ignore them and wait for another shiny item to catch their eye, Academy president Sheryl Boon Isaacs not only enabled their pretentious attitude but set in motion the most radical policy change in the history of the Academy.
            One of the jobs of any honorary organization is to provide the voice of collective consensus – reiterating G.K. Chesterton’s call to “not read the times but the eternities.” In recent years, the Academy was criticized for having an average age of 65, yet this should be a source of pride rather than shame. It means that Academy members have had a long history of working and sweating in the field to earn their entrance, and their opinion represents the wisdom of the elders. Yet, Isaacs did not see it that way. She openly criticized her own compatriots and boldly asserted that the Academy would “not wait for the industry to catch up.” Thus, in the early months of 2016, she spearheaded sweeping policy changes in the Academy’s membership. First, lifetime membership would not be guaranteed. Members would have to prove that they were “active in motion pictures” for at least the last ten years. This meant that anyone, regardless of age, retirement status, or past success, who had not made a film after 2006 would be in danger of losing their ID card. She also announced her intention to “double the amount of women and diverse members by 2020.” The next year saw a record induction of over 600 new members, nearly half of which were women and minorities, which alone now constitutes around 5% of the total Academy membership. Ms. Isaacs claimed that these changes would “widen the net” to include more diversity, but in fact did the opposite. Previously, admittance was based purely on artistic success and invitation. It’s true that people will bring their own prejudices, which is why there was a lack of diversity in the past, but at least there were no official policies of discrimination. That changed in 2016. Today, at this moment, the Academy has rules that are both explicitly ageist and implicitly racist. Like many bloody revolutionaries from Robespierre to Lenin to Castro, rather than addressing the corruption in society with respect for truth, Isaacs instituted a purge that placed conformity to identity politics over individual rights and expression. Humans don’t deserve fair treatment because they are black, gay, or women. They deserve them because they are human.
            A year later, on February 28th, 2017, this revolution took its most famous victim. La La Land was a nostalgic musical about an aspiring actress who finds love while chasing her dream. Moonlight was fierce and deeply personal story about the struggles of a black kid as he grows up dealing with poverty, drugs, and suppressed homosexuality. Both films, admittedly, catered to the tastes of Academy voters and checked all the right boxes to get nominated. Both were also excellent pieces of craftsmanship that well deserved their respected nominations in other categories (except maybe La La Land for sound editing – that was weird). The difference was that Moonlight fit the age. It relished in terms chanted by its generation like “diversity,” “tolerance,” and, to quote its writer, “gender non-conformity.”
La La Land was the film that should have won, not only because it was superior in quality, but it had a universal message of hope that appealed to everyone. When they arrived on stage, its producers did not make a political speech but instead graciously thanked their families. Then the news came down like a ton of bricks. There was a mistake. Moonlight had won. To their credit, the good folks of La La Land immediately acknowledge the mix-up and invited the winners onstage. Through the chaos, Moonlight’s producers thanked “all the little black boys, brown girls, and people who feel marginalized.” Moonlight won partially because it was a fantastic piece of art, no doubt about that. Yet, in a preferential ballot system, it was also helped by thousands of voters who saw it as the answer to the Academy’s largely imaginary problems. As a symbolic gesture, the snafu was one the most potent cultural landmarks of our time.  
Decades in the future, the 89th Academy Awards will be remembered by most for the worst gaffe in history. Yet it will also mark a turning point where, in an attempt to conform to modern progressive ideology, the Academy’s president changed the rules to skew the result. For those like myself who turned off their televisions angry and disillusioned, there is still a great deal of hope. There is hope in box office receipts where La La Land ($340 million) is the highest of the nominees and Moonlight is the lowest ($23 million). There is hope in fantastic Christian films that came out last year like Hillsong: Let Hope Rise and I’m Not Ashamed, both of which were financial successes. There is hope in addressing the same serious social concerns yet in a positive manner with films like The Blide Side, The Drop Box, Winter on Fire, and Bitter Harvest. There is even hope for the Academy. Three simple suggestions:
1.      Return to 10 best picture nominees under a non-preferential system
2.      Academy memberships are for life. No exceptions.
3.      There are no rules for induction except quality performance in the industry.
In the end, I probably care more about this than I should. Plenty of great films never get any nominations. The Oscars are not the Kingdom of God. Yet a great film can help someone get there, and so, at very least, there should be equal opportunity for all.