Arts·Point of View

Why the Oscars matter more than ever this year

This Sunday's ceremony is about much more than awards — it's about celebrating diversity and finding collective hope.

2017's awards are about celebrating diversity and finding collective hope

Mahershala Ali in 'Moonlight.' (Elevation )

You might have written off the Oscars as a night of trivial pageantry where the rich and famous pat themselves on the back for, well, being rich and famous. Which is perhaps cynical, but I definitely understand — I spent a decade devoting a sizeable portion of energy writing about them, and eventually I too started to question their relevance. I mean, ultimately, the winners feel predetermined for months before the actual ceremony, and they rarely end up feeling representative of either diversity or "the best of the best" (whatever that means, anyway). I began to wonder...was it really worth devoting so much of my professional efforts to something that increasingly felt like it didn't matter?

Taking Oscar off his pedestal was not easy for someone who had been taking him very seriously for a very long time. I hosted my first Oscar party when I was four years old and had a mini nervous breakdown when Julia Roberts lost for Steel Magnolias that night — or, as my mother likes to refer to it, "the night you came out." So to end up getting paid to write about the event was a dream come true at first. But slowly but surely, I let the dream die. And just like that, the horror flashbacks from when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain finally stopped. There were no more sleepless nights over what might win best live action short film. I lost the urge to go on long, angry rants about the tragic Oscarlessness of Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver and/or Michelle Pfieffer. And in time, leaving my previous job to come here to the CBC brought me considerable relief, knowing that I'd only ever have to write about the Oscars for something like this once a year. But just when I thought I was out...they pulled me back in.

It turns out the first year of my adult life that I didn't spend covering the Oscars has ended up being the one where it's hard to argue that they don't matter or that they shouldn't be taken seriously. In fact, this weekend's ceremony is arguably the most important in its 89-year history — which has led me to once again feel the need to vouch for my old friend Oscar.

A scene from 'Hidden Figures.' (Fox)

The last couple years have seen the Oscars take some serious heat for how insanely white and male the nominees have been. And rightfully so: in 2016 the acting nominees were completely white for the second year in a row, and categories like best director, best cinematography and best original score were — sadly and as per usual — total sausage parties. Now, this is not entirely the fault of the Academy. The film industry they exist to celebrate is pretty pathetic when it comes to diversity too, and Oscar voters can't vote for more women and people of colour if their work largely doesn't exist (although there have been plenty of diverse creators to pay attention to since these conversations around representation started — see Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Idris Elba, the list goes on and on). But either way, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that resulted from the controversy has seemed to actually do some good in both regards.

The year that followed the campaign produced a relatively impressive amount of high quality, high profile filmmaking reflecting diverse experiences. And the Academy — likely in part thanks to a necessary push for more women and people of colour in its membership — actually took notice. Three films with primarily African-American casts are nominated for best picture (Fences, Hidden Figures, Moonlight). Seven of its 20 acting nominees are people of colour. And four of the five nominees for best documentary feature are directed by African-Americans. Of course, not all the problems were solved in one year (see the still troubling lack of women nominated for directing and writing, for example). But the Oscars took big steps in a progressive direction this year, even while so much of the world seemed to be doing the opposite.

Come Sunday, millions and millions of viewers will see this progress on their televisions. They'll see an African-American woman (Moonlight's Joi McMillon) hear her named called as a nominee for film editing for the first time ever. They could see three of the four acting Oscars go to people of colour, if strong suggestions that Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali are all going to win end up proving correct. And they'll just as importantly not see Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who will not attend the ceremony in protest of Donald Trump's now halted travel ban. 

Asghar Farhadi on the set of 'The Salesman.' (TIFF)

Speaking of Trump (and I'm surprised I lasted this long before doing so), the fact that the most diverse Oscars ever will be happening a month after his inauguration is something to definitely take seriously. Recent awards shows have already consistently felt like glamorous Trump protests, but the Oscars' call to arms will likely be next level. At the annual nominee luncheon earlier this month, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs made this very clear.

"There is a struggle globally today over artistic freedom that feels more urgent than at any time since the 1950s," she said. "Art has no borders. Art has no language and doesn't belong to a single faith. No, the power of art is that it transcends all of these things, and strong societies don't censor art — they celebrate it."

Essentially, Isaacs — who was also the woman behind the Academy's new membership initiative — has given anyone who takes the Oscars stage the green light to speak their minds. And you can be absolutely sure that many of them will, providing a massive moment for the battered idea of hope. Think about how many times protections for transgender students are likely going to be mentioned and the comfort that might give to transgender youth watching at home. Or how Muslim-Americans could feel if Mahershala Ali — a Muslim-American himself — is handed an Oscar for best supporting actor. Or how young queer people of colour will feel when Moonlight, an extraordinary film about their experiences, is mentioned over and over again on stage.

After weeks and weeks of our screens being dominated by racist or xenophobic or transphobic (or all of the above) rants by Trump and co., this year's Oscars are offering a much needed moment of solace and inspiration, where we can celebrate progress again — if only for one night. And that definitely matters.

In addition to being a good year for diversity, it's also a good year for Canadians. Find out which homegrown talents you can root for at this year's Oscars.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2020s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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