At This Year’s Oscars, Issues (and Anger) Are In

Vice and the Oscars

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.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Braveheart (aka Mel Gibson in a fright wig) was dreadful then and it's dreadful now.  
Joshua Kroeger More than 1 year ago
Honestly, if Black Panther wasn’t...well, black, then it wouldn’t have earned a billion dollars at the box office!  Do I resent colored people?  No; but this film was frustratingly average, and poorly-made.  Killmonger was one of the few good things in it.

And yes, Mr. Rogers didn’t find his way onto the list because he didn’t have an explicit affair with another woman, or end his life with a bullet to the head.  Maybe a good few F-words would’ve helped?
Chuck Anziulewicz More than 1 year ago
I've become REALLY worn out on CGI-driven superhero extravaganzas .... but after "Black Panther" won the SAG award for Best Picture, I think I'll have to stream it on Netflix just to see what the fuss is about.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My brothers saw it. They said it was just ok
-David the Clown
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yeah, I'm a huge Marvel fan and it really isn't all that. Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War, and Thor: Ragnarok are all much better. I'm not saying don't see it! But it's not the best Marvel movie.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Rocketshipper More than 1 year ago

For best picture, I feel like definite obvious snubs would be Clint Eastwood's "the Mule" and "Tully" starring Charlize Theron.   But I guess neither of those movies really deal with any big button issues. 

Vice was probably nominated for it's highly critical view of a Bush white house figure, but also because the academy LOVES whenever an actor goes through an involved physical transformation for a role.   Christian Bale as Cheney is the current equivalent of like, Charlize Theron as the protagonist of Monster.   I am definitely predicting Bale will win best actor.  

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You're probably right.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I agree with you. I doubt any of the nominated films will still be around in 25 years in terms of staying power (except maybe "A Star is Born" -- I haven't seen it, but most people seemed to like it?). But Hollywood cares more about preaching its messages (whatever they happen to be in any given year) now than "art."
Rocketshipper More than 1 year ago

A Star is Born has staying power because its already proven it's staying power, by this being the third remake of the story ^^ (the Judy Garland version is the best!!  if you've seen a previous version of the movie there really isn't anything new in this year's remake, except different songs).   But in the end it's nearly impossible to predict ahead of time what movies will really have staying power (did you know many critics actually hated Empire Strikes Back when it first came out, for instance ^^).   

Some people though may define "art" as something that calls attention to social realities and transforms the viewer and their relation to the subject matter.   If that is how they think of art can you really say they are wrong?  There are many views about what "art" really is.     I think many people would probably pick movies to nominate and award the same way the Oscars do; they would pick movies with the strong themes and messages they resonate with, or think are important for audiences to see.   I don't think you can really fault the Oscars for preferring movies about things they believe are important for society.  Whether those issues actually ARE important, whether the academy really has the right priorities about what's important, is a different issue.      

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Fourth Comment Guy

That picture you guys included with this article. Is that a picture from the live action World’s Finest movie? From the scene where Bruce Wayne takes Lois Lane out to dinner and dancing?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First comment!

-David the Clown (Aka new first comment guy part 2!)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I pass on my crown!

Posted By A-Non-Mouse/The old First Comment Guy