Do you remember which film won best picture at last year’s Oscars?
It was “Spotlight,” a film that seems even more pertinent this year.
If you didn’t remember the winning film about journalists reporting on child-abuse allegations within the Catholic Church, it’s not surprising. According to a recent Hollywood Reporter poll, 66 percent of those surveyed couldn’t name a single best picture nominee from this year’s crop, which includes “La La Land,” “Arrival” and “Moonlight.”
Considering the turbulent political times, recalling a few movie titles doesn’t seem all that important. Yet, in a silver lining for the Film Academy, more than 70 percent of those polled said they still plan to watch Sunday’s 89th Oscars even if they didn’t know much about the films.
Viewers doubtlessly will be again treated to acceptance speeches with a political edge — that’s a tradition at the Oscars. This year’s award shows have been particularly hot, notably Meryl Streep at the SAG Awards calling out then President-elect Trump and warning that a free press would need to be defended.
Last year, “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy said this upon accepting the screenwriting award with Josh Singer, “We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to make the powerful accountable.”
At the time, it was a nice defense of First Amendment rights, but didn’t stir much passion. Now the statement has taken on a more urgent tone with President Trump calling the media “the enemy of the American People.”
“Spotlight” brings to mind another film about investigative journalism that was up for a best-picture Oscar nominee 40 years ago — “All the President’s Men.” That told the story of two young reporters reporting on a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, which led to a national crisis and the resignation of President Nixon.
One of those reporters, Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Bernstein is now a contributing editor to the investigative unit for CNN — one of media outlets Trump has called “fake news” as it reports on allegations about connections between the President’s team and Russia.
“All the President’s Men” didn’t win the Oscar, though. Neither did the visionary “Network,” the Depression-era Woody Guthrie story “Bound to Glory” or Martin Scorsese’s icon “Taxi Driver.”
The winner? “Rocky.” Americans and the Film Academy do love their underdog stories.
Speaking of underdog stories, one of my favorites is 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the Oscar nominee from Frank Capra. It’s the story of a naïve junior senator played by Jimmy Stewart who takes on a corrupt political machine. It’s full of hooey, as the expression went back then. But the underlying idea of doing the right thing is something I believe most Americans want.
“Mr. Smith” lost to “Gone With the Wind.”
No one is naïve about American history or politics anymore. Over the years, there have been plenty of Oscar-nominated films showing America’s imperfections.
Take “In the Heat of the Night,” the 1967 film about a white Southern sheriff and a black Philadelphia detective forced to work together to solve a murder in a small Mississippi town. Jim Crow laws had barely been lifted at the time, and the scene where Sidney Poitier slaps a white man was shocking to audiences.
The film won the Oscar and ended on a slightly positive note. Unfortunately, though, race remains an issue for the nation and at this year’s awards, especially after last year’s #Oscarssowhite backlash.
This year’s there are more people of color nominated, but the film industry, like America, still must strive for inclusiveness. Two of the best-picture nominees featuring African Americans, “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” are period pieces, but they speak as much to today’s racial problems as does “Moonlight,” a contemporary story about the trials of a gay black man.
Even the relatively apolitical “La La Land” represents a theme that has always been part of the American fabric — following your dream. The sci–fi film “Arrival” illustrates a question at the heart of many films because it’s something our country often faces in a crisis: use force or use problem-solving and diplomacy.
While it’s impossible to know if any of this year’s nominees will resonate in the future, as “Spotlight” has shown you never know what meaning a film will take on in time. As for Sunday night, with the president’s recent deportation orders and tweets about the media, the biggest news would be if winners and presenters stayed silent.
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