Reality Check: The Oscars Don’t Really Reward Movies that Challenge Who We Are

By  · Published on November 16th, 2012

Should we reward the films that challenge us? More pointedly, is that the role of the Academy Awards? Sasha Stone opened her State of the Race column this week by raising that very question. The two most recent Best Picture winners, The King’s Speech and The Artist¸ don’t exactly demand soul searching. They “offered a path of least resistance; they delivered a lot but asked so little of us in return,” she explains. Yet in 2012, a year of such great political conflict and often ugly national bickering, we might be in the mood to laud films that strike closer to our core.

For Stone, this leads directly into a proclamation of Lincoln’s historical weight.

Her argument casts Steven Spielberg’s film as period piece that reaches into the present, calling on us to examine our wounds so that we may prepare for the future. There is no better time for such a powerful work about America to arrive and take Oscar gold, reminding us to continue on the road to a better society in the spirit of the Great Emancipator. The same logic can be applied to other films in the race as well, from Argo to the (as yet unseen) Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty.

The larger assumption here is that challenging the audience and its national identity can and should win awards. That may not be true, at least not today. Lincoln has gotten much praise for such a perceived bravery. A.O. Scott in particular singles out not only the film’s embrace of the nation’s tortured legislative process but also its insistence on placing slavery “at the center of the story.” Alison Willmore calls it a “magnificently warts-and-all portrait and appreciation of democracy at work in all its bickering, lively messiness.” Its triumph, so it seems, is in its dedication to the troubled core of American history.

Unfortunately, that just isn’t true.

Lincoln is a bold, well-made character portrait that very effectively renders an individual fight in the House of Representatives. The performances are stellar, and much of it deserves the praise that these critics have given it. Yet it is not a film about slavery, it is barely a film about democracy, and it doesn’t quite strike at the heart of who we are as a nation.

Kate Masur’s excellent piece in the New York Times goes further into detail about the first of those problems. Detailing the various African-American characters, she points out that they effectively spend the movie waiting passively to be freed. “This is not mere nit-picking.” Lincoln may not perpetuate the dangerous stereotypes of slavery that have haunted Hollywood since its beginnings, but it does fall prey to the notion that African-Americans played almost no part in their own liberation.

Not even Frederick Douglass makes it into Tony Kushner’s script, and we are left with the “outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history.” The awkwardness of this reluctance to represent either the dark realities of slavery and the role that slaves themselves played in their own emancipation is better expressed in Louis C.K.’s SNL sketch than it is in the film, or at least more honestly.

Oscar, please.

All of this has nothing to do with the quality of the film. Lincoln does not seem to even be trying to be a definitive work on either American democracy or slavery, but rather a deep exploration of a single man. As a portrait of President Lincoln, aided immensely by Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary performance, it may very well deserve Oscars. It is not, however, the kind of challenging and essential artistic achievement that Stone argues the Academy should recognize as a shift away from the last couple of years.

In a way, this is reminiscent of 1989’s race and the juxtaposition of Driving Miss Daisy and Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee’s biting and insightful representation of urban racial tensions managed to score two nominations but was too confrontational to get any further, while the much more benign of the two made it all the way to win big. Lincoln does not confront America’s relationship with race in a manner that will cause us to seriously sit down and re-examine ourselves as a diverse society. While I would not go so far as to call it “The Help repackaged for a male audience,” as some have on Twitter, I do think it lies closer to The Blind Side than to Do the Right Thing.

Of course, this will only help Lincoln at the Oscars. It is a perfect example of how the Academy no longer dives for films that shake our foundations, at least not for Best Picture.

The current front-runner in the race is Argo, a delightful and mostly apolitical caper. It artfully manages to cast the Iranian security forces as villains without demonizing the Persian people. It even begins with a brief history lesson that mentions not only the fanaticism of the Iranian Revolution but also the USA’s disastrous and decidedly unethical overthrow of the nation’s democratically-elected government in 1953. This prologue serves to get everything even remotely political out of the way immediately, allowing for two hours of comedy and suspense that entertain rather than challenge.

If Argo wins Best Picture, which it very well might, it will hardly be the first film to take home the big prize without confronting American identity. In fact, with the exception of American Beauty, one could argue that the Academy hasn’t given Best Picture to a truly challenging film since around 1980 (Kramer vs. Kramer or The Deer Hunter, take your pick). Many, many of the winners since then have been crowning achievements of American movie-making, but they didn’t shake us up very much. Lincoln and Argo both seem entirely capable of joining the club for that reason.

Current predictions: Lincoln will get eleven nominations. Argo will get five. Is there a film in the Oscar race that really does try to bore deeply into our idea of America? By my count, there’s one. The Master could pick up as many as eight nominations, but it won’t be winning Best Picture.

Keep track all season long with our Academy Awards coverage