Part of the fun of the Oscars, quite honestly, is complaining about the picks: Vice? What were they thinking? Or, How could the Academy ignore the production design of Holmes & Watson?
I was mildly surprised by a lot of the picks the Academy made this year. But I was most disappointed in the glaring absence of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the lovely documentary about Mister Rogers.
Why was it snubbed? Couldn’t be lack of critical acclaim. The film stands at a 98%”freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, equal to or better than four of the five Best Documentary nominees. (Only Minding the Gap scored higher.) Couldn’t be its lack of commercial awareness, either. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? collected nearly $23 million in theaters—a bona fide blockbuster in documentary terms. In fact, it’s the biggest money-making documentary in the last five years—and that’s only if you consider One Direction: This Is Us a legitimate documentary. Scrap the concert videos and Disneynature pics off the list of biggest box-office docs, and Neighbor ranks sixth all-time.
No, my theory is this: A film about a quiet, unlikely pop-culture hero who preached kindness from his television pulpit just wasn’t deemed important enough for a year such as this.
Take a look at the docs that were nominated: Minding the Gap lyrically explores poverty and abuse within the crucible of three skateboard-loving friends. Hale County This Morning, This Evening turns a lens toward growing up black in Selma, Alabama. Of Fathers and Sons points a camera at radical Islamic families. RGB trumpets the life andwork of progressive hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Only Free Solo, a harrowing story about the first man to scale Yosemite’s famous and deadly El Capitan sans rope, sans partner, steers clear of obvious of-the-moment, issue-oriented documentaries.
This isn’t to discount these fine films. I’ve seen many of them, and they can give us a beautiful (if problematic) look at under-seen, often misunderstood communities. They bring important issues to the forefront, contextualizing the stories therein and bestowing a deep sense of humanity to its subjects. And it’s certainly not as if Neighbor was devoid of issues: The film talks a great deal about Fred Rogers’ faith, which undergirded his take on racism, war and television itself. But perhaps Rogers—such a traditional, familiar figure—just didn’t have the sort of immediate, “woke” appeal the Academy was looking for. Writing for Wired, Jason Parham found Oscar’s this year’s documentary noms as a “welcome transformation … especially in an industry sick with its own conservatism.”
This wouldn’t have surprised Rogers one bit, of course: He was never particularly flashy or sexy, never trendy. As the doc itself shows, his decades-long fight to improve television and to treat its youngest consumers with kindness and respect was always a losing one. The Academy snub seems just par for the course.
But it’s not just in the documentary category that we see the Academy’s trend toward recognizing contemporary social issues. As others have noted (and as I mentioned in our Culture Clips blog Wednesday), you can see it across the board. Three of the eight films nominated for Best Picture dealt explicitly with race and racial tension. Black Panther, the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture, didn’t earn its nomination because it was the most artistic, most beautiful, most aesthetically pleasing and powerful superhero flick in history, but because it brought more to the party: an examination of racial issues through a superhero lens.
And sometimes, the films didn’t just talk about such issues: They hollered about them. BlacKkKlansman was a penetrating look at race and racism from Spike Lee—but the implicit lessons the movie taught became an explicit sermon in the last moments, weakening an important, moving film. Vice’s inclusion on the best picture list, given its shrill, partisan tone, 66% “freshness” rating on RT and lukewarm box-office figures, is completely mystifying unless one assumes the Academy wanted to send a pointed message. Traditional, well-crafted, Oscarbait films like First Man woefully underperformed in the Oscar derby. Even A Star is Born—considered a runaway favorite just a couple of months ago—raked in fewer nominations than expected. Wrote Vice (magazine’)s Owen Gleiberman:
A Star Is Born was, and is, a rapturous knockout of a romantic melodrama (it’s not as if I’m alone in seeing it that way), but it’s a movie that’s completely and utterly bereft of a social message. In 2018, that makes it seem (dare I say it?) more trivial than the other contenders. It’s just a love story. And though it’s a very grand love story, and was an extraordinarily huge hit, these days that isn’t enough.
Listen, I work for Plugged In, and we talk about the messages movies give us—the good and the bad, the intended and unintended—all the time. We think they’re super-important. And I appreciate movies that offer resonant takes on important topics, even sometimes when I don’t agree with those takes.
But I do think that the Oscars, ultimately, should be about the movies themselves. It’s a movie’s quality, more than the messages it contains, is what gives it its real power, and its ability to last and stay fresh for years and decades to come.
It wasn’t so long ago that an Oscar for Best Picture indicated true staying power. From 1990-95, the Academy handed out its shiniest statuette to (in chronological order) Dances With Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump and Braveheart. Obviously, some of those movies have aged better than others, but they’re all pretty recognizable, even today 25 years later. Even if you’ve never seen Forrest Gump, you probably know what it’s about. You might even be able to quote some of its lines.
Black Panther aside, I wonder how durable the movies being nominated for Oscars today will be. Thing is, issues change. Art sticks.